Jackson Pollock: the Drip helped, but mostly right place, right time.

Paul Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

The pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist, but owes his reputation mostly to specific historic circumstances?

  • The Main Man (generically) of post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionism (AE)?

  • However Abstract Expressionism was not an art movement, having a coherent artistic common theme (eg compare Pollock and Barnett Newman), as much as an historic happening, a specific collective commercial art historic experience centred on a keen and diverse group of painters in immediate post WW2 New York, the cultural capital of America.

  • So the crazy prices for Pollock’s distinctive large-scale full bore Gestural action abstract paintings mostly reflect the eventual commercial success of AE, driven by powerful vested interests, and underwritten by the large US economy.

  • Thus another large-scale Gesturalist at the same time, French Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), who favoured impasto over the drip, sells for peanuts because he chose Paris over New York?

  • There is also the curious case of abstractionist American painter Janet Sobel (1894-1968), who painted “all-over” and whose work Pollock saw in 1944, but who quickly vanished into marriage and the suburbs.

  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems rightly to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious energetic creativity (especially his trademark intense “drip” paintings), and also the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of final works, poignant and personal, his going away declaration, as alcohol sadly swallowed his life, and he knew it?

1

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). The Deep, 1953, 150.7 cm × 220.4 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: For its imagery and timing this is perhaps Pollock’s single most intriguing painting? More even than his then recent (1952) and now feted Blue Poles?

It shows a dramatic shift in style from the prolific “drip” phase, striking for its abstraction content quite unlike any other of his paintings.

Here he also returned to assigning a narrative title not another antiseptic number.

It was also among the last few works he would paint.

It means whatever it means to each viewer, but the title – and the timing – certainly suggest it did mean something to the artist. Thus we know in 1953 he was sliding personally, and terminally, having resumed drinking late 1950. A life apparently always near the edge was now surrendering to alcohol, and he obviously knew it. Knew too this time the surrender would likely be terminal.

So it seems deeply personal, poignant.

One obvious reading of the image is of eternity swallowing the “dark” drivers of his life.

SUMMARY

  • Clearly Jackson Pollock is the Main Man of Abstract Expressionism (AE), the best known and the priciest in the art market (though de Kooning and Rothko come close).
  • He is now famous for his expressive Gestural / Action / All-over abstract, ”automatist” “drip” paintings, many large and all executed approximately over the 6 year period 1947-53.
  • This art is claimed by many as “radical” and as distinctly “American”, enthusiastically by some, but mainly by parties with vested interests in the success (price) of this art, like critics, dealers, and collectors (including museums).
  • In reality, objectively, his art was not especially radical, or obviously “American” (other than geographically, ie was executed there), rather it continued the (Western) abstract art revolution which commenced in West Europe just before WW1, and was influenced by the subsequent (post WW1) intervening rise of Surrealism. So these artists simply pushed known approaches / techniques further.
  • Pollock’s competitive angles were, firstly (like most of his colleagues), painting large images, and, secondly, in particular his distinctive abstraction approach, ie particularly the “drip”, intensifying the detailed abstraction content by aggressively applying the drip (and pour) technique.
  • However the stratospheric prices now paid for works by the main AE NY School artists (ie Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, plus Motherwell, Newman and Still) are driven not so much by their (largely) abstract art being especially different as by the specific historic commercial and artistic circumstances of their early postwar collective artistic experience in New York, by the fact they were Americans (though some were first generation, like Gorky and Rothko) working in New York soon after WW2 (which America had “won”, though helped hugely by Soviet Russia), backed by American money and American dealers and American critics.
  • Meanwhile, as is well known, abstraction was also alive and well in early postwar Europe, Paris and elsewhere.
  • Oddly the New York AE phenomenon benefited greatly from the influx into NY of a bevy of front rank modern European artists (like Duchamp, Masson, Mondrian, Matta) as refugees from the outbreak of WW2, bringing deep experience in abstraction and the two major art movements of Cubism and Surrealism, and their offspring.
  • Pollock was fortuitously helped by another refugee from WW2 Europe, the curious Peggy Guggenheim, another American, who in London just before WW2 launched herself as a keen and successful dealer in modern art. In NY she provided crucial early support for Pollock (mid 1943 – mid 1947).
  • Other ladies were important too, especially wife and fellow artist Lenore (“Lee”) Krasner (1908-84), and major art dealer Betty Parsons, who took up Pollock’s cause after Peggy decamped to Venice mid 1947, ie just as he settled into his signature “drip” phase.
  • Also, as for some other modern cultural “icons” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis?) Pollock’s flame was fanned by his short life, marred by tragedy. After having largely stopped serious painting about 3 years earlier, and wracked by alcohol addiction, finally in August 1956 he killed himself at age only 44, in a car he crashed and which – even more sadly – also killed a lady passenger. He had battled alcohol most of his adult life but made periodic progress. However November 25th 1950, after a gap of about 2 years, he resumed drinking and for good.
  • Who knows what this art means?! Especially the later dense drip abstraction. He gave no clues in most of the titles, deliberately, and added nothing much with specific meaning in any other comment.
  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious creativity (like his trademark intense “drip” painting), and the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of powerful poignant final works, 1952 and 1953, as he sadly succumbed, surrendered to alcohol.
  • Also he mostly let his hands do the talking? He had words to offer too but resisted the wordy self-promotion of some of the AE school, which in some cases reached even unto pretentious babble.
  • Curiously too he was “all American”, born and raised in the West, not settling in New York till he was 34 (1934), and never travelling outside the US.

