Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Never-Ending Image: Reflections on Jackson Pollock´s Paintings 1946-1950

Clement Greenberg,the great New York critic, and one of the very first to realize the importance of what Jackson Pollock was doing in the grand period 1946-1950 , obviously saw it as a new pendulum move in an oscillating movement which seems to have gone on in modern painting since the time of Seurat and early Picasso, between representative and non-representative painting. In his essay "American-Type Painting" Greenberg writes "I do not think it exaggerated to say that Pollock's 1946-1950 manner really took up Analytical Cubism from the point at which Picasso and Braque had left it when ,in their collages of 1912 and 1913,they drew back from the utter abstractness for which Analytical Cubism seemed headed."
A lot has been written ,indeed, on the period which is often referred to as the drip-paintings of Pollock,and their importance as a radical turning point in formalist painting has been approached in different was.
The philosophically most satisfactory view seems to me to be the one which is taken by Michael Fried in Artforum 1965 .
In respectful opposition to Greenbergs interpretation - he regards him as a mentor in the field of "formalist" criticism - Fried suggests another approach:
Far from following the path of Analytical Cubism into the increasingly thinner air of abstract imagination, Pollock's drip paintings are restoring a much more concrete ,a more elementary approach to the fundamental conditions of painting.
The distinction between representational (Example: Picasso's Saltimbaques) and non-representational (Examples:Kandinsky,Malevitch,Roethke in their mature work) is sometimes expressed by the abstract expressionists and their critics as a distinction between figurative and non-figurative .This ,says Field,can hardly be right.Wile it is difficult for a representative painting not to be fugurative ,but it is perfectly possible as is the case in Kandinsky and even in other parts of of Pollock's work for a non-representing image to be figurative.
What Pollock does in the canvas-filling drip-paintings from aproximately 46 and for some very important years onwards is to free his painting from both elements.The line ,completely emancipated from its figurative function,which is to define a surface by being its boarder,is set free to form its immensely complicated curve .This Pollock s line is transfinite in the sense that it has no obvious start and no obvious end.In fact,says Field it does not recognize the end of the canvas as its boarder.This mode of painting deserves a new term .It is neither figurative nor non-figurative. It is optic.
The boarder of the canvas - where traditionally a frame is placed,marking as if it were a limes (in the Roman sense) between image and world, is explicitly neglected by Pollock in some of these paintings .He marks it by folding painted canvas surface over the edge of the strainer.The relationship between painting and surface is not any longer an essential ,but only an incidental ,one.The line has to have an abode but this abode is no longer a part of the image.The line could as well - if it were physically possible - (which it might be) hover in a three-dimensional space.

Field's understanding of the drip paintings - as far as I have understood it - is a highly interesting one and certainly gives reason for several reflections.
The first one might be connected with the nature of space and the second one to be dealt with here,with the nature of painting.
As we have seen,if we adopt the Field analysis, that a Pollock painting from the actual period has no real limit,(no logical frame) because the line has no topological beginning nor an end . There is no distinction between "image" and "world" any longer.They have entered each other ,the painting is world (Or shall we say "a world" ?) and the world is the painting.

In the second part of "Critic of Pure Reason" we find Kant's arguments against the independent existence of time and space.If we assume an absolute time or,mutatis mutandis,an absolute space ,we arrive, as Kant wants to prove,in unresolvable contradictions.And the conclusion at which Kant arrives is the one that Time and Space are nothing but Vorstellungsformen or in other words "forms of representation" - ways in which Human Reason organizes its empirical content.The paradox of space ,somewhat simplified, consists in the following destructive dilemma:
If we assume that space ,in its entirety , is finite, we have to assume a border area where it begins and another where it ends and as this boarder itself has to be situated in space ,obviously we have not taken into account the totality of space.If , on the other hand we assume that space is infinite,we have not taken into account the whole of space either, as for every part we are considering there always ha to be something more to consider.
The second leg of the dilemma - it should be admitted - is less clear than the rather obvious first one . The second leg becomes a little easier to understand when we come to the time variant.If Time is transfinite and has no beginning and no end ,why has not the present already past ? We assume that Time and Space are endless;"Die Welt hat keinen Anfang,und keine Grenzen im Raume,sondern ist,sowohl in Ansehung der Zeit,als des Raums,unendlich"

An infinite given aggregate of parts which exist at the same time cannot be conceived of.Why ?Because Kant seems to think,we cannot achieve completeness in our understanding of such a space.

Why is this completeness necessary ? One interpretation might be that Kant has a difficulty with a totality which does not change even if we take away a transfinite amount from it.A difficulty which we have dealt with in note 4.
However what we are dealing with is space.

To take the space as infinite is , however ,not to say that transfinite numbers are involved--we do not deal with the number of the numbers,so to speak--or their totality - we are dealing with transfinite geometry .As to transfinite geometry I have the suspicion that there are many alternative treatments a.Clearly nobody forces us to use euclidean definitions - including points - and the geometrics of modern string theory abstains from it.

