Jackson Pollock is Still The “My Kid Could Do That Painter”

Thanks to Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, I was alerted to a recent article in NPR that asks whether Jackson Pollock was an artist. Pollock’s last painting was made over 50 years ago. In the contemporary art world, there’s been plenty of new debates about what’s art, so why has the NPR crowd been so slow to come up with an answer? NPR’s question doesn’t tread close to the territory of what art – and good art – was  in the mid-century. I’m stepping up to the plate for Pollock. He’s not one of my art heroes, but he was considered to be the best living painter in the 1950s. NPR should’ve said something about that piece, pointing out what was considered important in art at that time. Instead, Pollock is still just that guy who paints just like some kid. Pollock’s still better than your kid and Clement Greenberg’s the reason for that.

By 1945, the hard-headed critic Clement Greenberg had made up his mind about Pollock as the “strongest painter of his generation”; by 1947, he solidified Pollock’s status to the exclusionary disregard of everyone else, ceremoniously stating that “aside from Jackson Pollock, nothing has really been accomplished as yet.”[1] Even though the critic/artist relationship is somewhat rare today, it still happens: Massimiliano Gioni recognized Mauritizio Cattelan’s potential a few years back. Now they’re both at the top of their curating and games. Greenberg picked Pollock out of a flock of artists as evidence of someone who made exemplary art, but what was in the details of Pollock’s paintings that turned Greenberg into Pollock’s personal cheerleader?

In a 1947 review, Greenberg wrote that Pollock’s avant-garde tricks-of-the-trade were most evident in the paintings’ overall tautness and the “tension inherent in the constructed, re-created flatness of the surface that produces the strength of his art.”[2]  For Greenberg, the tension between gesture (all of Pollock’s splatter-marks) and form (the canvas, the floor) produced an illusion of depth. Tension means that something’s happening, or is about to happen. Tension, for Greenberg, was how real-life worked. If there wasn’t tension in a painting, well, it was just a lie about how we know things to be.

In a eulogy for Pollock, Greenberg described the artist’s all-overs as working at their best when they were “disrupting and restoring, by unbalancing and balancing.” [3] This compliment describes the goals of mid-century painting: a constantly in-flux thing. Some kid could drop some spaghetti on a plate that ends up looking like a Pollock splatter painting. Sure, even on the surface of things, loops of spaghetti look like Pollock’s sworls. It’s the debate that’s different. It doesn’t take much in-depth reporting to find out that views on what’s art vary between time and place.

[1] Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock; of the Annual Exhibition of the American Abstract Arts; and of the Exhibition European Artists in America” and “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture,” in The Collected Essays, ed. John O’Brian, vol. 2, 16, 170.

[2] Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Jean Dubuffet and Jackson Pollock,” in The Collected Essays, ed. John O’Brian, vol. 2, 125.

[3] Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock: ‘Inspiration, Vision, Intuitive Decision,’” in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, ed. Pepe Karmel (New York: The Musuem of Modern Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 111.


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