 

ART / WORK

  • Pollock’s work before 1938 shows the influence of contemporary Regionalist realist Thomas Hart Benton (who taught him in NY 1930), the older Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), and the Mexican muralists, especially JC Orozco, eg Pollocks’ early The Flame (c1934-38). Also “in a workshop in 1936, the Mexican painter David Siqueiros had encouraged Pollock to fling, pour, and spatter paint.” (MOMA 1988 Pollock exhibition).
  • In 1938 Pollock’s drinking took him to hospital for 4 months for psychiatric treatment, including Jungian psychiatric advice from Dr Joseph Henderson who had him make therapeutic drawings, sparking an interest in “symbolism and Native American art”, reinforced in late 1939 by a Picasso show Pollock saw at MOMA.
  • Also around 1938 he renewed his interest in Mexican artists, like Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, especially the “epic scale of their murals”. But he “avoided social content of the Mexicans”.
  • And he also showed interest in paintings by El Greco and Max Beckmann?
  • Pollock around 1938 met important well informed Russian-émigré artist–polemicist John Graham (1888-1961) who had arrived New York 1920, after meeting the Parisian avant-garde, including Picasso. In 1937 Graham published “Primitive Art and Picasso” (article, April) and a book, Systems and Dialectics of Art: Re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious.. with the primordial racial past..”, both influential in NY. The book “.. introduces two of Graham’s preoccupations: a mystical connection with his subject and the role of line in expressing sensations”.
  • Pollock’s early 1940s works are symbolic / Surrealist quasi-abstracts, influenced especially by 1/ Picasso; 2/ Surrealism, through interest in Native American art, mythic motifs, part inspired (along with Gorky, M Rothko and de Kooning) by John Graham, and by Jung’s psychoanalysis theories, also favoured by Graham.
  • The interest Surrealism (eg Meditation on an oak leaf 1942, and Pasiphae, 1943) was reinforced by meeting émigré Surrealists from Europe, like Andre Masson (1896-1987) (arrived NY 1941), his . „calligraphic autom line drawings…. swirling lines.. dark colors.. abstract imagery.. poetic titles..“ (Anna Mosynska).
    • Through Lee Krasner around mid 1942 he met William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell and especially Chilean-born Roberto Matta, who arrived New York 1941 from Europe where he was struck by Andre Masson et al.
    • Andre Masson’s style emphasized flatness, but Matta (influenced by Duchamp?) used “spatial ambiguity… whiplash line… large scale canvases”, eg Onyx of Electra (1944), which all influenced the younger artists. “his studio on 9th. a meeting place for Pollock, Motherwell, A Gorky…” (cf Anna Mosynska). Thus Matta became a close friend of A Gorky, R. Motherwell and W. Baziotes.
    • Then Motherwell and Baziotes “went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hoffmann.. Peggy Guggenheim.. said that she would put on a show… so I [Motherwell] went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody..”
    • Pollock also used “bright hues of American Indian art”? Pollock 1944: “Their colour is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian Art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn’t intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasm.”
  • After 1945 motifs become more naturalistic? Partly influenced by his move to Long Island? “I am nature” he once said.
  • Pollock began “pouring” paint by 1943 (cf Composition with Pouring I and II), before his late 1945 move to Long Island, and the famous “drip” arrives fully around 1947, eg especially Full Fathom Five and Phosphorescence, ie formless, all-over, “intense gestural application”, lasting till 1953. Pollock’s “drip” style is a subset of Action Painting.
  • Precise origins of the Drip are debated. He may have seen Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros use painting-pouring in 1936 at a NY workshop. It may have been influenced by his contact with Masson, Matta etc, especially per Surrealist automatism. He may have heard of Max Ernst (Peggy Guggenheim’s husband, then in NY) trying to paint from a swinging can. He may have seen the same method in 1946 used in paintings by Janet Sobel (1894-1968) (born Jennie Lechovsky, in Ukraine), at a Peggy Guggenheim show in a visit with critic Clement Greenberg. And by Indian sand painting he saw in the 1940s.
  • Sounds in the Grass was a series of 7 relatively small paintings over the winter of 1946-47 (ie after moving to Long Island), partly preparation for a Jan 1947 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. It included Eyes in the Heat, an important lead into the Drip phase.
  • For about 4 years, from 1948 through 1952, he switched to not naming his paintings, assigning them numbers.
  • The Drip phase, during which “a doctor…allayed his drinking with tranquillizers..” largely ended 1951 when he resumed drinking.
  • Then 1951-52 his preferred style changed abruptly when in a series sometimes called “black pourings” he mainly painted in black enamel on unprimed canvas and he revived earlier interest in calligraphical, “glyphic” quasi-abstraction, ie with some “representational elements”.
  • But two final emphatic twists remained.
  • In 1952 he completed two important large all-over “drip” abstracts, especially Blue Poles, also 10, Convergence.
  • And in 1953 followed four different important paintings, especially The Deep, a mighty and intriguing suddenly different abstract work, then Easter and the Totem, and Ocean Greyness, both of which recall much earlier (late 1930s/early 1940s) Pollock abstraction.
  • 1953’s Portrait and a Dream, is another extraordinary final – and again personal? – work, where a (self?) portrait creeps in, alongside a quasi-abstract “reclining female figure”.
  • He painted only two works after 1953 (age 41), one painting (another ‘drip” work) in 1954?
  • Most of Pollock’s earlier works were small? He discovered size through the Mexican muralists, and his first large image was the 1943 Mural.

