FORM AND CHAOS: Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock
with contributions by Helen A. Harrison
When Sigmund Freud died, in 1939, W.H. Auden wrote that he had become a “climate of opinion.” So too, in the 1930s and ‘40s, Picasso’s ideas and innovations were so widely diffused that no artist could completely escape them. Regarding Picasso’s influence on the New York School in general, see Michael C. FitzGerald, Picasso and American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, … Continue reading Lee Krasner recounted that when she and Jackson Pollock were still living in New York, she once heard something fall in his studio and then Pollock yelling, “God damn it, that guy missed nothing!” She went in to see what had happened. “Jackson was sitting, staring; and on the floor, where he had thrown it, was a book of Picasso’s work.” Lee Krasner, quoted in B.H. Friedman, “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock,” in Hans Namuth, Barbara Rose, Rosalind Krauss, et al, Pollock Painting, ed. Rose (New York: Agrinde Publications … Continue reading
Much of Picasso’s evolution was visible to artists in New York City, where 14 solo exhibitions of his work were held—primarily at the Valentine Gallery—between 1930, when Pollock arrived in the city, and 1939, when the Museum of Modern Art presented the major retrospective, Picasso: Forty Years of his Art. His work was also included in numerous group exhibitions of modern European art during that decade. See the listing in FitzGerald, pp. 336-354. Several examples were in A.E. Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art, which opened in 1927 in New York University’s main building on Washington Square, a few blocks from Pollock’s apartment. Aspects of Picasso’s work not represented in these exhibitions could be studied in the pages of Cahiers d’Art, which published many studies and drawings as well as finished paintings, and devoted a major article to Guernica in issue 4-5 of 1937. Pollock also owned illustrated books of Picasso’s work up to 1930, Still in the artist’s library are André Level, Picasso (1928), Henri Mahaut, Picasso (1930) and The World’s Masters: Pablo Picasso (1930). An unidentified Picasso book, with its cover missing, … Continue reading as well as later volumes discussed below.
Pollock’s exposure to Picasso was reinforced by his friendship with the artist and theorist John Graham, an avid Picasso supporter who is often credited with being the first to recognize Pollock’s genius. Graham’s article, “Primitive Art and Picasso,” which Pollock read, appeared in the April 1937 issue of The Magazine of Art, and a copy of his 1937 book, System and Dialectics of Art, inscribed “To Jackson Pollock,” was in the artist’s library. In its question-and-answer format, the book asked what was Picasso’s real influence on modern painting. Graham’s reply was that Picasso’s “influence has been horizontal and vertical, constructive and pitiless.” Although he would later repudiate Picasso, Graham asserted that he was “so much greater than any painter of the present or the past times that it is probable he is also the greatest painter of the future. He has painted everything and better; he has exhausted all pictorial sources,” famously adding, “Picasso drops a casual remark and a score of artists make a life’s work of it.” John D. Graham, System and Dialectics of Art (New York: Delphic Studios, 1937), pp. 94-95.
From the late 1930s through the end of his career, Pollock responded to many aspects of Picasso’s oeuvre, and specifically to certain paintings, such as Girl before a Mirror, which was acquired by the Modern in 1938. Its influence on Pollock in the years 1938-41 is evident in paintings like Masqued Image (ca. 1938-41) and Birth (ca. 1941), the latter being the canvas selected by John Graham for the 1942 exhibition, American and French Paintings, at McMillen Inc., that first put Pollock on the map.
Pollock was equally fascinated by the mural-sized Guernica, which seemed to confirm Picasso’s stature as the preeminent mythological painter of the century, simultaneously modern and primitive. It was exhibited at the Valentine Gallery in May 1939 and then again that fall in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective, which also included many preparatory sketches and studies. Pollock reportedly visited the exhibition several times, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1989), p. 349. and owned a copy of the catalog, which is still in his library.
