Jackson Pollock at The Guggenheim Museum

Jackson Pollock, Abstract Painting (1943); courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is an exhibition that manages two remarkable feats. It rescues Pollock the man (1912-1956) from the mythos of the hard-drinking, antisocial and self-destructive cowboy, and it liberates Pollock the artist from his worst tendencies as a painter.

Curator Susan Davidson achieves both by focusing on Pollock the draftsman. Pollock was never much of a painter, really; line was his sole strength. The frustration that defines his oeuvre can be traced to a psychological root, but it can also be seen as a reaction to the challenge of constructing pictorial space. Seven “paintings” on paper on view toward the end of the show are typical: Looping skeins of paint congest and ultimately deaden the surfaces. Pollock rarely endowed his paintings with a convincing illusion of space; instead, he strong-armed them into being. Rage and exasperation don’t equal heroic expression.

One of the unique benefits of drawing is that we instinctively read the surface of the page as “containing” space, freeing the artist from needing to compose space as he would in a painting. Pollock came to relish the freedom of drawing, though the realization did not come immediately.

Early on, he tussled—at times painfully—with the paintings of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. He also struggled to learn from Native American art, El Greco, Miró and Picasso—always Picasso. Round about 1943, the figurative impulses that would never completely leave Pollock’s art became engulfed in electric fields of scratchy line work. Five years later, he finally got it. In a trio of silvery drip pieces from 1948, we see his line discover—and thrive upon—a vital independence. It’s a revelatory moment, brilliantly underscored by the Guggenheim.

The late works on paper are Pollock’s crowning achievement. The ready space of the blank page transformed an inchoate sensibility. There’s an ease to Pollock’s automatist calligraphy—a deeply felt lyricism—but there’s discipline as well. Forget Jack the Dripper: The pictures are resolutely composed. The tension between spontaneity and control is energizing.

The best of the bunch is an untitled ink-and-watercolor drawing from around 1951, on loan from the Menil Collection. A punchy array of recognizable markings—eyes, an arrow, numbers and the artist’s name—are orchestrated within a field of swooping lines, stabbing marks, dots and dabs. The most surprising thing is the gentleness with which Pollock coaxes the elements into fruition. No pain, no strain—what an unexpectedly lovely dénouement. No Limits, Just Edges is far too macho a title for the lilting poise of the mature drawings. Jackson Pollock: Happy Man—that’s more like it.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 2, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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