 

LIFE

  • He was born Wyoming, one of five boys to Stella, nee McClure, and was almost never out of trouble. His family moved about the West. Pollock’s abusive alcoholic father (nee McCoy, Scottish-Irish descent, adopted by Mr and Mrs Pollock) left home in 1920 leaving his older brother Charles, an artist, in charge. Pollock briefly studied art in LA until expelled for fighting.
  • In late 1930, aged only 18, he moved to New York, lived with brother Charles in Greenwich Village and, importantly, studied under Charles’ teacher, well known Regionalist Realist painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) for about 3 years at the Art Student’s League, becoming close to Benton and his family, like sharing summer holidays.
  • Pollock was upset by his father’s death in 1933 and, drunk, started a fight with his brother Charles’ wife, axing one of his brother’s paintings. From 1934 to 1942 he lived with other brother Sanford.
  • He travelled the US widely in the 1930s, settled in NY from 1934. Here importantly he met some prominent Mexican muralist painters, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) (later, 1940, Pollock saw him paint a mural at MOMA) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) (Pollock met him in Los Angeles 1932 and worked in his NY workshop, 1936, observed “experiments with nontraditional materials such as enamel paint, and with unconventional techniques of paint application: dripping, pouring, and airbrushing”).
  • The US Government’s Depression alleviating WPA program (cf Krasner, de Kooning, Rothko etc) paid some money from 1937-1943.
  • In 1938 he was 4 months in hospital for his alcoholism.
  • He briefly met Lee Krasner (1908-84) Xmas 1936, then again August 1942, marrying her Oct.1945. She became a key supporter, thus introduced him to her teacher, important refugee German abstract painter Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), also to Herbert Matter.
  • 1941 Pollock saw a Miró retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • His first NY show Jan 1942 was part of the McMillen Gallery’s American and French Painting, selected by John Graham, and alongside de Kooning, Krasner, Stuart Davis and some from Europe: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Modigliani.
  • Spring 1942, “.. [Herbert] Matter invites James Johnson Sweeney to visit Pollock’s studio. Sweeney tells Peggy Guggenheim that Pollock is “doing interesting work” … suggests she visit the studio.”
  • Autumn 1942, Roberto Matta (1911-2002), with Motherwell’s support, wants to break with Breton’s Surrealists, and form their own “automatist artists” group. Pollock dines with them at Matta’s apartment on 12th but “becomes frustrated with the group”.
  • 1942 / Jan. 1943 the Met. Museum Of Art shows his The Flame (c1934-38) in Artists for Victory.
  • Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) becomes a major supporter. She opens her Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery Oct 1942. She meets Pollock early 1943 at the (Solomon) Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting (where JP is working from May, as a “carpenter”?), shows his work in a group show (Spring Salon for Young Artists) at AOTC, May/June 1943, especially on the advice of older famous refugee abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) (“I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. I think this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man“).
  • On the advice of writer/dealer Howard Putzel (1898–1945) she visits his studio 23rd June 1943, but resists a solo show until 20th C art legend Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) visits and recommends it. Pollock’s first solo show (15 oils plus other works), hangs at AOTC in November 1943. It is the first solo show there by an American artist.
  • From July 1943 she paid JP a stipend for output, and she also commissioned what would become a famous mural for her NY town house on East 61st, executed Dec.1943 / Jan.1944.
  • Following the November 1943 solo show, on the advice of Duchamp, also Matta etc she then hung him as part of her AOTC show, Natural, Insane, Surrealist Art, with Calder, Klee, Masson, Motherwell etc.
  • PG held his second solo show March / April 1945, the third April 1946, the fourth Jan./Feb.1947.
  • She also helped he and Krasner buy a farmhouse on Long Island by Nov. 1945, heralding the “drip period” from 1947 through 1950, also now using alkyd enamel house paints.
  • May 1944 MOMA bought The She-Wolf (1943), recommended by Soby and Sidney Janis (1896-1989) (Head Acquisitions Committee) to Alfred C Barr.
  • In 1944 Pollock showed in Abstract and Surrealist Art in America (1944), organized by Sidney Janis (who published a book of same title) at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, NY.
  • March 1945 he showed at the Arts Club of Chicago, then March/April at NY AOTC, drawing strong critical support from Clement Greenberg (1909-94).
  • 1946 / Jan. 1947, he showed for the first time in “the Whitney Annual”, the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • 1947, April/May, Mural was shown by MOMA.
  • Peggy Guggenheim closed AOTC May 1947,
  • May / Sep. 1948 he was hung at 23rd Venice Biennale.
  • Peggy Guggenheim mounted Pollock’s first solo European show in July / Aug. 1950, in Venice. Thence he showed in Florence and Rome.
  • His “drip” paintings were first shown in Jan. 1948, 17 paintings at Betty Parson (1900-82)’s NY gallery (his 5th one man show in NY, the same year as de Kooning’s first show), to a quiet reaction, but “favourable reviews”.
  • His second Betty Parsons show was Jan./Feb.1949, a big show, including 26 works from 1948. “Critical response is varied”. And third solo show followed Nov./Dec 1949, with 35 works.
  • A famous 4-page spread on Pollock appeared in Life magazine, 9th1949, (“Is he the greatest living painter in the United States”) brought overnight success and changed their lives. In 1950 he was chosen by MOMA’s Alfred H Barr Jr for the US pavilion at 25th Venice Biennale (with Gorky and de Kooning).
  • Summer 1950 he was interviewed by William Wright for a radio program.
  • 1950, May, he signed a joint letter initiated by Barnett Newman attacking The Metropolitan Museum of Art for “contempt for modern painting. . . .”. Oct./Nov. 1950 he was hung in a group show (Young Painters in U.S. & France) by the Sidney Janis Gallery (opened 1948), and Nov./Dec. in a 4th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • October 1950 he appeared in an influential Life magazine article on modern art, “along with Picasso, Miró, Georges Rouault, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, and Theodoros Stamos”.
  • 1951, January, Life published a photo of him among the Irascibles, 14 artists protesting the Met museum’s views on “contemporary” art. Nov./ Dec. saw a 5th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • His first show in Paris was part of the 1952, Un Art Autre, catalogue by Tachisme writer Michel Tapie. April / July he appeared in a MOMA show.
  • Unhappy with sales at Betty Parsons Gallery in mid 1952 he moved “across the hall” to Sidney Janis, who mounted a solo show Nov. 1952. A 2nd followed Feb. 1954, and a 3rd/ Dec. 1955, though he was producing little new art then.
  • 1953, from April he appears in an American contemporary art show in Paris, thence 5 other cities.
  • But he did not handle growing fame well, and (November 25th 1950) resumed drinking, and stayed back. He also mostly (but not entirely, cf Blue Poles later in 1952) gave up the “drip”, retreating to mostly black and white paintings.
  • He also he mostly gave up name titles for his paintings, using numbers and dates.
  • Lee Krasner’s career was gaining traction (eg show by BP late 1951 etc) but in attending to the ailing Pollock she stopped painting and also asked his mother for help.
  • By 1956 he had stopped painting, kept drinking, and was seeing other women. Krasner took a break in Paris. And 11 August a drunk Pollock crashed his car a mile from home, killing himself and a lady passenger.
  • Krasner returned to the US to bury him. She also carefully managed his estate, the disposal of his remaining art, set up the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and finally returned to her own art.
  • MOMA’s planned mid-career show for JP became an impromptu retrospective, Dec 1956 / Feb.1957.