Guernica deployed Picasso’s pictorial discoveries of the previous decade in the service of an insistent narrative. The veteran critic Henry McBride, writing in the New York Sun, marveled at the “revolutionary forms” of Picasso’s canvas, and predicted that “all the lesser artists” would soon be using this “new language.” Henry McBride, “Picasso’s Guernica,” New York Sun, May 6, 1939. Reprinted in Daniel Catton Rich, ed., The Flow of Art: Essays and Criticisms of Henry McBride (New York: Atheneum Publishers, … Continue reading Indeed, numerous American artists would respond to Guernica, not least among them Pollock, whose so-called psychoanalytic drawings of 1939-40 contain numerous quotations from it, as does the Pollock-Krasner House’s untitled painting, known descriptively as Composition with Red Arc and Horses, which features a stylized horse’s head derived from the screaming horse in Guernica.
Within a few years, however, Pollock’s initial imitative response was replaced by a profound rethinking of Picasso’s style. This depended, in large part, on Pollock’s attention to more structurally abstract aspects of Picasso’s work from the 1920s. As Pollock overcame his infatuation with Guernica and began looking for a more abstract style, he turned to earlier examples—the 1927-28 Picassos in which the studio motif was translated into rectilinear terms.
These paintings were well known in New York: The Studio (1928) was in Peggy Guggenheim’s collection; the Modern owned another of the same title (1927-28), acquired in 1935; a third, Two Women in front of a Window (1927) was in the collection of the influential critic and curator James Thrall Soby; and Sidney Janis owned The Painter and His Model [Painter and Model] (1928), which he lent to the Modern’s 1939 Picasso retrospective.
The influence of these precedents, with their planar structure and schematic motifs, is apparent in Pollock’s paintings from 1942 through 1946, notably Male and Female (1942), Male and Female in Search of a Symbol (1943), Pasiphaë (ca. 1943), Guardians of the Secret (1943), The Tea Cup (1946) and The Key (1946).
Inspired by the same Picassos, Robert Motherwell (in his Wall Painting with Stripes of 1944, in the Art Institute of Chicago) reduced their complex forms to alternating ocher and white stripes, punctuated with ovoids. In contrast, in Guardians of the Secret Pollock ornamented Picasso’s geometry with painterly brushwork and emptied out the center of the composition, creating a theatrical stage flanked by totemic figures at left and right.
The flat outlines in paintings such as Totem Lesson 1 (1944) and Totem Lesson 2 (1945) recall Picasso’s emblematic swimmers and acrobats of the late 1920s, while the intense colors and patterns seem to come from both Native American sources, especially the art of the Northwest Indians, and from other Picassos, such as Girl before a Mirror. Picasso is a particularly strong presence in Totem Lesson 2, where the original accumulation of marks was followed by a second stage, in which Pollock pared down the complexity of the picture by painting over large areas of it with gray paint.
Another telling Picasso-Pollock confluence is their similar attitude toward spontaneity. Automatism had been in the air for years, even before the Surrealists arrived in New York to provide a personal demonstration. By the mid 1930s, accounts of Picasso’s working process often stressed his claim to be an unconscious observer of his own creativity. Herbert Read’s 1933 book, Art Now, quoted Picasso saying, “I don’t know in advance what I am going to put on the canvas. . . . Whilst I work, I take no stock of what I am painting on the canvas. . . . It is only later that I begin to evaluate more exactly the result of my work.” Quoted in an interview with Christian Zervos, Cahiers d’Art 7, no. 3-5 (1932). Trans. in Herbert Read, Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (New York: Harcourt, … Continue reading Compare this to Pollock’s often-quoted statement for the 1947 magazine possibilities 1: “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.” Jackson Pollock, “My painting,” possibilities 1 (Winter 1947-48), p. 79.
The role of automatism in Pollock’s work is usually identified with his poured paintings of 1947-50. However, his approach to painting was already seen as “automatic” before he created his allover poured canvases. In May 1946, an unnamed reviewer for Art News, describing him as “one of the most influential young abstractionists,” noted that he used “an automatic technique, pushing totemic and metaphorical shapes into swirling webs of pigment.” “Jackson Pollock,” Art News 45 (May 1946), p. 63.
