Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Man and the Myth

Untitled No. 2. Poured media on board, 10 x 15 ½ inches. Private Collection

It all started in a prison cell. When in 1936 a protest by artists against cuts in the WPA budget turned into a riot, artists Lee Krasner and Mercedes Carles each found themselves hauled off to jail. During their short confinement, they became fast friends, eventually introducing the men in their lives to one another—the painter Jackson Pollock and the photographer Herbert Matter. “They were taken with each other,” Willem de Kooning said of the friendship that developed between Pollock and Matter. “They had a nice feeling between them. They didn’t have to talk.” Until Pollock’s death in 1956, the two couples shared much time together and the two men greatly influenced one another’s work. Those memories were largely lost until 2002 when, after the death of his mother, Alex Matters discovered a cache of paintings in storage that may be undocumented works by Pollock (such as Untitled No. 2, above) given to or purchased by his father. Pollock Matters, by Ellen G. Landau and Claude Cernuschi, along with the exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, aims to investigate not only the relationship between these artists but also the claim that these new paintings are indeed by Pollock.

Herbert Matter. Mercedes in Motion, c. 1939. Silver gelatin print. Collection of Alex Matter

Herbert Matter created photographs using strobe lights and multiple exposures that literally capture the figure in motion, such as his photograph of his wife in Mercedes in Motion (above). “Photography has to be brought to a point of mystification,” Matter believed. In 1948, Matter shot a film of the sculptor Alexander Calder that emphasized the beautiful motion of his mobiles. Matter even photographed some of those mobiles using his strobe technique, producing wholly abstract forms of pure movement. During the filming of the Calder movie, Pollock assisted his friend, watching and learning from the experience. Almost totally rewriting Clement Greenberg’s history of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the development of Pollock, Ellen G. Landau, in her essay “Action/Re-Action: The Artistic Friendship of Herbert Matter and Jackson Pollock,” proposes that Matter’s photography had an unmistakable and heretofore undervalued influence on Pollock’s drip paintings. Borrowing a phrase from contemporary politics, Landau asks, “[H]ow much did Jackson know and when did he know it?” Thanks to the primary source materials such as private photos, letters, and postcards, we can now better answer that question of just how much Pollock learned from his photographer friend.

Herbert Matter. Ink and Glycerine, 1943. Silver gelatin print. Collection of Alex Matter

In addition to technique and a mania for motion, Pollock’s greatest debt to Matter may be their shared belief in vitalism. In the essay “Jackson Pollock’s Vitalism: Herbert Matter and the Vitalist Tradition,” Jonathan D. Katz defines vitalism as a belief system that “holds that all things—living and not—possess a life force that can be sensed intuitively. A perhaps unlikely east/west fusion containing—among other influences—Aristotelian immanence, Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, and Leibnitz, vitalism was in practice less a systematic philosophy than grab bag metaphysics.” Pollock stumbled through many philosophies throughout his early life, but his most active engagement with vitalism coincides with his time with Matter. Katz sees Pollock’s drip paintings “as a metaphor for the individual’s embeddedness within the all-encompassing life force.” Matter’s motion photographs serve as a model for Pollock in which photography moves away “from its reliance on static appearance and toward the representation of temporality and flux.” Matter’s photograph Ink and Glycerine (above, from 1943) bears a great resemblance to many Pollock works done later as well as to the possible Pollock, Untitled No. 22 (below). However, whereas Matter “attempts to illustrate the mind” in his works, Katz believes, “Pollock’s imagery seemed not an illustration, but authentic mind itself at work.” Katz, thus, beautifully performs the sensitive trick of showing the influence of one artist on another while simultaneously showing how the later artist took that concept and expounded upon it. I never had the sense in Pollock Matters that this connection diminished Pollock in any way. If anything, it made him seem more human, perhaps for the first time.

Untitled No. 22. Enamel on paper, 17 x 14 inches. Private Collection

The second half of Pollock Matters covers the scientific analysis of the Matter “Pollocks” found in 2002. Claude Cernuschi and Andrzej Herczynski provide a fascinating discussion of just how small Pollock could work and still maintain the visual impact of his drip paintings. The popular perception of Pollock’s works is that they’re all huge, but the reality is that only 66 of the 290 known Pollocks from 1943 through 1956 exceed 72 inches in any dimension. Using chaos theory and fractal analysis, these investigators examine Pollock both great and small. Additional essays on the chemistry of the paint used in the Matter paintings and even the paint cans and splatters on Pollock’s studio floor left in the studio at his death provide exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) insight into the modern field of scientific authenticating of artworks. Nicholas Eastaugh, fortunately, brings all these analyses into context in his perspective piece bemoaning the “CSI effect” that now beleaguers authentication. “There is a common view that ‘scientific’ analysis of paintings is some monolithic cohesive block,” Eastaugh writes. “It is not.” In the end, Eastaugh calls for “an informed, impartial debate bringing together art historians and scientists,” believing that “[p]erhaps only together we can become the competent critics and historians the field demands.” Just when you find your head spinning amongst the arcane graphics and scientific jargon, Eastaugh makes it all slow down and make sense for the interested, if not scientifically literate, reader.

Herbert Matter. Mercedes Matter, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Alex Matter in woods, 1948. Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Thanks to what one psychologist called his “inarticulate personality,” Pollock had few close relationships in his life. His link with Herbert Matter seems to be one of the few friendships that truly mattered in his life. As Landau points out, whereas Hans Namuth’s famous photos and film of Pollock at work depict the demonically driven artist, “Herbert never represented Jackson as the Romantic Genius, favoring exposure of the truth of the man over endorsement of his myth,” thus handing down to us “visual evidence of a less rhetorical, less constructed Pollock.” Through Matter’s lens we see the familiar Pollock, smoldering cigarette in hand, half scowling at the camera, but also the unfamiliar Jackson smiling and standing in the studio at ease, talking art with a friend, and even enjoying a day out in the woods with his wife, his friends, and their son (above). The mythology spun around Pollock by Greenberg and others during his life and in the fifty years since his death may soon unravel thanks to Pollock Matters.

[Many thanks to The University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of Pollock Matters and to the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College for providing the images above from their exhibition Pollock Matters.]


Sally Big Woods said...

Dear Bob,

Great post! Have you seen this: http://www.jacksonpollock.org/?

Bob said...

Hi, Sarah,

Yes, I've seen the org site. There's a lot of great stuff online for Pollock. It just proves that he's as relevant today as ever. I wonder what he would have done with the internet...