Alfred Barr

Jackson Pollock Part Two by Chris Hall

From Triumph to Tragedy

When the WPA closed in 1943, Pollock was forced to take work as a custodian for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum).  It was here that he met Peggy Guggenheim, who encouraged him to submit work to her gallery Art of This Century.  Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in July 1943.  He received the commission to create Mural (1943), which measures roughly 8 feet tall by 20 feet long, for the entry to her new townhouse. At the suggestion of her friend and advisor Marcel Duchamp, Pollock painted the work on canvas, rather than the wall, so that it would be portable.  After seeing Mural, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: "I took one look at it and I thought, 'Now that's great art,' and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced."  Mural would prove important in Pollock's transition from a style shaped by murals, Native American art, and European modernism towards his mature drip technique. 

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”  Jackson Pollock.

In October 1945, Pollock married the American painter Lee Krasner.  In November they escaped from what Pollock called the “wear and tear” of New York City to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island.  With the help of a down-payment loaned by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought a wood-frame house and barn at 830 Springs Fireplace Road.  Pollock converted the barn into a studio.  Life was almost idyllic for Pollock and Krasner at Springs.  Pollock expanded his family to include a dog, Gyp, and a crow, Caw-Caw.  He was also able to quit drinking for two years, 1949-50, and he became very productive.  For example, in 1945 he painted only 20 canvases, but in 1949, when he was on the wagon, he painted twice as many.  In 1950, his most productive year, he painted nearly 50.  

In the studio at Springs, Pollock perfected his big "drip" technique of working with paint, with which he would become permanently identified.  In the following years his style became more boldly abstract still, and he produced works like Shimmering Substance (1946).  The following year he finally hit on the idea of flinging and pouring paint, and thus found the means to create the light, airy and apparently endless webs of color that he was reaching towards.  Masterpieces such as Full Fathom Five (1947) were the result. 

Drip paintings (1947- 1950)

“New needs need new techniques.  And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements . . . the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”  Jackson Pollock.

The famous 'drip paintings' that he began to produce in the late 1940s represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century.  At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself, at others they could evoke man's entrapment - in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.  Sometimes Pollock's work suggests the obliteration of the figure, the shattered and fragmented self as the modern condition.  At other times it suggests a peaceful destruction, as inner bleeds into outer, the self exploding into the universe, where there is unity, harmony, and wholeness.

Pollock first tried the drip technique in 1936, in a New York experimental art workshop run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  He also knew about the Surrealists’ experiments with spontaneously applied paint, and used it himself off and on throughout the early to mid 1940s.  He later used paint pouring as one of several techniques on canvases of the early 1940s, such as Male and Female, Composition with Pouring I and Composition with Pouring II.  By 1947 he had perfected the technique of pouring, flinging and spattering liquid paint, and could control its flow to achieve the effects he was after. 

Pollock started using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, which, at that time, was a novel medium.  Pollock described this use of household paints, instead of artist’s paints, as "a natural growth out of a need.”  He used hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes as paint applicators.  Pollock's technique of pouring and dripping paint is thought to be one of the origins of the term “Action Painting.”  The term “Action Painting” was coined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952.  This style of painting focuses on art as a process rather than just a finished product.  The act of creation itself is the point and not just the painting alone.  By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, Pollock added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions.  While painting this way, Pollock moved away from figurative representation and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush.  Pollock used the force of his whole body to paint, which was expressed on the large canvases.  In 1956, Time magazine dubbed Pollock "Jack the Dripper," due to his painting style.  

"My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.  When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well."
—Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956

James Joyce describes his work Finnegans Wake as being a “chaosmos.”  I think this description would be applicable to Jackson Pollock's paintings of 1947 to 1950 as well.  His drip works have no hierarchical organization, no figure ground relationships, no focal point, no perspective.  Everything is obliterated, everything but the All.  Pollock's art making process seems to me like he is channeling the forces of nature while working in a Shaman's ritual trance state.  Flinging, dripping, pouring, and spattering, he would move energetically around the canvas, almost as if in a dance, and would not stop until he saw what he wanted to see.  Pollock observed American Indian sand painting demonstrations in the early 1940s.  Referring to his style of painting on the floor, Pollock stated, “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk round it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  This is akin to the methods of the Indian sand painters of the West.”   

While it was a mixture of controllable and uncontrollable factors, Pollock denied reliance on "the accident"; he usually had an idea of how he wanted a particular piece to appear. His technique combined the movement of his body, over which he had control, the viscous flow of paint, the force of gravity, and the absorption of paint into the canvas.  

