Drizzle With Dazzle

Pollock's Number 4, 1948: Gray and Red, at the Guggenheim.Photo: Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum

“No Limits, Just Edges” is the apt title of the new show of Jackson Pollock’s works on paper at the Guggenheim. The words are Pollock’s, and they capture the marvelous air of boundlessness in his art. For many people, Pollock now represents nothing less than freedom itself—risky, open, joyous, and unafraid. The story is regularly told of a time when the artist, pouring a glass of wine in a restaurant, simply chose not to stop, letting the wine spill over the rim of the glass until the bottle was empty. But it’s also important not to get carried away by the romance of the unrestrained imagination. Transcendence too easily won becomes just another cheap trick. We care about Pollock’s “no limits” because, in the end, he was also an educated, hardworking painter who understood edges. A grounded artist. It seems fitting that he made his sublime “drip” paintings—which have the endlessness of the sky—by placing his canvas on the floor.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Pollock’s works on paper, which are smaller and more up-close than his celebrated paintings. “No Limits, Just Edges,” which was organized by Susan Davidson, contains more than 60 pictures (almost a tenth of Pollock’s work in this area) created from the thirties until the early fifties, in a variety of media. The curators make a point of calling them “paintings on paper” rather than drawings because Pollock himself did not like to distinguish painting from drawing—and did not treat them as different means of expression. On both canvas and paper he sought similar effects, and he used related working methods. For Pollock, who did not make preparatory drawings for his paintings, every image had to be won in the actual doing and represented an independent work of art.

Pollock came into his own in the early forties when, stimulated by the Surrealists, he began to loosen up his pictures. His line lost any remaining descriptive tightness and began to move spontaneously—and rhythmically—across the paper. At the same time, many of the pictures he made during this period were highly complex. In The Mask, for example, he worked with a knotty variety of marks, colors, spaces, and Surrealist-inspired imagery. The picture seems more like a densely realized world than a passing thought, and, for all its spontaneity, has a concentrated focus that is the very opposite of the let-it-all-hang-out clichés that surround Pollock’s life and art. The artist remained intensely aware—visually—of the boundaries of the paper. Some of the images from this period rested comfortably in the rectangle. Others challenged an edge. But Pollock always seemed to sense how everything related to everything else. And, remarkably, he did not repeat himself. Each picture has its own mood.

The best-known Pollocks are, of course, the purely abstract images that he began creating in the late forties, when he abandoned conventional art practice and began looping, spattering, and pouring inks and enamels onto the surface. Here, too, the variety of mood is astonishing, ranging from an open, spare, and almost Chinese lyricism to something more pressing and Dionysian—a kind of feverish stroke-upon-stroke-upon-stroke. Since these works on paper are smaller than his celebrated paintings of the same period, they can’t stimulate the corners of the viewer’s eye the way the horizon does; they do not convey the almost visceral feeling of expansion and boundlessness that the paintings do. But they do open outwards in the mind. Pollock’s paintings on Japanese paper have an airy, floating quality that dissolves boundaries. And there’s something mysterious about Pollock’s line, once he begins to loop and spatter, that suggests it can go wherever it wants. That line almost seems to develop a mind of its own—and yet never looks lost in space. Freedom and control fuse. Pollock, in the restaurant, did not just knock over the wine. He poured it.

No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper
Guggenheim Museum. Through September 29.

Drizzle With Dazzle