 

QUOTES

  • “It seems to me that 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.”
  • “The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
  • My paintings do not have a center, but depend on the same amount of interest throughout.”
  • “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”
  • When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about. I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own.”

APPENDICES

 Abstract Expressionism: not a coherent art movement, rather a specific historic collective art experience

 Abstract Expressionism was NOT an art movement in the sense of having a coherent artistic common there, a distinct artistic style and purpose.

About its only common theme was, simply, abstraction.

Its specific content comprised two „schools“ of abstraction styles:

1/ Expressive, Gestural.

Two subsets were i/ Intense „Automatiste“ Action Painting, like Pollock;

and ii/ broad coarse motifed abstration, like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning (who also often included figuration), Robert Motherwell, and Clifford Still.

2/ Flat colour patch

Two subsets were i/ Color Field abstraction, like Mark Rothko;

and ii/ sharp-edged geometric abstraction, like Barnett Newman.

Rather the only useful definition of Abstract Expressionism is as a specific historic collective art experience or context, by a keen and diverse group of painters in New York soon after WW2, the first main images emerging in second half of the 1940s.

After a slow start it eventually became very successful commercially mainly because of keen support from dealers / galleries, museums and critics, underwritten by the large buoyant American economy. Once substantial success emerged – by the late 1950s? – then the mutual vested interests worked hard to sustain it, build on the momentum.

The diverse artistic content was essentially not radical, rather it derived and evolved from, capitalised on the crucial pioneering period for abstract art just before / during ww1, around 1910-1915, ie about 30years earlier.

But it was eye-catching, and therefore marketable. It was often large and striking in imagery, perhaps epitomised by Pollock’s densely intricate „drip“ paintings, and by Rothko’s atmospheric color patch works, at opposite ends of a spectrum.

EUROPEAN early postwar abstraction movements: paralleling New York Abstract Expressionism

All the labels below seem to overlap, to a greater or lesser degree. Though there is some contradiction? Most of these artists acknowledged important roots in Surrealism, but some (eg COBRA) rejected Surrealism?

All these movements clearly overlap with (American) Abstract Expressionism in terms of:

  1. time period, ie mid 40s to mid 50s, ie reflecting the aftermath of the macro-violence of WW2.
  2. image content
  3. image purpose

Thus many of these European “AE” images appear close to many from the “authentic” New York AE school, but they were European not US images.

They have been accorded far less market attention because of a vastly different commercial context in Europe after WW2.

  • Informalism? / Art Informel? / Tachisme / Abstraction lyrique? Art Informel was a term coined by important French art critic Michel Tapié in his 1952 book, Un Art Autre (“Art of Another Kind”) which strongly promoted modern art and especially then in France, Tachisme, a French term (from “tache” = stain) first used ~ 1951 by two French critics. It is also referred to as the School of Paris but in reality was very similar to AE? Spontaneous but meaningful “non form” abstract works, including calligraphy / dripping, in part a reaction to Cubism?
  • Important painters included: “Wols (1913-51), Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, the Catalan Antoni Tapies, the Italian Alberto Burri, George Mathieu, Nicholas De Stael, Serge Poliakoff, Hans Hartung, and Pierre Soulages.
  • And abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle who arrived Paris 1947 from Montreal, Canada, where he was part of Bordhaus’ important Les Automatistes.
  • This “warm” Expressive purposeful abstraction was in opposition to “cold” Geometric Abstraction, eg that stemming in particular from Mondrian, van Doesburg etc from Netherlands.
  • However Tapié’s book also served to simultaneously help promote American AE in Europe, and Tapie also helped prepare the catalogue for J Pollock’s first Paris show, in 1952.
  • There were relevant abstract art movements at the same time in England (St Ives), Germany and Italy.
  • Lyrical Abstraction / Abstraction Lyrique? Confusing term? Used mainly France, Europe? Makes sense only as opposite of “cold” superficial unthinking Geometric Abstraction?
  • CoBrA? (Copenhagen / Brussels/ Amsterdam). Movement formed by 5 artists in a Paris café 8 Nov 1948! Defined by: “complete freedom of colour and form… antipathy to Surrealism…. Spontaneity and experiment… [draw on] ..children’s drawings.. primitive art forms.. work of Klee and Miro..”. Like AE they favoured expressive immediacy of the gesture“!
  • They were opposed to Geometric Abstraction and (French) Social Realism. And they were more “political” than French abstraction? The group disbanded 1951. It included Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky.

