A compelling look at Jackson Pollock's vibrant, quintessentially American art and the turbulent life that gave rise to it
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By Evelyn Toynton
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Evelyn Toynton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhile the Second World War had left Europe devastated and impoverished, America was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom. It was also, for the first time in its history, a dominant world power. One might expect, then, that the atmosphere in the country would be one of boundless confidence and optimism. But there was little of the comfortable sense of security that other great powers, at the height of their wealth and influence, had felt.
The belief in a benevolent God, in the innate goodness of humankind, in the radiant future that technological progress would make possible, had been shattered by the events of the past few years. The concentration camps had been a revelation of human evil on an unprecedented scale; the development and deployment of the atom bomb had not only made it difficult to regard scientific advances as an unquestionable good, but also for the first time raised the very real possibility that all human life could and might be wiped off the face of the planet, a prospect of total annihilation that no previous generation had had to confront.
As the abstract painter Barnett Newman wrote, "We now know the terror to expect. Hiroshima showed it to us.... The terror has indeed become as real as life. What we have now is a tragic rather than a terrifying situation. [No] matter how heroic, or innocent, or moral our individual lives may be, this new fate hangs over us."
The pervasive sense of dread was exacerbated by a growing feeling that another world war was imminent, this time with Soviet Russia as the enemy rather than an ally, and that atomic weapons would inevitably be deployed when fighting broke out. Throughout the late forties, tensions were mounting between the world's last two superpowers, with belligerent rhetoric on both sides. The idea that the USSR must be contained, that America would have to defend itself and the democracies it was pledged to support against Soviet attack, became a commonplace of political discourse. Patriotism became more and more strident, more and more entwined with paranoia, until anti-Communism and love of country were equated in the public mind.
Meanwhile, many of the artists in Pollock's milieu were retreating from politics altogethernot just from the patriotic fervor that was gripping the country but also from the idealistic left-wing allegiances they had formed during the Depression years. It was accepted almost as a given among many American artists and intellectuals of the thirties, including such prominent figures as Theodore Dreiser and Edmund Wilson, that capitalism was in its death throes: its excesses having led to worldwide economic collapse, it was, they claimed, about to be superseded by the rule of the proletariat, the much juster system established in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Nor was it only in America that such ideas held sway. George Bernard Shaw and André Malraux, two of the most famous and celebrated cultural figures of their day, were zealous proselytizers for the Soviet state and the glories of Communism. "Communism is not hope, but the form of hope," Malraux wrote, and praised the Soviet experiment as "the type of civilization from which Shakespeares emerge." Shaw not only denied that Stalin's collectivization policy in Ukraine was leading to widespread starvationin fact, an estimated four million people diedbut also broadcast a talk on American radio in 1931, urging skilled workmen to emigrate to Soviet Russia, where, he assured them, they would find both a warm welcome and useful employment.
In its attempt to alleviate some of the dire suffering that followed in the wake of the Wall Street crash, the U.S. government itself took unprecedented steps in the direction of what die-hard right-wingers in the Republican Party, a continuously vocal group, chose to call Communism. Roosevelt's New Deal, which at a time of massive unemployment put so many desperate people back to work building bridges and roads and dams (and by doing so arguably prevented revolution, thereby saving American capitalism), even found a way to employ artists, a particular source of outrage among critics of FDR and his advisers.
In 1935, Pollock was one of hundreds of painters rescued from abject penury when he was hired by the Federal Art Project to create paintings for public buildingspost offices, courthouses, schools, administrative buildings. Though never as politically active as some of his cohorts, or as his future wife, he also joined the Artists' Union, which tried to get the government to improve artists' working conditions and provide more secure employment. And the year after being taken on by the Art Project, he volunteered to work with the radical Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, whose passionate left-wing allegiances led him not only to try to create art for the masses, but also to make art out of non-elitist materials, like the Duco paint used for automobiles. It was in conjunction with Siqueiros's activities that Pollock took part in May Day celebrations of solidarity with workers around the world, including in the Soviet Union, which appropriated the May Day holiday as a workers' celebration after the rise of Bolshevism.
