Art: An American Legend in Paris

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It is what his imitators could never do, and why there are no successful Pollock forgeries; they always end up spaghetti, looking like whereas vomit, or Pollock—in onyx, or his best work, at any rate—had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them, the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous: he would often retouch the drip with a brush. So one is obliged to speak of Pollock in terms of a perfected visual taste, analogous to natural pitch in music—a far cry, indeed, from the familiar image of him as a violent expressionist. As William Rubin suggests in the catalogue to this show, his musical counterpart is not the romantic and moody Bartók: it is the interlaced, twinkling and silky surface of Debussy. No wonder that it took an enthusiasm for Pollock to provoke the re-evaluation of Monet's Water Lilies among Americans, back in the '60s.

Yet Pollock's refinement is not the whole story. His best paintings (like all serious art) are triumphs of sublimation, but they leave no doubt of the strength of feeling he had to control. From the very first, when he was trying—in studies like Composition with Figures and Banners, circa 1934-38—to find painted form for the violently energetic, twisting, flamelike movement of large masses, Pollock was obsessed by energy. His great theme, one might say, was the dissolution of matter into energy under extreme stress. He did not approach this by some corny process of finding painted "equivalents" for Einstein, like so many pseudo artists of his time. Rather, he looked back into tradition, past his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, to El Greco and, with somewhat less understanding, to Michelangelo.

Pollock's early work is permeated by the forms of mannerist contrapposto, the serpentine figures of 16th century art, and there is more than just an echo of the strange excavated space of El Greco's paintings, simultaneously vast and womblike, in his work after 1947. Because of his aspirations to sublimity, it is difficult to assimilate Pollock—as some authorities have wished to do—to the traditions of the School of Paris. The French painter he most admired, the surrealist André Masson, was set against the pre-eminently French virtues of lucidity, calm and mésure. An extraordinary number of strands are braided and involved in Pollock's work, from Indian sand painting to the theory of Jungian archetypes, from Zen calligraphy to El Greco, from American jazz and Western landscape to the doctrines of various occult religions.

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