   WORKS by Jean-Paul Riopelle

2

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). 1951, Espagne, huile sur toile, 150 x 232 cm, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec, Canada

3

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). Abstraction (Orange), 1952 Oil on canvas; 99 x 197.5 cm, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisboa, Portugal

COMMENT: Museum, This work by Jean-Paul Riopelle belongs to the period of the so-called Grandes mosaïques, which occurred roughly between 1950 and 1960. The painted works – produced with palette knife and spatula – are made up of multi-coloured elements of notable thickness, superimposed and animated with extensive, vigorous lines. Large shapes dominate. It can be said that these ‘mosaics’ are undoubtedly inspired by those of St. Mark’s Basilica, which made a big impression on Riopelle during a trip to Venice in 1947. Very different from Pollock’s ‘dripping’ works, Riopelle paints on a canvas placed vertically on the easel; there is nothing ‘gestural’ about his work. Despite the given title (also referred to as untitled), this kind of painting is, for Riopelle, a means to express and share his strong relationship with nature. AC

 

SELECTED WORKS by Jackson Pollock

   4

Going West, 1934. Important early work, influence of TH Benton and Surrealism?

5

The Flame, c1934-38, Oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 51.1 x 76.2 cm, MOMA

 

6

1942, Stenographic Figure, Oil on linen, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 40 x 56 in

 

8

Mural, 1943, 247 x 605 cm, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959. University of Iowa Museum of Art.      COMMENT: Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her NY townhouse. This is an important transitional work, towards all-over abstraction. Notice it is large, his first big painting? Part influenced by Mexican realist painters?

 10

1947. Full Fathom Five, 2 x 76.5 cm, MOMA.COMMENT: One of the first full bore “drip” paintings, but notice it is still relatively small.

11

Janet SOBEL (1894-1968). Untitled, 1946, 45.5 x 35.5 cm. COMMENT: Pollock saw Sobel’s work at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1944, “where it was seen and admired by both Pollock and Clement Greenberg, who later cited it as the first instance of ”all-over” painting he had seen. Sidney Janis wrote the catalogue preface for her solo show at Guggenheim’s gallery in 1946, noting her ”self-invented method for applying paint.””, ‘Roberta Smith, NY Times, 2002.

12

1948, Number 5, 244 x 122cm, private. COMMENT: One of Pollock’s major early Drip paintings. Sold for US140$m in 2006. Being larger helped.

13

  1. 1950. One: No 31, 270 x 531cm (8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″), MOMA.COMMENT: One of Pollock’s largest paintings. He retitled it „One“ because he felt one with it!? A large signature Drip painting.

14

 

1952, Blue Poles (No. 11), oil on canvas, 4.87 x 2.1 m, National Gallery of Australia Canberra. COMMENT: Originally titled, Number 11. The picture is important for departing from the pure all-over abstraction approach, by now introducing forms, structure, through “poles”. Whatever they might mean.

15

Ocean Greyness, 1953, 146.7 x 229 cm Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. COMMENT: Like Easter and the totem here the very late Pollock, in one of his final paintings, returns to the coarse textured, “glyphic” Surrealist like abstraction of his early years? Even going back to “The Flame” of 1934-38?

16

Portrait and a Dream, 1953, 342.2 x 148.5 cm. Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. COMMENT: a very personal painting.

Peggy Guggenheim: One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life

Peggy Guggenheim

Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim (b. Philadelphia, 1898, d. Padua, 1979, 81)

Peggy Guggenheim, c.1930, Paris, photograph Rogi André

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, Paris, quai Saint Michel, spring 1914. A front rank artist missing from her collection.

 

One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life

 

Unlikely confluence of odd circumstances. The insecure lady from a rich NY family (but she is not wealthy) meets in Europe the Surrealist phase of the ongoing modern art revolution… meets WW2… meets NY in a victorious post war America… meets postwar Venice.

But after half a life in indulgent passivity she takes her breaks, makes it work.

Her achievement in presciently promoting across the tracks modern art (and as a woman) outweighs the gossip.

       Before 1937..  

pg3          

                   and after…                                                             

pg4


Summary: a doer who capitalised on her odd assignation with history.