Throughout the thirties, the Soviet Union was seen as not only a workers' paradise but also the chief bulwark against the encroaching Fascist threat in Europe. A certain amount of doubt about the nature of Stalin's government had already begun to set in with the purges of the early thirties and the Moscow Trials of 1936 to 1938show trials of major Communist Party figures, in which they were sentenced to death on the basis of bogus confessions extracted by torture. But there were still many who defended these developments as just, or at least necessary to further the aims of the revolution. The final blow to all but the most die-hard true believers among American leftists was the non-aggression pact signed in 1939 between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Though the argument was put forth that the Soviets were simply opting out of a war that would be fought to defend capitalism and imperialism, it became much harder, after that, to go on believing in the moral superiority of Stalin's government. Even when Russia later joined the Allies and fought heroically against the Axis powers, it did not change the fact that it had only switched sides when Hitler, in violation of the treaty between the two countries, invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. And the USSR's expansionism after the war ended, when it occupied most of Eastern Europe and refused to allow democratic elections there, further eroded much of the old, idealistic support for its form of government.
So however little the avant-garde artists of the immediate postwar period could enter into the patriotic fervor that was gripping America at the time, they had also lost their faith in the alternative system that once claimed their allegiance. Their unease with the belligerent rhetoric of the U.S. government, and its use of the "Soviet threat" as a way of imposing its authority on its citizens, could not dispel their sense that the Soviet Union's acts of aggression might indeed need to be stopped. In such an atmosphere of disillusionment and confusion and dread, it was almost inevitable that their art would turn inward.
Their move into abstraction can be viewed as a retreat from the socially conscious art that dominated in the thirties into a safer mode of aesthetic expression: if their art no longer contained explicitly political subject matter, it could not be criticized on those grounds. But it can also be seen as a retreat from imagery itself, and hence a purification of the visual. Images had been so co-opted for propaganda purposes, both by totalitarian regimes and in America itself, that they had begun to seem tainted; public language had grown so debased and shrill that artists like Pollock were turning away from it into a private one. Increasingly, they were concerned with exploring the interior mental states that had already begun to claim their attention in the prewar years.
* * *
The work of the Surrealists, which explicitly drew on unconscious sources, had been familiar to New York artists since at least 1936, when it was featured in a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The cosmopolitan aesthete, collector, painter, and art critic John Graham, who befriended Pollock in the 1930s and is generally regarded as the man who first "discovered" him, saw the Surrealists' playfulness and their use of unconscious material as a liberating alternative to the pure rationalism of Cubismthe other artistic movement that influenced Pollock during this period, and would continue to do so for a long time. Pollock himself particularly admired the paintings of Joan Miró, whose use of calligraphic lines and blobs of paint were to have a great influence on his own work.
Unlike many other avant-garde artists of the twenties and thirties, the Surrealists always refused to link their work to any explicit political program. Indeed, they rebelled against the whole idea of the programmatic, along with the idea, espoused by various groups of abstract artists after the First World War, that reason and logic were to be the salvation of society. Whereas the geometric abstractionists in particular saw the war as the ultimate outbreak of irrationality, and hence strove to create a purely rational art purged of selfish individualism and primitive impulses, the Surrealists insisted that it was excessive rationality, not its opposite, that was responsible for the carnage, reason being a denial of the true reality, which existed only in the unfettered mind. While they were heavily influenced by Freud's ideas about the unconscious, free association, and the primary importance of dreams, they rejected his systematic approach to such things, along with the idea of taming the unconscious by seeking to understand it too closely. Instead, they believed in giving it free rein.
As they saw it, humankind could be liberated only once the false social and cultural strictures that imprisoned the imagination had been demolished. They were much closer to anarchists than to orthodox leftists, much less solemn in their revolutionary aims. László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian painter, summed up the vision of many Utopian abstractionists when he wrote, in 1928, "Abstract art ... creates new types of spatial relationships, new inventions of forms, new visual lawsbasic and simpleas the visual counterpart to a more purposeful, cooperative human society." A similar view was expressed by Piet Mondrian when, in a magazine published by the Dutch abstractionists known as the De Stijl group, he wrote that "pure plastic vision should build a new society, in the same way that in art it has built a new plasticism." Such artists believed that their ideas could not only help to regenerate society, but could be made to serve a direct practical purpose if used in the design of housing for workers and other public projects. Meanwhile, the Suprematist artists in Russia, chief among them the great abstractionist Kazimir Malevich, whose support of the Bolshevik Revolution was absolute, strove to eliminate individualism from painting altogether.
