The subversion of gravity in Jackson Pollock's abstractions.

Author:Cernuschi, Claude

While implementing the Surrealist directive of eliciting the unconscious, and intent on generating an extensive vocabulary of unbroken, free-flowing lines, Jackson Pollock felt his ambitions frustrated by two constraints endemic to conventional easel painting: the interruption of the creative act caused by the inconvenient need to reload the brush and the drag on his hand as he spread pigment along the canvas surface. Initially, Pollock tried to circumvent these impediments by squeezing paint directly from the tube. This adjustment allowed him to dispense larger amounts of pigment than could otherwise be held on--and eliminated the necessity to reload--the brush. But forcing paint out of the tube while simultaneously ensuring that it is applied with elan is a tricky proposition; so is avoiding the increased friction caused by the tube's rubbing against the canvas. To extend the duration of his gestures and enhance the fluidity of his strokes, Pollock needed a practical way of carrying more pigment and dispensing it without touching the image. When Paul Brach asked him why he started pouring, Pollock replied, "Someone tried to talk me into using a dagger striper but the sucker didn't hold the paint long enough. I just wanted a longer line. ... I wanted to keep it going." (1) As is well known, he achieved both objectives by laying the canvas on the floor (Fig. 1). Retaining more paint on sticks and trowels, he worked with fewer interruptions, and pouring pigment in the air--effectively enlisting gravity as a participant in the process--he eliminated the deleterious effects of friction altogether. Not surprisingly, critics have counted the implementation of the poured technique and the reorientation of artistic activity from the wall to the floor as Pollock's most original and influential contributions to the history of art.


The Question of Orientation

Informed by the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Georges Bataille, Rosalind Krauss struck a different chord. In her view, Pollock's deployment of "horizontality as a medium' represented a radical regression from the intellectual, disembodied, optical way of perceiving the world that stems from humanity's erect (vertical) posture. By stressing the horizontal as opposed to the vertical, Pollock, she argued, fore-grounded the corporeal, even abject, characteristics of urination and defecation, an implication of the poured technique maintained in, say, Andy Warhol's later Oxidation Paintings and Linda Benglis's sculptures. (2)

By itself, though, "horizontality" does not capture the crux of Pollock's contribution. The artist conceded as much himself. When asked about painting on the floor, he replied, "That's not unusual. The Orientals did that." (3) This remark is perfectly apposite; laying the canvas horizontally, after all, hardly precludes dispensing pigment in a traditional manner. (4) No doubt, the horizontal orientation of the canvas proved ideal for Pollock's deployment of the poured technique--allowing for maximum control and making the paint accelerate directly toward the canvas in the shortest possible time. (5) Nonetheless, it will be proposed here that the effects of rhythmic energy for which the artist is best known are, perforce, contingent on the vertical reorientation of the canvas on the wall for contemplation.

On its face, this claim should hardly be controversial. As Leo Steinberg already stressed, Pollock intended all of his abstractions to be exhibited vertically. (6) As early as 1962, he reasoned that Pollock

indeed poured and dripped his pigment upon canvas laid on the ground, but this was an expedient. After the first color skeins had gone down, he would tack the canvas on to a wall--to get acquainted with it, he used to say, to see where it wanted to go. He lived with the painting in its upright state, as with a world confronting its human posture. (7)

More recently, T. J. Clark observed that although the "picture was put on the floor to be worked on ... it was always being read on the floor as if it were upright, or in the knowledge that it would be. To pretend otherwise would have been naive, and Pollock was never naive about painting." (8)