  • Peggy Guggenheim comes as one package. We cannot have one without the other.
  • Her insecurity propelled impulsion to “shock” contributed to, drove her signature achievements in promoting then unfashionable contemporary art?
  • But it gave us too her “colourful” private life – a well-publicised sex-life, her poor judgement in men, and her dogs – which perhaps clouds full appreciation of her important achievement in art?
  • Her insecurity was reinforced by a demanding family context, which she never escaped: the early loss of her father, a distant mother, then losing both sisters as adults. This probably then contributed to her dysfunctional selection of men, which then undermined efforts to build her own family, but to which she was temperamentally unsuited anyway?
  • But her pathbreaking career appetite for “shocking” art (and the dogs!) helped compensate for the family trouble.
  • 1937 was her Rubicon year, when her mother died and left her money, a second inheritance. Not a fortune but enough to allow her to take the initiative and after half a life of cruising, to do something, and art it was. Her subsequent achievement in promoting then unpopular contemporary art was substantial:
    • She opened and ran two important galleries,
    • She capitalised on unexpected opportunities, especially the implications of WW2: the outbreak of war, then the displacement of European ”intellectual art capital” to New York.
    • Presciently, she collected and promoted then unfashionable contemporary art which has since rocketed in reputation.
    • She was hands on and effective, yes she took advice (mostly male but they were the main protagonists), but took good advice and cleverly, like her selection jury at Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery.
    • And, despite her Guggenheim pedigree, she built her businesses without vast funds.
    • Also, to her credit, and art’s, her passion for art was not just about money? Thus she was generous to artists and the art world. And this magnanimity (which may be less likely in a man?) helped art, like in her enlightened timely support of Pollock, like gifting his famous Mural (1943-44) to the University of Iowa.
    • And she did it all as a woman, and Jewish to boot.
  • An intriguing counter-factual is that but for Peggy Guggenheim, and WW2, we would have heard much less of Jackson Pollock? Peggy Guggenheim’s support was meaningful and at a crucial time, allowing him money and space to paint the big boys.
  • And WW2 fortuitously dumped Peggy Guggenheim and a flock of front rank European modern artists in New York at precisely the right time! And many of these artists were in-vogue Surrealists to boot, the major modern art school which above all was influencing Pollock and the other emerging Abstract Expressionists, per contra the Cubists.
  • Thus did Pollock’s art then take off in the main cultural city of the main victor nation of the war, a large wealthy country then riding a wave of patriotic / nationalistic sentiment, in turn fanned by Life magazine’s promotion, and by highbrow art criticism.
  • How much did she know of art? And wasn’t she just relying on (male) advice? Thus John Richardson sounds the patronising old fogey in the film, downplaying her contribution. “She was just like a little girl”. But at least, as Lee Krasner said: “SHE DID IT… no matter what her motivations were, she did it.” And perhaps more for example than Mr Richardson, living off biographies of Picasso?

 

Why bother Peggy Guggenheim?

She is again topical, thanks to a new (documentary) film, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, and book, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, by Francine Prose.

She leaves a rare story, a woman making a special impact in the art world.

And she leaves questions without clear answers, with different answers depending on the interrogator and their context.

 

Family: a troubled context

Peggy Guggenheim’s personality is an important part of the story. She was an insecure, unsure person, reinforced by a difficult childhood, losing her rich father Benjamin in 1912 (famously on the Titanic, but only after missing an earlier boat! Then on the night refusing assistance to leave the ship!?) when she was only 13, and without an empathetic mother (Florette Seligman, from a banking family, who died 1937). Both her parents were Jewish of Ashkenazi descent. A number of her mother’s relatives were eccentric.

Then later sadly she failed to build her own family, partly because of her poor judgement in men. In 1922, aged only 23, she married in haste soon after arriving in Paris in 1921 to the alluring writer and artist Laurance Vail (1891-1968), her “King of Bohemia” (and“The first man I knew who never wore a hat..”), whom she had met in New York. They had two children but a troubled relationship. He was obviously good company but liked a drink, and patronised and physically abused her. So they divorced 1928, after 7 years, but to their credit apparently remained cordial thereafter. Thus in 1942 she showed his art in New York.

In 1928 she met and fell for another (putative) writer, Englishman John Ferrar Holms, apparently the “love of her life” but who was no better, another drinker, belittler and abuser. Also, as was the custom, he refused to divorce his wife, and (cf the new film) she apparently had 7 (seven?!) abortions, mostly by him. For a while they lived together in England in Hayford Hall (“Hangover Hall”!) till he died unexpectedly in 1934 from complications after an accident, aged only 37. Thereafter she lived with English publisher and infatuated Leftist, “Communist” Douglas Garman, till that failed in 1937 when he departed for another lady.

She had two sisters, and was close to both as children (partly because their parents failed them?) but she then lost both. Benita died in childbirth, and Hazel lost control, lost her kids off a hotel roof in Paris, maybe to spite her husband? Then she “lost” her own children, if partly through own neglect? Her son Sindbad went off with his father, and they never related well? And her daughter Pegeen had “problems”, never settled, married poorly and committed suicide in Paris at 42 (c1967), after a tentative art career.

A sad and sorry tale.

Being Jewish she also attracted her share of anti-Semitism.

But offsetting, compensating for, this family-reinforced insecurity, her sustained unhappy family circumstances, were her active passion for art in particular, her sex life (launched in decadent 1920s Paris), a few friends (mainly other women? And the gay writer Edmund White?), and her dogs.

Yes she was from a famous and wealthy American family, the Guggenheims, but she was not rich, comfortable, but not rich. Aged 21 (1919) she inherited ($450k) from her father’s estate, and about the same again 1937, from her mother.

 

Her private life: “colourful”

Her “colourful” private life, especially her busy sex life, has in some way clouded a full and proper appreciation of her achievements in promoting unpopular contemporary art?

And in line with her core life theme of The Shock she was not backward in cloaking the details, so her publication in 1946 of her memoir “Out of the Century” deliberately contributed to popular comprehension of her private life, though some critics do accord this book some literary merit.

Does it matter? How relevant is it to her art?

Not a lot? Although perhaps the attention her private life attracted may then have strayed to the art she saluted? Maybe even this was a rational business-minded part of her motives for not discouraging controversy?

 

Peggy and art? Well she did it!

Did she really know what she was about with modern art? Or was mainly an expression of her insecurity? Especially in pursuing art “shocking” contemporary art. So was she again just seeking to “shock” the establishment? And, in doing so, relying mainly on a bevy of male advisors.

