BY By Lane Relyea in Frieze | 04 MAR 99
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Issue 45

The Photogenic Splat Jackson Pollock Retouched

The legacy of Hans Namuth

BY By Lane Relyea in Frieze | 04 MAR 99

In 1950 a star was born, just as stardom itself was coming of age in the emerging era of spectacle. Tough, brooding, reckless, Jackson Pollock drew comparisons (from fellow painters no less) to Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Tennessee Williams may have done the opposite - it's been suggested that the character of Stanley Kowalski was based in part on Pollock, whom Williams met in 1944. Little wonder that the curator of the current Pollock retrospective frets so much in the catalogue about 'the problem of separating the "pure" from the "fabricated" Pollock'. Yet the new show marks only a further twist in the double helix of fact and fiction: coinciding with the exhibition's popular run at New York's MoMA, it was announced in December that Ed Harris, late of The Truman Show (1998), will be directing and starring in a movie based on Pollock's life. (This is after the collapse of a similar project involving Robert De Niro, son of a real-life Abstract Expressionist, and Barbara Streisand, who was lined up to play Lee Krasner.)

Of course Pollock has already been made the subject of a well-known film, shot by Hans Namuth in 1950, in which the lead role was played by the artist himself. Was it an act? It's a loaded question, and one that haunts most attempts to come to terms with Pollock, the current show being no exception. Harold Rosenberg once called Pollock a 'magpie', even though it's likely he had the artist in mind when he coined the term 'action painting'. Pollock's success was supposedly scripted by others as well: by Greenberg, by MoMA, by the CIA, or perhaps even by Pollock himself. 'Despite an apparently near-total lack of talent,' writes Kirk Varnedoe, the retrospective's curator, Pollock 'formed and held onto the notion that being an artist would be his life'.

When it comes to the paintings themselves, a similar problem is encountered. 'After 1950,' Varnedoe continues, 'when photographs and films of Pollock painting were widely disseminated, imagery of process became inseparable from considerations of the final product'. And yet it's hard not to see much of the subsequent ink spilt over Pollock as trying to undo precisely this fact, to make the paintings once more autonomous entities, to reclaim them from being the stage props they're turned into by Namuth's camerawork. Or at least critics have seemed intent on locating Pollock's significance on one side or the other of some true/false opposition, whether it's Greenberg's staid pictorialism or Rosenberg's dramatic act; the purely optical or the informe; the vertical or horizontal; the studious masterwork or free-for-all performance. Even with the bulk of Pollock's output now under one roof for firsthand assessment, the issue grows more blurred: if anything the show strongly confirms the sense that Pollock's success at making handsome pictures cohabits with his appetite for toxic excess - his canvases are alternately austere and indulgent, at once prim, caustic and showy.

The catalogue accompanying the retrospective is obsessed by Namuth's photos and films. Varnedoe reminds readers that the photographs are themselves divided in allegiance, at times focusing on Pollock from ground level, at other times looking down from overhead to better view the prone canvas. In one case the painting becomes an anamorphic smear, like Holbein's famous visage of death; in the other, the painter turns his back toward the lens. Either way there's a measure of secrecy maintained. Frustrated by this, Namuth hit on the idea of using a glass plate to shoot through while Pollock painted on its opposite side, insinuating the camera into the heart of the intimate dialogue between artist and creation. That's when 'something apparently snapped', reports Varnedoe. The moment the camera stopped rolling Pollock picked up a bottle of whiskey and never put it down again. 'I'm not a phoney', a well-marinated Pollock belched at Namuth after the final shoot.

The account rendered in the catalogue's other essay, by Pepe Karmel, is in some ways even creepier. Karmel approaches the Namuth footage like a conspiracy theorist fondling the Zapruder film; every frame is scrupulously, tediously analysed: ' the following nine seconds, Pollock adds a series of lines describing the contours of a figure ... moving right, Pollock begins a second figure ... 20 seconds suffice to complete this second figure', and so on. Karmel enlists a battery of video and computer equipment to flip upright and straighten out sections of canvas seen only obliquely in the original films, and then splices these sections together into composites of in-progress works ('anatomy of a splat' is the caption beneath one of these composites). Here the quest to extricate fact from fiction reaches a crescendo: while Karmel agrees that 'it seems impossible, in retrospect, to distinguish the objective Pollock from the mythic Pollock who was, in a sense, created by Namuth's photographs', he nevertheless strives to reverse this process through appeal to the very same photos, now perceived as scientific documentation. The assumption is that, if looked at closely and impartially enough, without any intervening distance ('in retrospect'), Namuth's pictures can reveal truth.