Pollock’s debts to Picasso were apparent to Peggy Guggenheim, who gave him a copy of Sidney and Harriet Janis’ 1946 book, Picasso: The Recent Years 1939-1946, inscribed “To Jackson / of / Art of this Century / With four years / love / Peggy Guggenheim.” In her memoir, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, Guggenheim wrote: “When I first exhibited Pollock he was very much under the influence of the Surrealists and of Picasso. But he very soon overcame this influence, to become, strangely enough, the greatest painter since Picasso.” Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict (London: André Deutsch, 1983), p. 315.
What role, if any, did Picasso’s work play in Pollock’s invention of his revolutionary “drip” style and his adoption of an “allover” method of composition? Clement Greenberg famously attributed these innovations to the example of Cubism, writing that “by means of his interlaced trickles and spatters, Pollock created an oscillation between an emphatic surface . . . and an illusion of indeterminate but somehow definitely shallow depth that reminds me of what Picasso and Braque arrived at thirty-odd years before, with the facet-planes of their Analytical Cubism. . . . Pollock’s 1946-1950 manner really took up Analytical Cubism from the point at which Picasso and Braque had left it.” Clement Greenberg, “’American-Type’ Painting,” in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 218.
However Pollock’s only known response to Cubist geometry is a small canvas composed of angular forms within an elliptical format, descriptively titled Interior with Figures, from 1938-41. Apart from this anomalous work, Greenberg’s argument requires us to believe that Pollock jumped in a single bound from the rectilinear grid of 1910-12 Cubism to the looping web of his own mature work. Furthermore, the “interlaced trickles and spatters” that create the oscillation between surface and depth in Pollock ‘s paintings of 1947-1950 look nothing like the straight lines and shaded facets that produce a similar effect in Analytic Cubist paintings.
Pollock seems, rather, to have responded to the style of interlacing curves that emerged in Picasso’s 1926 painting The Milliner’s Workshop. Although Pollock had no opportunity to see the original canvas, which remained in Picasso’s collection until 1947, its innovative style was disseminated in drawings and prints such as the 1927 etching Painter and Model Knitting. This was included in MoMA’s Picasso retrospective of 1939 and in the 1931 edition of Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu illustrated by Picasso; the latter also reproduces numerous drawings in the style of The Milliner’s Workshop. These rephrased the allover field of Analytic Cubism in a language of curves instead of straight lines, pointing a way beyond the orthodoxy of geometric abstraction. As the critic Carl Einstein commented, “The curve returned after the war, and with it the possibility of a painting of feeling.” Carl Einstein, “Tableaux récents de Georges Braque,” Documents 1 no. 6 (November 1929), p. 296. The interlacing curves of Picasso’s new style of 1926 liberated his pictures from the constraints of the rectilinear grid without relapsing into naturalism.
This interlace style proved particularly attractive to printmakers like Stanley William Hayter, who played an important role in its diffusion. After working with Picasso and the Surrealists in Paris from 1927 to 1940, Hayter moved to New York, where his Atelier 17 print workshop acted as an informal classroom for young American artists, including Pollock. It was there that Pollock created works such as an untitled etching of 1944-45, where erect guardian figures once again flank a central space, now occupied by a shambles of fragmented and interlaced bodies. On Stanley William Hayter’s influence on Pollock, see Jeffrey Wechsler, Surrealism and American Art, 1931-1947 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1976), pp. 51-52, and Lois … Continue reading
Pollock used versions of this interlace style in a series of brush-painted canvases from 1945-46, such as There Were Seven in Eight (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Eyes in the Heat (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice). Adding layer upon layer, he obscured his original compositions beneath ecstatic arabesques.
