With the holiday season in full swing, there’s no shortage of exciting shows at the Museum of Modern Art — the Picasso sculpture exhibit notably comes to mind. And perhaps it is fitting that MoMA has chosen to showcase its stellar collection of works by Jackson Pollock too, another 20th century original and fervent admirer of Picasso.
“Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey (1934-1954)” brings together some 50 paintings, drawings and prints, including some rare engravings, in three galleries on the second floor. The show opens with an enormous black-and-white photo of Pollock (1912-1956) painting in his barn studio in East Hampton, with wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner looking on. The couple married in 1945 and bought the farmhouse and barn that same year with the help of a loan from patron Peggy Guggenheim, a passionate collector of 20th century modern art and special champion of young American artists.
Guggenheim, niece of Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the museum on Fifth Avenue, gave Pollock his big break when she showcased his work at her cutting-edge gallery, Art of This Century, on West 57th Street. She offered Pollock his first solo show in 1943 and famously commissioned him to paint a mural for the entrance to her new townhouse on East 61st Street, even giving him a contract so he could quit his day job.
The 9-foot-by-20-foot canvas, “Mural” (1943), was a daring, all-over web of curvy lines and swirls. As art critic Clement Greenberg memorably said: “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.” The piece — on Belgian linen, not the wall, so it would be portable — is now in the collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art.
The brash New York painter became the face of postwar, American abstract expressionism. The show here begins with the artist’s arrival in the city from Los Angeles in 1930, when he was 18 years old. He enrolled at the Art Students League and apprenticed with Thomas Hart Benton, who became a major supporter. Pollock would eventually eschew Benton’s social realist style, but his rhythmic arabesques and undulating lines became a part of his artistic vocabulary.
The exhibit is neatly divided into three parts: the early infatuation with mythical, primitivist subjects (1934-43); the fusion of figuration and abstraction (1944-47); and the sublimation of all representation in favor of those purely expressive drip, splash and splatter works (1948-54), with the emphasis on materials, technique and process — not the subject matter of a painting but the physical act of painting.
To that end, Pollock in his “mature” years would forgo the easel for the floor, famously laying his canvases on the ground of the barn in East Hampton, where he could literally dance around the four sides as he flung paint with stiff brushes, sticks and punctured cans. He got down and dirty, physically and metaphorically — in some cases leaving actual hand prints on the paintings (as, for example, on the upper right of “Number 1A, 1948,” from 1948).
Some of the markings were accidental, but as former MoMA curator Carolyn Lanchner writes in a recent monograph about the artist, such random splatters “were accidental only in the moments of their occurrence; whatever survives of them in the final work represents Pollock’s considered decision.”
“Gothic” (1944), on view here, bears the strong imprint of Picasso’s iconic brothel scene, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), in terms of the arrangement of the figures and the “governing vectors of energy,” Lanchner states. Pollock was drawn to Picasso’s analytic cubism, which inspired him to paint abstractly. But his influences were wide-ranging, harking back to Old Masters such as El Greco for his swirling forms, and to Native American artists for his mixture of sand with paint — in addition to his own subconscious.
MoMA’s cache of Pollocks has earned the institution bragging rights. About half of the collection is on display, including such seminal works as “Stenographic Figure” (c. 1942), “The She-Wolf” (1943), “Shimmering Substance” (1946), “Full Fathom Five” (1947) and perhaps his greatest painting, “One: Number 31, 1950” (1950), a wall-size, drip tour de force that dramatically closes out the show. Per the organizers, “At different moments [it] can suggest the pulsating intensity of the modern city, the primal rhythms of nature, or the flickering forms and infinite depths of the cosmos.”
Pollock’s battle with depression and alcoholism are well known. He died in 1956, at age 44, after crashing his car less than a mile from his home in East Hampton. In a nod to the last few years of his life when he reverted to painting quasi-figurative images but generally painted little, the museum has included the Matisse-inspired “Easter and the Totem” (1953) and acknowledged Pollock’s mercurial side.
“I’m very representational some of the time,” he is quoted as saying shortly before he died, “and a little all of the time.”