What Karmel uncovers, alas, is that Pollock's first, baptismal splashes of paint actually depict frolicking stick figures, from which the painter's classic abstractions evolve - a verdict dependent to no small degree on some wilful interpretation of its own. What's interesting, though, is that while reaching very different conclusions, Karmel proceeds in a manner typical of some of the most influential writings on Pollock. Karmel singles out Michael Fried for particularly harsh attack, dismissing as vulgar formalism his famous description of Pollock's swirling line as 'wholly optical ... freed at last from the job of describing contours and bounding shapes'. A representational line, of the kind Karmel detects, would of course have little reality of its own, indicating only the limits of bodies as they turn away from sight, which is to say the limits of sight itself. And yet it's these limits that writers repeatedly say Pollock expands and exceeds, as if there were always something more to see in his drip paintings; as if, by granting fullness to line, they addressed the eye only to foist on it more than it can handle. Thus Karmel, whose whole laboratory approach treats Pollock's line like some remote, extra-sensory data to be dissected and probed, ends up discovering that it's only ever been pictorial, a representational figure. In Fried's account, Pollock's line assumes a presence all its own, but again only as something pictorial - optical - as a line and not a thing. (Writing not long after Fried, Donald Judd, who as a sculptor attributed value to the opacity and distance inherent in perceiving volumes, would argue that Pollock's dripped paint was indeed a thing.)

Today the dominant reading of Pollock seems to be the one advanced by Rosalind Krauss, who trumps both Fried and Judd by characterising the painter's mark as neither line nor thing but index. Krauss denies Pollock's splat both optical and physical presence, seeing it instead as trace, the sign of presence rather than the genuine article. Given her opposition to idealist views of consciousness, Krauss would never propose a 'real' within human reach, transparent to knowledge and subject to mastery. And yet what she finds so grievous about the kind of Modernist approach exemplified by Fried is that it treats the real's inaccessibility as an excuse for art to focus attention solely on the subject, on his or her act of perception apart from any object of perception. This is how Modernist criticism 'sublimates' Pollock, Krauss writes, by 'lift[ing] the paintings off the ground where he made them and onto the wall', thereby privileging the line of sight over the gravitational pull exerted on bodies and things, elevating will over desire, and indulging our 'pretensions toward the spiritual, the ideal'. 1 And so Krauss introduces the index: the only type of sign (like a fingerprint or bullet hole) to have a physical, existential tie to the thing it signifies, and that therefore can't be made to forfeit entirely its relation to the object world. Krauss insists on Pollock's lack of control over his mark, on its being unforeseen and accidental: the index is not an outward projection of consciousness but an invasion into it, a kind of writing penned and postmarked from the far side of the subject's imaginary realm of meanings and intentions. As such, Pollock's work ends up chastening vision rather than celebrating it; having experienced something we haven't, the index boasts its intimacy with the real but also stands in our way of it, holding it out of our reach. Our only compensation is the plenitude we call content, built belatedly atop the deficit that constitutes the trace, which both accommodates and perpetually frustrates the efforts of content and meaning to fill it. We're free to do whatever we please with the side of the index that faces us - in Pollock's case, his paintings can be put on the wall, viewed optically, ransacked for hidden figures, Jungian symbols, childhood memories, whatever. But to look in this way, to depend on looking at all, is to deny what the index conspicuously withholds. Hence, Krauss concludes, most of the looks Pollock's work has attracted have 'overlooked the horizontal testimony of his line ... the evidentiary weight of its most basic and irrefutable mark'. 2

Although Krauss would never admit it, an uncanny familial resemblance persists between her index and Fried's opticality: both claim an immediacy that stands opposed to the kind of distanced, interpretive, aestheticising spectatorship usually associated with viewing art. In Fried's version, the eyes are too enmeshed in the painting's surface to draw back, to speculate and interpret (like Krauss, Fried insists that Pollock painted too close to the canvas to see what he was doing, too closely to become a spectator of his own act). 3 Krauss' index, on the other hand, turns its back on eyesight to enmesh itself instead in the real. What's most surprising about her interpretation, though, is that while fashioned as a 'desublimation' of the canonical Modernist reading of Pollock, what she ends up describing is precisely an experience of the sublime. After all, the sublime involves a view of nature as both overwhelming and safely distanced. It is this mix of assault and protection that defines the index as well, which, as Krauss has it, stands between us and the immediately real, absorbing its raw force and shielding us from it. Indeed, the index acts much in the same way as those lone, heroic figures who intervene between us and the immensity of nature in Casper David Friedrich's classic paintings of the sublime.