These observations touch on a key feature of the poured technique; even so, critical aspects of the artist's dyadic process have remained unexplored. If Krauss focused almost exclusively on Pollock's point of departure--as if painting horizontally were an end in itself--Steinberg and Clark stopped short of elucidating how central Pollock's reorientation of the canvas prove to his mode of operation. To be sure, their description of the artist's method as unitary and cohesive is apt, if only because there is nothing to suggest that Pollock even considered exhibiting his works on the floor--at an angle whereby paintings (especially those at the upper end of his dimensional range) are particularly awkward to observe. But although laying the canvas horizontally was maximally convenient for pouring, the artist, as Steinberg indicated, often interrupted creative activity in order to reposition his work for study--and ultimately display--on the wall. These two integral, yet separate actions each played their own indispensable role. Even is physically produced in the first state, the work was only recognized as "complete" after the second, a process comparable to constructing a sailboat or aircraft: though assembled in one environment, it serves its purpose only in another. Pollock's shift in orientation constituted no less of a sine qua non. And it is by recognizing the essential contributions of both steps that some of the subtle intricacies, and broader implications, of Pollock's procedure may emerge in sharper relief.

Two or Three Dimensions?

Appreciating the full ramifications of Pollock's manipulation of the canvas's orientation requires, from the outset, a closer investigation of his creative process and, more to the point, its reliance on gravity, Pouring, after all, is impossible without gravitational force. Had Pollock lived in an environment where the effects of the Earth's gravitational field were neutralized--on the international space station, for example (9)--he could probably have painted but not poured. Choosing pouring as the principal means of dispensing pigment, in turn, had a major consequence for his modus operandi, namely, transforming it from a two-to a three-dimensional affair. Pollock's abstractions, of course, are not less "conventionally" two dimensional than easel paintings, and, no matter their practice, painters obviously work by moving in three-dimensional space yet whereas previous artists had no choice but to touch their piece, Pollock wad free to paint in the air, allowing his gestures to range in three dimensions, to rise and fall, as well as span from side to side, all without making direct physical contact with the canvas, In traditional easel or mural paintings, no sooner is the brush lifted from the cloth or wall-discounting, for the sake of argument, the exception of an artist flinging or spraying paint at an upright surface (10)--than the creative act is (Provisionally perhaps, but indisputably) suspended, No matter what artists do or how they contemplate their next course of action, if their brush does not make contact with the support, nothing comes to pass. To have any consequences therefore, the act of painting is dependent on what transpires on the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, Though most painters may not have felt constrained by this exigency, Pollock sought and devised an alternative through which he severed his dependence on that physical connection and, as a result, transformed painting into a truly three-dimensional process. (11)

These technical innovations, however, came to a price. Expanding his activity into three-dimensional space, Pollock forfeited the luxury of being able to suspend his process at will, Actively working in the air, he could no longer interrupt his movements, especially as a gesture, once initiated, would keep releasing pigment on the canvas as long as any remained on the implement he was wielding. (12) The streams of paint already in flight, furthermore, would instantly lie beyond the bounds of the artist's control--save for measures outlandish (such as yanking the canvas out from under the pigment already airborne). Yet the artist managed to turn this situation to this advantage. Since his gestures were performed in the air, the painting underneath him simultaneously recorded both where and with what velocity he moved his implement, including the most subtle inflections and tremors of his hand and wrist, Consequently, the poured trajectories qualify as doubly indexical and, as such, provide the spectator with nearly unprecedented access into the artist's working methods (Fig. 2), Indeed, by choosing a technique in which the canvas registers the slightest change of this motion in space, Pollock encourages the viewer to construe his paintings as effects, the causes of which the audience is meant to infer. As Frank O'Hara incisively noted, whenever Pollockian lines thin or thicken, we automatically assume that the artist accelerated or decelerated, respectively. (13) As a result, we tend instinctively to re-created the very act of painting in our imagination and experience sensations of kinetic energy akin to watching a dancer in motion or a conductor leading an orchestra.


That Pollock hoped his audience would construe his art in this manner can be deduced from his own proclivity to construe all works of art in is manner, B. H. Friedman, Pollock's first biographer, recalled the artist's somewhat unorthdox responses to paintings in the writer's possession; Pollock "stood in front of the Mondrian with hands out as if he was about to seize and fight it. His hands twitched in the air, seeming to want to touch or feel or somehow reproduce, remake, each element of the work before him...

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