Or was she bright and perceptive enough to develop her own meaningful views?

In the new film the somewhat pompous John Richardson (Englishman, Picasso’s major biographer) makes a couple of patronising remarks, like (paraphrasing), oh she did well for someone who knew little about it. And, oh she was just being a little girl again.

Well wherever the truth lies the facts are (as Lee Krasner declared) she did it, she collected well and ran a successful business. While the uncharitable might say Mr Richardson just fed off Picasso’s life and work. Thus whatever the motives her keen and sustained activity in the field had an unexpectedly constructive outcome, for most concerned!

In her life – amid an historically pivotal art revolution and an unexpected world war – she was presented with extraordinary circumstances, and took active advantage of them. She is another example of right place, right time.

Important too is that end of the day, art and the artists were basically more important to her than just the money. Thus she made a point of helping artists (famously Mr Pollock) and she also later gave away a lot of art, especially like Pollock’s famous six metre long Mural (1943/44), the painting which electrified the important supportive critic Clement Greenberg. Consequently too “she deplored the commodification of art” (F. Raphael, WSJ 30th October 2015).

Maybe this constructive wider agenda for her art activities was a female thing? There were few other women in the art game? But some, like Gertrude Stein in Paris, who she met, and also (outside the scope of the film) especially Betty Parsons in New York, who became main Abstract Expressionist gallery promoter after Peggy Guggenheim headed to Venice in 1947.

 

Paris: the libertine but enlightening life

Her introduction to the contemporary cultural world in New York came via her cousin Harold Loeb through whom she worked in a bookshop on 44th focussing on modern writers. Also she was first exposed to new art through meeting Alfred Steiglitz at his 291 Gallery on 5th Avenue, where she saw works by no less than Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. She also met Georgia O’Keefe. And writer Laurance Vail.

She arrived Paris 1921 where she relished the freewheeling “decadent” postwar life in the art capital. And inevitably in Paris she soon met artists. And plenty, like Man Ray (another American expat), and especially the important Marcel Duchamp who in time became a key advisor, “teacher”, and who would later join her in New York. And Gertrude Stein. And she met writers, like Pound, Joyce, and later Beckett (on Boxing Day 1938).

 

London (& Paris), to the war: starts her own business

1937 changed her life, when her de facto relationship with Douglas Garman broke up, and her mother died and left her around US$450k, her second tranche of inheritance. Encouraged by the important Surrealist exhibition in London 1936, and specifically by friend Peggy Waldheim , she decided to capitalise on her cumulative experience in Paris and use her new funds to open an art gallery in London.

Visits to the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Picasso’s Guernica was showing, had furthered her education. Also, in particular, Samuel Beckett (8 years younger), during their brief intense affair in Paris at end 1938 apparently urged her to actively support modern art. Finally it probably helped that the new gallery irritated her uncle in New York.

So, with some expert counsel from Duchamp, the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery opened at 33 Cork St, in London’s West End from January 1938 and without a lot of money. Artists she showed included Cocteau (her first show, curated by Duchamp), Yves Tanguy (who was “adorable”) and the ambitious Kandinsky (her second show), who asked quietly if her (rich) uncle (Solomon) might like to buy one of his paintings. His advisor “Baroness” Hilla Rebay scoffed at the idea and panned her, but Peggy replied courteously, along the lines “I know what I’m doing”. And she did.

After a brace of important exhibitions she decided to close the gallery in 1939 because it was losing money, and instead conceived the idea of a contemporary art museum in London, probably influenced by her uncle Solomon launching his New York foundation in 1937, and his Museum of Non-objective Painting in 1939. She used Englishman Herbert Read, then editing Burlington Magazine, as her chief advisor (though his eye for modern art was opaque. He spotted David Bomberg early but did not follow up), and also Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg (artist Theo’s wife). They carefully crafted a shopping list of artists and she headed to Paris in mid1939 (?!) as war loomed, where famously she vacuumed up a trove of modern art treasures, taking advantage of the hostilities, and also of the growing antagonism towards the Jews (ie including many artists and also dealers), and apparently spending only about $40,000.

At bargain prices in Paris, starting with Jean Arp’s “Head and Shell”, she bought works off and / or by Leger, Ernst, Miró, Picabia, Braque, Brancusi (sex didn’t lower the price!), Giacommeti, Magritte, Klee, Dali, and Picasso? Who was aware and wary of her brash mission. “Madame, lingerie is on second floor,” he said when she called.

But a sadness and distaste overshadows in these transactions too, her taking financial advantage of the predicament of the authors of these works?

As the war approached the Louvre refused to store the new collection – not worth it! – so she hurriedly arranged to ship the works to New York as “household goods”, apparently again using sex to grease the wheels. She also helped some artists escape, like Max Ernst, Andre Breton etc, via Varian Fry and his network out of Marseilles, herself departing July 1941 by plane from Lisbon.

 

New York: resumes her art business in the new global art capital, fortuitously then enriched by refugee European artists

Guggenheim’s timing, arriving back in New York Oct 1941, was again serendipitously apt, for she was joined by a swag of front rank European artists, especially Surrealists, who were also refugees from WW2 in Europe, and many of whom she knew well from Paris in the 1920s.

She “[bullied].. the broke and miserable”, and attractive, Max Ernst into marriage December 1941, but her money helped him, and he took off before long for a young beauty, though they did not divorce till 1946.

