Looking beyond the giant canvases

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

The image of Jackson Pollock as the archetypal American artist, making big gestures on giant canvases, is firmly entrenched in the public consciousness. Dripping paint on canvases laid out on the floor, working in rather than working on his art, Pollock epitomizes the rebellious artist, disregarding the figurative in a whirl of energy touched by higher inspiration. “Jackson Pollock, A Centennial Retrospective,” currently showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, adds some depth to that depiction of the controversial and polarizing painter.

During the artist’s troubled lifetime — characterized by drinking and depression — Japan was quick to bring in individual new Pollock paintings to exhibit to its public eager to see modern Western art. This traveling show, marking the 100th year after the artist’s birth, is surprisingly, the first full retrospective of his work that has been held in the country.

The show opens with some early works that show the influence of Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock’s teacher at the Art Students League in New York. Although Pollock later downplayed Benton’s importance on his own artistic development, the brushstrokes in Pollock’s “Cotton Pickers” (1935) clearly depict a rhythmic energy similar to that visible in the work of his early mentor. That vitality would later come to the fore as the key element of Pollock’s style.

Reminiscent of Jean-Francois Millet’s 1857 “The Gleaners,” “Cotton Pickers” also shows the artists’ shared interest in portraying working people — an interest that for Pollock was likely related to the funding he had begun to receive from the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” (1933-36) the funding, designed to both support impoverished artists and foster patriotism in the dispirited public during the Great Depression, made the hardworking poorer classes an ideal subject. But where other artists romanticized the American folk, Pollock’s palette of sombre dark blues and browns of “Going West” (ca. 1934-1935), which depicts families heading to California for greener pastures, emphasizes the real hardship and miserable conditions they faced.

In other early works, the violently bright colors and twisted shapes of the Expressionists or Cubists, such as Picasso, make their presence felt. The exhibition reveals how Pollock took inspiration from all quarters — while his animated lines recall the automatic, freeform gestures of the Surrealists, especially the loose doodling of Miro, they also have an affinity with experimental techniques Pollock learned from Mexican mural painters, particularly David Alfaro Siquerios. The Mexican influence is also apparent in Pollock’s gravitation toward murals (which he also worked on under the WPA scheme), their sense of monumentality informing his later large-scale paintings, while his famous method of laying the canvas on the floor to paint on also owes something to Native American sand paintings.

If all of those developments were to be brought together by one word, it might be “freedom” — freedom of movement and freedom from figurative representation, as witnessed in “Mural on Indian Red Ground” (1950). Measuring 83 × 244 cm, this is one of the larger paintings in the show, and it’s the first time the work has been loaned out from Iran, where it is part of a substantial collection of Western art that has been locked away, but carefully looked after, since the tumultuous time of the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s.

Despite the popular perception of Pollock’s works being dominated by his giant canvases, they are not actually representative of his oeuvre as a whole. While many of his paintings were large, only a few on display could be said to be monumental in size. Many of his early works, such as “Panel with Four Designs” (1934-8), are in fact surprisingly small, and their energetic brushwork, suggest that Pollock’s vigorous and seemingly uncontrolled movements actually could have been more measured.

With so many works here displaying overlaid layers of paint that barely leave a spot of blank canvas, it comes as something of a relief to encounter some pieces that play with blank space, such as his later works of black splashes on white that recall Japanese shodo calligraphy.

The exhibition closes with some works Pollock made in the years before his death. Limiting his palette to mainly black, the wild and tormented shapes and lines of these works, which hover between the figurative and abstract, were not what the public expected, nor wanted, from the first truly world-famous American painter. We should be wary of seeing premonitions of death in the last works of an artist who was fated to die young, but it is difficult not see the outline of a skull in the top left of “Number 21″ (1951). There is only one work later than this in the exhibition, reflecting how Pollock’s productivity dwindled until his untimely death in an alcohol-related car crash in 1956.

“Jackson Pollock: A Centennial Retrospective” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, runs till May 6; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.pollock100.com/english