Art: An American Legend in Paris

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In his skeined patterns, Pollock sought a cultural synthesis

In the field of modern art, the most eagerly awaited show this winter is certainly the Jackson Pollock retrospective, organized by Art Historian Daniel Abadie for the Centre Pompidou in Paris.* It is not a full retrospective, but the cream off the milk—just as well, perhaps, in view of the exhausting prolixity and often dilute quality at the lower end of Pollock's oeuvre. But it is a concentrated and moving show, probably the last of its kind to be seen in Europe or America. "Major" Pollocks are so expensive and fragile that their owners do not want to lend them, and museums find it hard to insure them.

It is superfluous to say that Pollock is one of the legends of modern art. American culture never got over its surprise at producing him; fairly or not, he remains the prototypical American modernist, the one who not only "broke the ice"—in the generous words of his colleague Willem de Kooning—but set a canon of intensity for generations to come. The sad fact seems to be that no younger American artist, in the 25 years since his death, has quite got past Pollock's achievement. His work was mined and sifted by later artists as though he were a lesser Picasso; seen through this or that critical filter, it could mean almost anything. The basic données of color-field abstraction, which treated the canvas like an enormous watercolor dyed with mat pigment, were deduced by Frankenthaler, Morris and Noland from the soakings and spatterings of Pollock's work. Along with that went the "theological" view of Pollock as an ideal abstractionist obsessed by flatness, which ignored the fact that there were only four years of his life (1947-51) when he was not making symbolic paintings based on the totemic animal or human figure.

Still, if Claes Oldenburg dribbled sticky floods of enamel over his hamburgers and plaster cakes in the '60s. he did so in homage to Pollock. If a sculptor like Richard Serra made sculpture by throwing molten lead to splash in a corner, or Barry Le Va scattered ball bearings and metal slugs on the floor of the Whitney Museum, the source of their gestures was not hard to find. Distorted traces of Pollock lie like genes in art-world careers which, one might have thought, had nothing to do with his. Certainly Pollock scorned decor. He was not interested in painted hedonism; and yet his practice of painting "all over"—by covering an entire field with incidents that were not arranged in hierarchies of size or emphasis—became, in a stupefied way, the basis of the ornamental "pattern and decoration" mode that came out of SoHo in the late '70s.

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