In the 21st century, the physicists Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich and David Jonas studied Pollock's works and technique. They determined that some works display the properties of mathematical fractals although this could not be replicated by others.  They assert that the works expressed more fractal qualities as Pollock progressed in his career.  The authors speculate that Pollock may have had an intuition of the nature of chaotic motion, and tried to express mathematical chaos, more than ten years before "Chaos Theory" was proposed.  Their work was used in trying to evaluate the authenticity of some works that were represented as Pollock's. 

Pollock's most famous paintings were made during the "drip period" between 1947 and 1950.  He rocketed to fame following an August 8, 1949 four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"  In 1950, he had a successful solo exhibition, and, along with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, was selected by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Venice Biennale.  Pollock also signed the open letter protesting The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition American Painting Today – 1950, for its exclusion of Abstract Expressionist artists.  The 18 signers became known as “The Irascibles” and Life magazine published an article of the affair along with the now famous photograph of the group, which included artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell.

The Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg Film

In 1950, Pollock was at the pinnacle of his career, but by the end of the year he was drinking again.  In July 1950, Hans Namuth approached Pollock and asked to photograph the artist working in his studio.  Encouraged by his wife, Lee Krasner, who was aware of the importance of media coverage, Pollock agreed.  Not satisfied with black and white stills, Namuth wanted to create a color film that managed to focus on Pollock and his painting at the same time, partially because he found more interest in Pollock's image than in his art.  His solution was to have Pollock paint on a large sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from underneath the work.  As Namuth could not afford professional lighting, the film was shot outside Pollock's Long Island home.  This documentary (co-produced with Paul Falkenberg) is considered one of the most influential documentary films on an artist ever made. 

 

In November 1950, Namuth and Pollock's relationship came to an abrupt conclusion.  Jeffrey Potter, a close friend of Pollock's, described Namuth as commanding, frequently telling Pollock when to start and stop painting.  According to Potter, Pollock "felt what was happening was phony."  Namuth himself describes Pollock as being "very nervous and very self-conscious" of the filming at the time.  After coming in from the cold-weather shoot of the glass painting, Pollock, who had been in treatment since 1938 for alcoholism, poured himself a tumbler of bourbon whiskey after having been sober for two years.  An argument between Namuth and Pollock ensued with each calling the other a "phony,” culminating in Pollock overturning a table of food and dinnerware in front of several guests.  From then on, Pollock reverted to a more figure-oriented style of painting, leading some to say that Namuth's sessions robbed Pollock of his rawness.  Some have argued that Namuth made Pollock feel disingenuous about his drip technique, which he had previously done spontaneously, but in the film seemed coerced. 

During his time with Pollock, Hans Namuth had created two films and captured more than 500 photographs of the artist.  These photos have also allowed art historians to dissect the details of Pollock's method.  For example, art historian Pepe Karmel found that Pollock's painting in Namuth's first black-and-white film began with several careful drippings forming two humanoid figures and a wolf before being covered beneath several layers of paint. 

The Late Works (1951 - 1956)

“I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.  But when you're painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”  Jackson Pollock.

At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style.  After a brief period of producing dark, monochromatic works, he returned to using color and reintroduced figurative elements.  The new paintings were badly received when Pollock first exhibited them, but he continued to work on them right through 1953, his last productive year of work.  During this period, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice and Pollock's gallery, Art of This Century had closed.  Gallery owner Betty Parsons had taken over his contract.  There was great demand for his work from collectors, but critics were giving him bad reviews for returning to more figurative art.  In response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his alcoholism deepened.   

His personal troubles only increased in his later years.  He left Betty Parsons Gallery, and, as his reputation preceded him, he struggled to find another gallery.  He painted little in 1954, claiming that he had nothing left to say.  In 1955, Pollock painted Scent and Search, his last two paintings.  He did not paint at all in 1956, but was making sculptures at Tony Smith’s home: constructions of wire, gauze, and plaster.  Shaped by sand-casting, they have heavily textured surfaces similar to what Pollock often created in his paintings.  In the summer of 1956, Krasner took a trip to Europe to get some distance from Pollock, and soon after the painter began a relationship with 25 year old art-star groupie Ruth Kligman, who he had met at the Cedar Bar.  On August 11, 1956, at 10:15 pm, Pollock, age 44, died in a single-car crash in his green 1950 Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol.  Pollock lost control of the car on a curve and he plunged into the woods at 60 or 70 miles an hour.  One of the passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed in the accident, which occurred less than a mile from Pollock's home.  The other passenger, Ruth Kligman, miraculously survived. 