The Surrealists also claimed, with varying degrees of seriousness, to be working towards the overthrow of capitalism, but they felt it could be accomplished only through a revolution in the individual human psyche. Once again, art was to play a key rolebut an art of magic and mysticism, rather than reason and harmony. Primitive art was therefore one of their great enthusiasms. (Though the presiding genius of Surrealism, André Breton, known as its "Pope," was a poet rather than a painter, its adherents were mostly drawn from the visual arts.)
After the outbreak of the war, when many of the Surrealists, including Breton, arrived in New York as refugees from Europe, Pollock got to know not only their work, but the artists themselves, andperhaps even more importantthe techniques they had devised for tapping into the unconscious in their art. At the home of the Chilean-born émigré Robert Matta, Pollock began attending regular sessions that featured such exercises as sitting in a circle and drawing blindfolded. Though he did not participate much in the discussions that were a major feature of these gatherings, they had a profound effect on his approach to art. In particular, he was excited by the Surrealists' notion of "psychic automatism," in which the rational mind is suspended or bypassed, allowing the unconscious to take over: Breton, in one of his several Surrealist manifestoes, called it "the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations." Matta's theory that forms, like emotions, are constantly changing shape, would also have been of interest to Pollock.
In its way, Surrealism was a highly romantic movement, its tenets based on the underlying assumption that it was not a lack of restraint that was to be feared, but restraint itself: according to them, no control was necessary, suggesting that there was nothing evil in the human imagination or psyche that needed to be controlled. After the war, such an attitude was no longer really viable; Surrealism, insofar as it survived at all, declined into pure frivolity. But the idea of the exploration of the unconscious in art continued to exert a powerful hold. It took Pollock, however, to represent the unconscious in a wholly abstract form, beginning in the late forties: his earlier Surrealist-influenced paintings still contained strong figurative elements, as well as the Cubist forms he "borrowed" from Picasso, with whom, like so many painters of his generation, he became obsessed in the late thirties, remaining so for many years.
* * *
By the time Pollock became involved with Surrealism, his exploration of his own unconscious had been under way in another venue for some time. His difficulties with alcoholism and severe depression led him to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Westchester in 1939, and on his release he began seeing a psychoanalyst, as he would do at various periods throughout his life. But it is telling that his first analysis was with a Jungian. The Jungians, much more than the Freudians of the era, were concerned not merely with the childhood traumas and repressed sexual feelings of their patients but with their general spiritual health and their place in the universe.
Whereas Freud wrote of repression and projection and reaction formation, Jung spoke of myths and symbols, the soul, universal archetypes, and the collective unconscious: the shared repository of all the religious and spiritual experiences and feelings of humankind. To Jungians, the individual unconscious was only the most superficial level of the unconscious mind. Though Jung, the son of a Protestant minister, believed that Christianity and all other religions were essentially mythological systems, he did not dismiss them on those grounds, as Freud did. Instead, he regarded religion as a necessary and fundamental part of human life, the human psyche being religious by nature.
The Jungian approach to the psyche, therefore, was less narrowly rational, more attuned to the mysteries of existence, and less inclined to seek explicit cause-and-effect relations between early traumas and adult emotions. So Pollock's first experience of psychoanalysis went beyond the exploration of his own childhood experiences, into the region of universal myth and metaphysics. For example, his analyst related the "anguished, dismembered or lamed" figures in Pollock's drawings not to fears of castration or latent aggression, as a Freudian might have, but to the state of mind of someone who, engaged in a tribal initiation rite, is undergoing a wrenching transition or entering a trance-state. The totemic figures that began to appear in Pollock's work at this time can be connected as much to his Jungian analysis as to his interest in the Surrealists or the mythological paintings of the Mexican muralist José Orozco that he had grown to admire as Benton's influence waned. Such figures were not allusions to remote classical legends but images with deep psychic resonance.
As a rebellious high-school student in Los Angeles, often in trouble with the authorities, Pollock, who had almost no exposure to religion in his childhood, was deeply attracted to the philosophy of the Hindu mystic Krishnamurti and briefly became a disciple. One of Krishnamurti's key teachings, however, was that each individual must liberate his psyche from within, rather than submitting to any external authority. Pollock could be said to have taken this advice to heart when he ceased being Krishnamurti's follower shortly afterwards. But throughout his life he remained drawn to the thinking of mystics and metaphysicians, those who spoke of a spiritual reality that underlay and transcended the physical one, and that united all living things.
Excerpted from Jackson Pollock by Evelyn Toynton Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Toynton. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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