Jackson Pollock’s New York School of Painting
American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock has long been recognized as a leading figure of this so-called “New York” school of painting. His fame skyrocketed after his death at age forty-four in a car crash on eastern Long Island. That gruesome death gave the Abstract Expressionist movement unprecedented public recognition, and conclusively transformed Pollock the man into Pollock the myth. But in doing so, it also obscured his specific achievements (and limitations) as a painter and thinker.
What link remains between the achievements of the early 20th century masters and the solutions proposed by those painters who have come of age (artistically speaking) and produced their maturest work since 1945? What is the relationship, for example, between Cubism and Action Painting? Or between Fauvism and French Abstract Impressionism? The words of Matisse quoted above point to the nature of this relationship, while the common denominator of all the investigations and experiments of 20th century art may be defined in the words of Mondrian.
“All modern art is distinguished by a relatively greater freedom from the oppression of the subject. Impressionism emphasized the impression of reality more than its representation. After the impressionists, all art shows a relative negation of nature’s aspects; the cubists delivered a further blow; the surrealists transformed it; the abstract artists excluded it.”
Freedom of expression, then, with respect to the subject, this is the commondenominator of art in our time, in our century. But this does not mean that the artist has ceased to express the shifting yet permanent sum of features and factors that go to make up the human situation in all its complexity. The fallacy of superficial detractors of non-figurative art is to suppose that it signifies a more or less complete abandonment of reality; on the contrary, it probes into reality more deeply than ever before.
This is as it should be. The artist cannot divorce himself from a state of society which, on the one hand, is profoundly disturbed by doubts and anxieties, but which, on the other, has achieved a great deal in the way of technical advances and social betterment. Why should painting reject new conceptions of time, space, matter and energy (and the new sensibility perforce bound up with those conceptions) when the other forms of artistic expression accept them?
Already in Proust we read of the painter Elstir, that his “effort to exhibit things, not as he knew them to be, but in accordance with those optical illusions of which our first glimpse of a thing is compounded, had led him to emphasize certain laws of perspective, thus rendered peculiarly striking, for his art was the first to disclose them.” And what is “le temps retrouvé” of the final volume of Proust’s masterwork, but a new dimension of the mind, a new sensibility, transcending the measurable, chronological lapse of years, days and hours? It is not for nothing that we find Proust writing in 1919 of “the great, the admirable Picasso.”