Art: An American Legend in Paris

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If the work was so influential, the image of the man was too. The very idea of vocation in American art was profoundly altered by the way photography and magazines projected versions of Pollock on the public. He was the first American artist to become really famous. Millions of people who never set foot in a museum had heard of Jack the Dripper. Dying at 44, a mean and puffy drunk with two girls in a big car, he was seen as enacting the all-American Heldentod, the alienated hero's death that also, and at about the same time, lifted James Dean into undecaying orbit in the national psyche. Pollock became Vincent van Gogh from Wyoming, and his car crash—the American way of death par excellence—was elevated to symbolism, as though it meant something more than a hunk of uncontrolled Detroit metal hitting a tree on Long Island.

Pollock had been more photographed (by Rudy Burckhardt, Hans Namuth and Arnold Newman among others) than any other artist in American history. These photos, Namuth's in particular, seemed to depict not his art but his "mythic" process of creating it: a man dancing round the borders of a canvas, an arena or sacred precinct laid flat on the floor, spattering it with gouts and sprays of paint. Pollock as seen by Namuth's lens, half athlete and half priest, seemed to confirm Harold Rosenberg's bizarre notion that abstract expressionism is not really painting at all, not paint on canvas, but a series of exemplary "acts." And so these images of him would have their effect on the aes thetic of the happening in the '60s, as on avant-garde dance in the '70s.

But where is Jack the Dripper now, the harsh, barely articulate existentialist from the West, full of chaotic energy and anal aggression? This figment is not the creature whose work one sees on the walls of the Centre Pompidou. It is as though the eruptive violence people used to see in Pollock's work 25 years ago had evaporated. Instead we see the work of an aesthete, tuned to the passing nuance. Many of the passages in his "heroic" paintings of 1947-51 remind one of Monet, or even of Whistler. Fog, vagueness, translucency, the scrutiny of tiny incidents pullulating in a large field—Lavender Mist, 1950, the title Pollock gave his most ravishingly atmospheric painting about sums it up. In it one sees the delicacy—at a scale that reproduction cannot suggest—with which Pollock used the patterns caused by the separation and marbling of one enamel wet in another, the tiny black striations in the dusty pink, to produce an infinity of tones.

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