And space is certainly what Pollock´s endless line is all about. Of course his paintings do not fill the world.They have, whether the painter liked it or not - external boarders .Infinity is in his paintings in the sense that the line has no starting point or no limit or neither.But the best representation of this type of infinity in Number Theory might be a Cantor set of higher order than Aleph,in the simplest case a set 1,2,3,....Ø ,which taken as a set, is an ordinal set of the second order since it contains the limit ordinal of the first ordinal set, a set of the first order (the standard finite ordinals, 1, 2, 3.....).
It has an external boarder but is unlimited inside. The typical opticks seem to come close to such little limitless universes.
Borges would have liked them.

So here we have a sort of analog to Pollock’s line which does not start and cannot end.It is not a hand lifted to throw a shadow on the world. It is world.At least in no weaker sense than the rest of that transfinite ,undecidable labyrinth which we call "world".
Leonardo’s notorious advice as he gave it in his Note Books illustrates a philosophically central point ,the importance of which should not be underestimated.
“Do not despise my opinion,when I remind you that it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls,or ashes of a fire,or clouds,or mud or like places,in which,if you consider them well you may find really marvellous ideas.”
The moment of transition between seeing irregular stains in a wall and seeing mountains and horsemen in battle and whatever Leonardo invites us to see, is of outmost importance here.What is it that forces us to make the non-representational representational ? What causes this transition – I cannot even tell whether it takes place in time or outside time – is obviously very corecive.The perception wants to turn to sign.And seems to invite us,instead of increasing the perception to increase the intensity and density of signs.We call it “imagination” ,which is also the word that Leonardo uses. But what is this “imagination” which Wollheim insisted on calling “seeing in” ? The accidental,nonfigurative is turned figurative. This ,to common sense is the act of painting.So what does it mean to place the painting outside this process ?
So, in producing these remarkable - and very influential - drip paintings, what did Jackson Pollock really do ? Or what did he believe that he was doing ? This questions seems to me to throw some light on painting itself.
There have been many different attempts to explain what Jackson Pollock was doing.From the ritualistic (A ritual dance over the sand-paintings of the Pueblo Indians such as Aby Warburg described it in his very influential essay which became the starting point of iconology in the modern sense.)
Of course Jackson Pollock knew about these ancient rituals, he actually mentions them in an early interview .But first, the Navaho sand paintings were figurative and representative,and second, Jackson Pollock cannot have been that intent on provoking the skies to give rain to the arid desert lands..
Another approach is "act of painting" in approximately the same sense in which philosophers J.L. Austin and Searle talked about "speech-acts"in the fifties. A speech act like promising or affirming something can be successful only if the adequate conditions prevail.E.g. you can only promise to give property to somebody if you own it and you can only affirm a fact if you know something about it.
The act of painting seems more difficult to define.
What would it mean for an act of painting to be successful ?
At the core of the issue seems to be here that we normally expect a painting in one way or another to communicate.The content communicated could be a narrative which is frequently the case in classical painting, it could be a likeness or as in non-representational figurative painting say Kandinsky’s later work,the image is assumed to carry a meaning (or sense) which ,because of being non-representational has to be supposed to convey a meaning of a more intrinsic nature.From the point of view of a commonplace philosophical semantics this intrinsic meaning is hard to define.In Kandinsky's case
the artist himself describes this intrinsic meaning as "the spiritual" in art.
A simple ,may be too simple ,way of defining the meaning in non representational figurative art is of course to say that the message conveyed is the figuration itself.The meaning of Malevitj's White square on a white surface is exactly this and nothing more; a white square on a white surface.
Does this deprive the idea of painting of something important ?
Such as the Human mind works and the Human brain is organized,it is indeed very difficult to produce an image which is completely void of meaning.Our "eye" is reading connotations,humaniora ,into practically everything visible and not completely homogenous (example;the star constellations on the nightly sky) and what Richard Wollheim used to call "the seeing in" - the process by which the mind is able to structure any slightly irregular surface, a wall,a cloud cover , into images which make sense to us.
The problem with defining or describing what Jackson Pollock is doing in the optics seems to be connected with the difficulty to assign a "meaning" to his non-representational,non-figurative optics.
An easy way out , which Clement Greenberg rejects ,is the subterfuge to "retinal pleasure", in other words the idea that the only source of our attention to the optic paintings and the pleasure they obviously give us is founded in the neurology of our own visual system.
This theory,which would reduce what Pollock is doing in these years to a subtler form of tickling obviously overlooks the purely intellectual pleasure which is connected with following the immensely complicated adventures of his line, starting nowhere and ending nowhere . Approaching an optic painting by Jackson Pollock is a time-consuming venture but the intellectual yield it gives is not completely different - it seems to me - from that of reading a witty and dense narrative like Cervantes' "Don Quijote".
As we know,Pollock could not in the long run stay in the very special climate of hi optic painting.In the later years,which are marked by a decreasing productivity, he is in full retreat, not only into figurative painting but into something which must be characterized as representative drawings. You might call it an “an Orphic Retreat”.
This retreat is not quite different from that of Picasso from the analytical cubism at the beginning of the century .And this should hardly be surprising. It might seem to be a deep in ner bond between painting and representation which in the long run makes it impossible to stay in the thinner air of different formalisms.Do not ask me why it is so.

All this said ,these remarkable paintings, the “drip paintings” The Optics, seem to keep their ultimate riddle.May be the ultimate answer should be looked for in Pollock's own assertion;
" I am Nature."

(University of Texas , in November 2003)

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