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A fresh reply to Pollock's own `Is this a painting?'

The Guggenheim looks at his works on paper and argues persuasively that those famous drips of paint are drawings.

July 02, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

New York — A new and powerfully beautiful exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum here does something that similar presentations almost never do. The established way we think about a pivotal artist gets turned inside out, and the revision is right on target. "No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper" says something essential -- and in previously unconsidered ways.

Curator Susan Davidson erases the conventional distinction between drawing and painting in the classic works Pollock made with the drip method. Nearly 70 of about 700 known Pollock works on paper have been brought together for the exhibition, which continues through Sept. 29. They center on a handful produced between 1948 and 1950 by dripping oil paint or, most often, enamel on sheets of relatively modest size.

This show is not about traditional drawing per se, the curator notes. It emphasizes that between paper and canvas, Pollock's working method did not really change much. That fact goes straight to the core of his achievement.

By now, everybody knows the well-rehearsed story of Pollock's breakthrough. During summer 1947 he worked in a makeshift, 20-foot-square studio at his house on the eastern end of Long Island. Sober for the first time in a long time, he unfurled a length of raw canvas on the floor and dripped, poured and spattered colorful skeins of paint all over it. Modern American art came of age that summer, so the story goes, and the drip method entered the annals of art history as a radical turning point.

By now everybody also knows the Pollock puzzle: What possessed him?

Why did the artist do something so unexpected as to forgo stretching canvas onto wooden bars and then putting it on an easel, as artists had been doing for 400 years, and instead lay the raw cloth down on the floor?

The drip paintings that resulted from this change of venue are not uniformly successful, but they are a radical departure from the way painted canvases had ever been conceived before. Collectively they posed an aesthetic question that Pollock also asked his wife, the estimable painter Lee Krasner, in point-blank terms: "Is this a painting?"

For avant-garde art the accepted answer has long been "Yes." But the Guggenheim show answers "No" -- or at least, "Not exactly."

Yes, the drip works are made with the materials of painting. But they come from an artistic point of view more closely aligned with drawing. Sharp distinctions between the mediums of painting and drawing, Davidson writes in the concise and excellent catalog, "are quite elusive in Pollock's work." Because of this fugitive but fundamentally hybrid character, the drip paintings became an important pivot for American art.

The show follows Pollock's evolution from the mid-1930s to 1952, four years before he fatally wrapped his car around a tree. (He made no paper drawings in those last years.) It begins with a clumsy pastiche of Thomas Hart Benton's undulating landscape style in "Harbor and Lighthouse." Nature is portrayed as a voluptuous feminine spirit, all watery and luxurious, watched over by a phallic tower.

This heavy-handed watercolor is paired with a lovely, very strange, colored-pencil abstraction. The flame-like image is at once suggestive of crumpled paper, ancient animal bones, a desert plant and female sex organs. The drawings date from the mid-1930s, and together they show established European Surrealism colliding in Pollock's mind with Benton's cozy conservatism.

The show's next and largest section -- almost half its works -- considers the wide variety of his Surrealist drawings. They were made between 1942 and 1947, the period when he was receiving a monthly stipend from socialite and art patron Peggy Guggenheim.

Then come the abstract drips. The show's crescendo is a lineup of six works from 1948 and 1949. None is larger than 31 inches on a side -- a far cry from the monumental canvases he also made. Unlike the large paintings, which are luminous, perceptually vast and entangling, the paintings on paper are all coiled energy, nervous and contained.

Pollock put his whole body into the canvas drip paintings as he moved around all four sides and even stepped in and out of the painted field. By contrast, the paper pieces engage the more concise action of the arm and wrist -- and perhaps even the movement of the sheet of paper, in concert with the motion of the painting hand. He dripped liquid paint from brushes, sticks and even eyedroppers and sometimes simply poured it on.

Although the feel of the paintings on canvas and paper is different, one key feature of the drip method remains the same: In both, the painting tool never touches the surface.

Instead, Pollock moved the paint can or the paint-loaded brush or stick around in the air, several inches or feet above the canvas or paper. He was, in short, drawing in space.

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