For the rest of her life, Pollock's widow Lee Krasner managed his estate and ensured that Pollock's reputation remained strong despite changing art world trends.  Lee Krasner died in 1984.  They are buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave and a smaller one marking hers. 

Marc Chagall by Chris Hall

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985) was a Russian-French artist and a pioneer of modernism.  Chagall was born near Vitebsk, Russian Empire (present day Belarus) in a poor Hasidic Jewish family.  Memories of his life growing up in Vitbsk would color much of future art.  Between 1906 and 1910, Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg, the political and cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  He frequently visited his home, Vitebsk, where he meet his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.  In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me."  Completing his studies, in 1910, the ambitious Chagall moved on to Paris.  

In Paris he created his own style of modern art based on his childhood experience of Eastern European Jewish folk culture.  The Paris avant-garde was dominated by cubism at the time, and many viewed Chagall's colorful, dreamlike paintings as a curiosity.  In 1914, a Berlin art dealer, however, found promise in Chagall's paintings, and invited him back to Berlin to exhibit there.  Chagall accepted the invitation, thinking he would pass through Berlin on his way Vitebsk, where he intended to marry Bella.  His plan was to stay just long enough for the exhibition and the wedding, and then return to Paris, but World War I intervened, and the Russian borders closed.  Chagall spent the war years in Belarus and in 1915 married his beloved Bella.  

When the Russian Revolution started in 1917, Chagall found himself in a dangerous situation, but also one with opportunity. As an artist, Chagall was respected in Russia, and he accepted a job to be Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk.  This would result in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College.  Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of diversity at his school, with artists working in a variety of different styles.  This fell apart, however, when several key faculty members began pushing Suprematist art, a minimalist aesthetic focusing on squares and circles, disapproving Chagall's “bourgeois individualism.”  Chagall resigned his post and moved to Moscow to work as a stage designer.  Moscow was not a good place to be during this time, as famine hit the city hard after the war.  When the Russian borders finally opened back up, Chagall, with Bella by his side, was determined to move back to Paris. 

Chagall moved back to the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1923.  On his way back to France he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. With all of his earliest work now gone, Chagall tried to recreate new ones from his memories of the past.  Paris between the wars was modernism's “golden age,” with the Montparnasse district being ground zero for the world's intellectual elite.  In this Parisian crucible, Chagall synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism to create his own unique style.  He had some success abroad, with his first show in the United States, featuring about 100 works, in 1926.  He finally began to receive some attention in France, when in 1927 art critic Maurice Raynal included him in his book, Modern French Painters.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.  Anti-Semitic laws were being passed and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established.  Almost immediately, the Nazis began to a campaign against Modern Art.  Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and Surrealist, along with anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or just plain difficult to understand was targeted for removal, to be replaced by more accessible, realist work, especially heavy with German and patriotic themes.  Chagall was declared an Entartete Kunst, a “Degenerate Artist,” and his work was included in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, 1937.

When Germany invaded France, the Chagalls naively moved to the unoccupied south, in Vichy France.  They were unaware that the Vichy government was collaborating with the Germans to send French Jews to German concentration camps.  Chagall woke up to reality in October of 1940, when the Vichy government, under pressure from the Nazis, began to approve anti-Semetic laws, and French Jews were removed from public and academic positions.  By then, however, they were trapped.  America could be their only refuge, but they could not afford the ticket to New York, let alone the large bond that each immigrant had to pay upon entry to ensure that they would not be burden on the state.

Some circles in America, however, were sympathetic to the situation in France.  France had capitulated quickly, faster than Poland only the year before.  Paris was thought to be the center of civilization, and many were astonished to see it fall into Hitler's hands.  Chagall was not the only Russian or Jewish artist trapped in France; Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, and Max Beckmann all sought to escape.  With help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was added to a list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate.  A rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas was started.  Chagall was one of over 2,000 people rescued by this operation and together with his family, he left France in May of 1941, when it was almost too late.

Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize in the United States in 1939, but he had no idea what kind of reception he would have stepping foot in America for the first time.  He found out that he was somewhat famous in the art world, and that his work was more appreciated in the United States than in France.  Chagall felt uncomfortable in his new role as artist-celebrity, in a foreign country where he could not even speak the language.  He felt lost at first, exiled in a strange place and time.  He spent a lot of time in Jewish communities, especially the Lower East Side, where he found familiar food and was able to read the newspapers printed in Yiddish.  Soon, however, he found that New York was full of artists, writers, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions.  For the first time in his life, Chagall began to express interest in current events, and started painting the Crucifixion and scenes of war.  When he learned that the Germans had destroyed Vitebsk, the town where he was raised, he became greatly distressed.  He had also learned about the Nazi concentration camps.  During a speech in February 1944, he summed up his feelings:

Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a "stupid nation." He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of "Christianity" in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.

On September 2nd, 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife, Bella, due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortages of medicine.  Chagall's heart was broken, and he stopped painting for many months, and when he did resume painting, his first pictures were all concerned with preserving Bella's memory.  Chagall tried to fight bitter feelings.  He considered the possibility that their exile from Europe may have sapped her will to live, and that her death was just one of the millions of Jewish deaths that Germany was responsible for.  A few months after the Allies succeeded in liberating Paris from the Nazi occupation, Chagall wrote a letter “To the Paris Artists,” which was published in a Paris weekly paper.  In it he writes:

In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.

By 1946, Chagall's art was becoming more widely recognized.  The Museum of Modern Art gave Chagall a retrospective, will work culled from his 40 year career as an artist.  America had welcomed Chagall with open arms, but France was his real home, and he began making plans to return to Paris at the first practical opportunity.  The Europe he returned to was a very different place from what he had left behind.  Paris was no longer the center of the art world; thanks in part to the influx of European immigrants during the war, New York was now the art capital.  But perhaps the most disturbing to Chagall was the fate of Vitebsk, his hometown in Belarus.  Vitebsk always had a sizable Jewish population.  According to the Russian census of 1897, out of the total 65,900 population, Jews accounted for 34,400, roughly 52%.  By the Second World War, Vitebsk's population had swelled to 240,000.  When the Nazis occupied the city in July 1941, they quickly established a Jewish ghetto, and from the 8th of October to the 11th, they massacred all of Vitbsk's Jewish inhabitants.  Later, much of  the city was obliterated in the ensuing battles between the Germans and the Red Army soldiers.  Of Vitebsk's 240,000 pre-war population, only 118 survived.  All Chagall had left of his past were his memories and his paintings. 

Chagall chose to retreat from Parisian public life and settled in the Cote d' Azur, south of France.  Matisse and Picasso also lived nearby.  Although they were close in proximity to each other, and they sometimes collaborated, their work was different enough that they viewed each other as rivals.  They never became long-term friends.  Picasso, however, did respect Chagall's work.  Sometime in the 1950's, he said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

Chagall's post-war years were fruitful.  Through his daughter, Ida, he met Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background.  She became his secretary, but after a few months agreed to stay only if Chagall would marry her.  The marriage took place in July of 1952.  Chagall's art practice also expanded to include sculpture and ceramics, as well as many large scale, public commissions for murals, stained glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries.

In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th century building and national monument.  Andre Malraux, France's Minister of Culture, wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist.  This choice would become a public controversy, as many disliked the idea of having the ceiling of the historic building painted by a modern artist, while the xenophobes objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument.  Magazines published condescending articles about Chagall.  Chagall commented to one writer that:

They really had it in for me... It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen... work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

Despite the scathing criticism, the 77 year old Chagall continued to work on the project, which took him a year to complete.  The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet and required 440 pounds of paint.  The work paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, and Ravel.  Chagall was pleased with the work, and when it was unveiled in 1964, he felt vindicated when the press declared the new work to a great contribution to French culture.  Chagall had finally won over France.

Chagall would continue to paint until his death in 1985, age 97.  He was the last survivor of the first generation of European avante-garde artists, outliving Picasso, Matisse, and Miro.  The subjects that interested him most continued to be his memories of Vitebsk, musicians, lovers, the circus, Biblical subjects, and Jewish themes, always a colorful celebration of life and a defiant stance against the tragedies of the 20th century.  Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes that Chagall was:

a pioneer of modern art and one of its greatest figurative painters... On his canvases we read the triumph of modernism, the breakthrough in art to an expression of inner life that ... is one of the last century's signal legacies. At the same time Chagall was personally swept up in the horrors of European history between 1914 and 1945: world wars, revolution, ethnic persecution, the murder and exile of millions. In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy into images at once immediate, simple, and symbolic to which everyone could respond.

In his own way, then, it could be argued that Chagall was just as effective at combating darkness as some of the more politically motivated artists of his time.