October 30, 2012

In Defense of Jackson Pollock

How do you start a conversation about Jackson Pollock? Well, usually, you don't. Most people have little more to say on the topic than, "A kid could do that." Now, I'm neither an art historian nor a painter myself, but this flippant comment still gets on my nerves. I always feel like I need to rush to Pollock's defense. It's not that way! Don't you see? Here we reach the point at which I run out of useful things to say. For a long time, I have intuited that there is a reason to defend abstract expressionism as legitimate art. Being able to articulate why is an entirely different story. Usually, these kinds of conversations (all forty-five seconds of them) end in a futile tug-of-war in which the other person is content to leave the deeper aesthetic questions to the snobs and I am content to be the snob. So I'm wondering: Is there any way to talk about this that doesn't end in a stalemate? 

We took up this battle anew today in American Humanities. I say "we" not because I was lecturing but because Dr. Soper and I were likely the only ones in the room truly convinced that ranking Pollock among the greats is not simply a frantic attempt to legitimize what students perceive as a conspiracy to include certain art in the curriculum for no other reason than to be challenging or self-congratulatory. Questions of what belongs in the so-called canon and why could take up pages and pages, but suffice it to say for now that I do believe that most artistic works and figures are taught time and time again for more than political or arbitrary reasons. Contrary to what students think, we don't read Anna Karenina just because it's long and we don't listen to Beethoven's Ninth just because it's long. There are aesthetic reasons to hail these as masterpiecesaesthetic reasons that are sometimes hard to understand without having engaged them thoughtfully, the way you do when you study... oh, say, comparative literature or music history. As someone who has only really studied art history insofar as it intersects with literary history, I am probably ill-equipped to take up this question. But I have a sympathy for all serious artistic endeavors, so it should come as no surprise that I'm becoming a Pollock apologist.

To be fair, there were a paltry two students in class today who were willing to take up the mantle alongside us. Surprise, surprise: both of them have previous training in visual art. One girl made a particularly moving comment about how she used to be skeptical re: Pollock, but she gained a new appreciation for his nuance by virtue of trying to copy his style. She couldn't, she said. Her colors often bled together in unflattering ways, and her efforts to mimic Pollock's casual abstraction always looked childish and unbalanced compared to his. Here we return to the major question at stake: What is it, then, that makes Pollock's work more than just amateur paint-flinging?

I myself confronted this question as I silently absorbed Dr. Soper's lecture and its reception among our little band of undergraduates. At one point, he asked the students to compare Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (a favorite of mine) with Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. As the students were chatting in their small discussion groups, all I heard were murmurs to the tune of, "Umm. How are these two alike at all?"

Hipsters having a look-see at Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm

Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

In all fairness, I couldn't exactly figure out why the professor would juxtapose these particular images. It became more clear, however, as he talked about how the Friedrich painting is a representation of a man beholding immensity and perhaps contemplating his own smallness, whereas the Pollock painting implicates each viewer himself as a "wanderer." That is to say, the hipsters in the photo are actually experiencing what we imagine Friedrich's tortured Romantic subject is experiencing. Each of Pollock's paintings is like an immense landscape to be beheld; part of their impact, in my opinion, derives from their sheer size. I saw a few Pollocks in person at the Centre Pompidou in Paris a few years ago. At the time, I wasn't as converted to the cause of abstract expressionism, but I will say that standing in front of the paintings inspired a humility and awe in me I had not expected just from looking at reproductions in textbooks.

My general sense is that TA's, like children at the dinner table, are best seen and not heard. I could count the number of times I have commented in class this semester on a shop teacher's hand. Today, I couldn't help myself. The students were awkwardly squirming about, hoping that Dr. Soper would just move on and not ask them to make the seemingly impossible leap from representational Romantic art to what still looked to them like a colossal mess that only Pollock's mother could love. My comment was about one of the aesthetic tenets of the Romantic movement: dynamic organicism. The idea is that the world has an energy we can only access through our best energy: imagination. It seeks to dethrone scientific "certainties" as the privileged method of understanding the world and instead posits that maybe things really are unknowable and that our best access to the chaos inherent in the natural world is through previously disregarded senses like intuition, imagination, and creativity. Isn't there something dynamic about that massive landscape stretched before Friedrich's wanderer? My thought is that Pollock, though his paintings are physically large-scale, may be presenting the kind of chaos we see as we look closer. Didn't you have that experience while looking through a microscope in high school biology? That unsettling sense that things so small we can't even see them actually contain vibrant, squiggly universes? 

As I searched to figure out what small universe might be represented by the Pollock painting, I came up with the fibers of a sweater: scratchy and haphazard if you were to look closely enough. Perhaps a better image is invoked by the painting's title: Autumn Rhythm. Doesn't it look a bit like the casual pattern leaves and twigs make on the forest floor? Or the hopelessly beautiful tangling of bare branches as you look at a grove of trees in late fall? It may not look like there is a deliberate design, but it is composed all the same. There is rhythm. There is balance. There is movement.

Movement. I couldn't help but think of the kinetic energy of a conductor during a musical performance. His movements sometimes seem abrupt and jagged, at other times soft and lyrical. The New York Times did a pretty cool story about music and gesture that you can read here. To express some of music director Alan Gilbert's thoughts on the role of a conductor, the NYU Movement Lab did a motion capture of Gilbert's directing that visually illustrates how his conducting patterns trace through the air.

What if you were to make a composite image of all these movements from a given performance? My guess is that it might look a little Pollockian. The idea here is that there is a reason a conductor does more than just tap out the meter like a human metronome. Something in all of that lyrical movement both structures the performance so that it comes to us as a measured and calculated thing of beauty and inspires a kind of emotion or energy that the musicians draw from. (Choir and orchestra members, am I getting this right?) At the core here is the idea that the order of a song—or ultimately, of the universe—does not come from a grid-like code. There is more to the story. And I think good ole' J.P. is just trying to show us in his own way.

So why are Pollock's "disasterpieces" good art? Because they invite you (perhaps even demand you) to personally experience them, they are conceptually compelling, and they represent a Romantic worldview (one that I am partial to, of course) that humbly acknowledges the seemingly chaotic vibrations that structure our reality. To say nothing of the fact that he was kind of a stud.

Intellectually, of course. His process alone is fascinating to consider: He would place his canvas on the floor so that he could walk around it, work with it, and examine it from all sides. He imagined himself as part of the painting. At the same time, he believed the painting to have a life of its own, and he tried to respect its inherent contours. Sometimes he felt as though he hadn't been true to the rhythm of a given project, so he would trash it. "It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess," he said. "Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well." He respected art as a kind of living thing that takes shape as the artist engages it. I admire and respect his perspective a great deal.

When it comes to naysayers, perhaps there is little more to say than this, Pollock's elegant response to a contemporary critic: "Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was."

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