The index features not only in Krauss' treatment of Pollock but also in her extensive writing on photography. Plenty of parallels could be drawn between the debates over Pollock's work and arguments over the status of photographs - whether they're fact or fiction, accurate documents or just another species of illusion. Pollock's canvases invite comparison to the work of certain photographers: take, for example, the 'chronophotography' or motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey, a major contributor to the invention of cinema and an influence on early Modernists such as Duchamp. In his photographs, Marey sought to stage the body as pure event, to capture its unbroken movement through time and space. Tellingly, Marey always felt disappointed in his efforts. Particularly frustrating was the amount of blur that resulted from his attempts to minimise the interval between exposures so as to produce a more continuous image of temporal progression. To correct the problem, Marey began dressing his subjects all in black, save for a luminous strip running down their flanks - thus turning a body into a line - only to find the subsequent images too abstract for his purposes. (The advent of movies offered no relief, since according to Marey they didn't succeed in surpassing the limits of human sight, instead merely mirroring the viewers' own illusions of continuous perception.)

Around the turn of the century chronophotography passed from Marey into the hands of Frank Gilbreth, a disciple of Fredrick Winslow Taylor and his crusade, known as 'scientific management', to measure and maximise industrial productivity. Recording the movements of factory workers as they performed their routine tasks, the whorling lines traced across Gilbreth's motion studies not only share a certain formal resemblance to Pollock's line, but the two have occasioned similar readings. Taylor himself wrote that the purpose behind the efforts of men like Gilbreth was to make visible the invisible - 'the deliberate gathering in on the part of those on management's side of all of the great mass of traditional knowledge, which in the past has been in the heads of the workman, and in the physical skill and knack of the workman', and which 'is his most valuable possession'. 4 And here is Varnedoe on Pollock: 'Moving away from the head and out into the body need not lead us only to scatology but also to the varieties of knowledge that, in the body of an athlete or dancer, are superbly organised and shaped without recourse to conscious cerebration. Movements of innate gift and disciplined training are constantly available to us, to remind us of the fluid refinement possible within the life of the body ... Pollock releases not just excreta but this form of knowledge.'

Rather than the blind accidents of the real, what Pollock renders visible is self-discipline internalised deep within the body (Varnedoe pulls up short of calling Pollock's body that of a painter). Here is yet one more attempt to find a legitimate source for attributing significance to Pollock's act. His achievement is vouched for by the incontestable authority of the real, or of the body, or of the mechanisms of eyesight itself. No doubt Pollock's work brings something 'basic and irrefutable' (to quote again from Krauss) into view, thereby pushing vision to its limits. Not, however, vision as some primordial, timeless sensory reflex, but as a historical practice, in this case embodied in the tradition of painting. It's possible to argue that when Pollock produced a good painting, the significance of his act became a judgement pronounced by history, the objectively legitimating history of painting. The problem is that not all of Pollock's significant acts ended up as good paintings: they became bad paintings, bold experimentation, process art, specific objects, or just routine acts frozen in a state of permanent intransitivity by Namuth's camera. They escaped the compressive and centred category of painting and entered instead a decentred 'expanded field'. Here positions are assumed and commentaries rendered - on the nature of art, painting, real life, etc. - but accounting for the value of these acts becomes much more open to debate, and therefore more vulnerable to charges of illegitimacy and fraud.

These two very different ways of organising the field of artmaking are shown to fuse in the microcosm of Pollock's oeuvre. One could always try to prise them apart: throw out a little over half the paintings he made, keeping some of the early, competent canvases like Stenographic Figure (c.1942) and most of the 'classic' drip paintings from 1950, and Pollock would appear simply as a painter who at times achieved greatness. Then do the opposite, holding on to some of the more interesting works that just happen to be tremendously ugly paintings (these would have to include the not-so-classic drip paintings from 1947), and Pollock would remain exemplary, only now, of the kind of artist who came to prominence in the 60s, who started off as a painter and, finding the medium too limited, experimented past it. Or just throw them all out (rhetorically speaking, of course), and save only one, crucial canvas, Pollock's magnificent Number 1A from 1948. The entire, self-conflicted history of modern art resides in it.

1. Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, p. 244; and The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1985, p. 80.

2. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, op. cit., p. 307.

3. See Michael Fried, 'Anthony Caro and Kenneth Noland: Some Notes on Not Composing', The Lugano Review, no. 3-4, 1965.

4. Quoted in Maren Stange, 'The Management of Vision', Afterimage, vol. 15, no. 8, March 1988, p. 6.