In early 1947, he began to weave the upper layers of his compositions by dripping lines of enamel paint around and across the earlier layers. Pollock had learned the technique of poured enamel in 1936, in the Union Square workshop of David Alfaro Siqueiros, and had experimented with it briefly in 1943. However, it was only now, in 1947, that it became an essential element of his work, adding a new vocabulary of swelling and shrinking lines, splotches, speckles and spatters. Combined with interlace composition, applying liquid paint infused Pollock’s paintings with an unprecedented pictorial dynamism – “energy made visible,” as B.H. Friedman described it in the title of his 1972 biography. B.H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972). Friedman condensed Pollock’s handwritten statement, ca. 1950 (Jackson Pollock Papers, Archives of American Art), … Continue reading
Nothing like this degree of pictorial dynamism was to be found in the work of Picasso. Reviewing the monographic exhibition of Pollock paintings from Peggy Guggenheim’s collection at the Museo Correr in Venice in 1950, the Italian critic Bruno Alfieri, having dismissed the artist’s work as chaotic, inharmonious, unstructured and technically deficient, representing absolutely nothing, conceded that Pollock “sits at the extreme apex of the most advanced and unprejudiced avant-garde of modern art.” Compared to him, declared Alfieri, “poor Pablo Picasso, the little gentleman who, since a few decades, troubles the sleep of his colleagues with the everlasting nightmare of his destructive undertakings, becomes a quiet conformist, a painter of the past.” Bruno Alfieri, “A Short Statement on the Painting of Jackson Pollock,” L’Arte Moderna, June 1950. Reprinted in Pepe Karmel, ed., Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews (New York: … Continue reading
|↑1||Regarding Picasso’s influence on the New York School in general, see Michael C. FitzGerald, Picasso and American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). Not even Norman Rockwell was untouched; he incorporated a reproduction of Picasso’s Bust of a Woman and Self-Portrait, (1929) in his own Triple Self-Portrait (1960).|
|↑2||Lee Krasner, quoted in B.H. Friedman, “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock,” in Hans Namuth, Barbara Rose, Rosalind Krauss, et al, Pollock Painting, ed. Rose (New York: Agrinde Publications Ltd., 1980), n.p.|
|↑3||See the listing in FitzGerald, pp. 336-354.|
|↑4||Still in the artist’s library are André Level, Picasso (1928), Henri Mahaut, Picasso (1930) and The World’s Masters: Pablo Picasso (1930). An unidentified Picasso book, with its cover missing, was also inventoried in the library in 1963 but is no longer there.|
|↑5||John D. Graham, System and Dialectics of Art (New York: Delphic Studios, 1937), pp. 94-95.|
|↑6||Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1989), p. 349.|
|↑7||Henry McBride, “Picasso’s Guernica,” New York Sun, May 6, 1939. Reprinted in Daniel Catton Rich, ed., The Flow of Art: Essays and Criticisms of Henry McBride (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975), p. 368.|
|↑8||Quoted in an interview with Christian Zervos, Cahiers d’Art 7, no. 3-5 (1932). Trans. in Herbert Read, Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1934), p.123.|
|↑9||Jackson Pollock, “My painting,” possibilities 1 (Winter 1947-48), p. 79.|
|↑10||“Jackson Pollock,” Art News 45 (May 1946), p. 63.|
|↑11||Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict (London: André Deutsch, 1983), p. 315.|
|↑12||Clement Greenberg, “’American-Type’ Painting,” in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 218.|
|↑13||Carl Einstein, “Tableaux récents de Georges Braque,” Documents 1 no. 6 (November 1929), p. 296.|
|↑14||On Stanley William Hayter’s influence on Pollock, see Jeffrey Wechsler, Surrealism and American Art, 1931-1947 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1976), pp. 51-52, and Lois Fichner-Rathus, “Pollock at Atelier 17,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 13 no. 5 (November-December 1982), pp. 162-65.|
|↑15||B.H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972). Friedman condensed Pollock’s handwritten statement, ca. 1950 (Jackson Pollock Papers, Archives of American Art), in which he characterized his work as “energy and motion made visible.” In a 1950 radio interview with William Wright, Pollock described the modern artist’s goal as expressing the energy of an “inner world” of emotion.|
|↑16||Bruno Alfieri, “A Short Statement on the Painting of Jackson Pollock,” L’Arte Moderna, June 1950. Reprinted in Pepe Karmel, ed., Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), p. 69.|