More important she resumed her art promotion career and opened the pioneering Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery, Oct 1942 on West 57th, again taking (male) advice, and despite active opposition from uncle Solomon’s boisterous spiteful aide, the “Baroness”, who later during the war came unstuck when she picked another fight and was caught stockpiling rationed food! Important was the American art expert Howard Putzel (1898-1945) who had lived in Paris 1938-40 where he met and helped Peggy, especially with her art purchase campaign there. He returned New York summer 1940 then reacquainted with Peggy when she returned too. Artists helped too, especially again the legendary Marcel Duchamp (eg arguably too the founding inspiration of Pop Art), and others, eg on her selection jury at AOTC Gallery.

To help market the new art architect Fred Kiesler designed her eye-catching gallery, emphatically, purposely, seeking a “radical presentation of art”.

The gallery became an important and influential backer of new art. She showed works by many leading contemporary European artists, across most major movements (except the Fauves and Expressionists?), and also by women (“Exhibition by 31 Women” in Jan. 1943), but then – apparently encouraged by Howard Putzel, and an argument with (the argumentative) André Breton – she turned to showing unknown young American painters, like Robert Motherwell (“intellectual.. lots of lectures”), William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel (who influenced Pollock?), David Hare, Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Styl, Robert de Niro Sr, and of course Jackson Pollock, ie emphasizing the merging Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. These American painters loosely associated as the Uptown Group, referring to her gallery’s location.

Surrealism was an important influence on the young American AE painters and the AOTC Gallery – and the arrival in New York of major European Surrealists like Dali, Ernst and Andre Masson – much facilitated this transmission.

And thus it was another famous refugee painter Piet Mondrian, also on her staff, who in early 1943 famously backed Jackson Pollock (then only 31) for her spring 1943 show, after Peggy was unsure!

Pretty awful, isn’t it? That’s not painting, is it?” she said.

“I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. I think this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man“, replied Mondrian after some deliberation.

But Duchamp then agreed, and the rest is history. So in Nov. 1943 she then mounted Pollock’s first solo show, which was also her first solo show for an American painter.

Backing Pollock, his “wild and frightening” painting, was important, for both of them, and even if she took advice she did it, and stuck to it!

It was very important for Pollock, the stipend, her commissioning the big mural for her apartment, a signature Pollock work, and then especially assisting him buying and moving (late 1945) to the farm house on Long Island with wife, painter Lee Krasner. Thus she gave Pollock the space and opportunity to create many of his famous large later works, like Full Fathom Five (1947. 129.2 x 76.5 cm), Number 5 (1948, 2.44 m x 1.22 m), Number 19 (1948, 78.4 x 58.1 cm), No 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950, 221 x 300 cm), No 31 (1950, 270 x 531cm), and Blue Poles (1952, 4.87 x 2.1 m)

For which help it seems the troubled Pollock was not all that grateful?

 

We are allowed two paintings from the Collection:

pg5

Vasily Kandinsky, Empor (Upward), Oct. 1929 (?!), oil on cardboard,70 x 49 cm. This is an unusual Kandinsky less cluttered, less peppered by geometric confetti, and offering a figurative clue.            

      pg6

Jean Metszinger, Au Vélodrome, 1912, oil, sand and collage on canvas, 130.4 × 97.1 cm. Samuel Beckett cycled and perhaps she filed this during their Paris sojourn.

And two more, because some rules can stand breaking:

pg8

Giorgio de Chirico, The Gentle Afternoon (Le Doux Après-midi), 1916, Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 58.3 cm. A good example from de Chirico’s purple patch during WW1.

pg9

Paul Klee, Portrait of Mrs P. in the South (Bildnis der Frau P. im Süden), 1924, watercolor and oil transfer drawing on paper, bordered with grey gouache on the pulpboard mount, 37.6 x 27.4 cm. A rare figurative excursion by Mr Klee.

Venice: another great career decision.

After things had died down in Europe, to where Peggy remained attracted, choosing Venice in 1947 as her base back there was another timing masterstroke. Thus in an Italy impoverished by the second war in a generation she bought (1948) her Palazzo Venier ei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, at the right time, much like her art “raid” in 1940 wartime Paris.

But then she helped Venice, loaning her collection to the 1948 Venice Biennale, which gesture was apparently negotiated with help of John Richardson and Douglas Cooper, the well off Australian art afficionado (one of the Cooper Park Coopers in Sydney) who knew Picasso well, who backed the Cubists, but who also wrote a condescending and ill-informed article about her. This 1948 show gave Europe its first public show of the important new New York AE School, like exposure to Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky.

And 1949 saw Pollock’s balloon finally take off when Life magazine ran their now famous spread, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”, in August that year, drawing especially on Clement Greenberg, whose new intellectual praise of abstraction in turn drew much on his response as a Jew to the horror of WW2.

Her Palazzo collection opened to the public in 1951.

In 1969 her collection showed in New York at the Guggenheim Museum, at their invitation, and it was then she agreed to donate the collection to the Guggenheim Foundation on her passing. Thus finally it “went home” at least in proprietorship.

The Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris showed The Art of the 20th Century, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, Nov. 1974 / March 1975 closing another loop too.

 Wse, 29 dec 2015 to 1 jan 2016

And two more, because there’s room:

Dinamismo di un ciclista GM5

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista), 1913, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 cm. Not from the original collection. But a major quasi-abstract work from an Italian Futurist painter, and it’s another cyclist so must make sense.

pg11

Salvador Dali, Birth of Liquid Desires (La naissance des désirs liquides), 1931-32, oil and collage on canvas, 96.1 x 112.3 cm. This is a cracker, an archetypal Dali painting, the painstaking detailed execution of a complex personal iconographical treatment of part of his life, here again problems with his father, for which he liked the William Tell tale.