… the man mortifies his skill in quest for something other than accomplishment.
… There is a real process here; something is actually happening. Therefore the picture can afford to be as careless of critique as the bad weather is of the objections of a hopeful picnicker. With all my thought-sicklied misgivings about Pollock, this satisfies the surest test I know for a great work of art.
This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Pollock’s First Retrospective’ first published in 1955:
… His supporters and detractors share a common vehemence of conviction — which is not necessarily a point in Pollock’s favor. For the detractors are not galled by the pictures themselves, but by the claim that they are art. What annoys them is extrinsic to the work and throws no light on its quality.
It would be a mistake to regard the division of opinion as running simply between highbrow and low, between Bohemian and Philistine. Today’s alignments are more complex than those that confronted the Armory exhibitors. Arrayed against the sheer validity of Pollock’s work are the views of most art historians, of most literary men, and of many brilliant painters not in the avant-garde. Pollock’s champions are a few critics and museum men, abstract painters who recognize in him a superior power, and, above all, those who know the man himself. Thus Pollock dramatizes the question — “For whom does the artist paint?”
I recall a conversation I once had with Paul Brach, himself an abstract painter. I suggested that the type of person who becomes an artist is not necessarily the same in every culture. Granted that artists in primitive societies, or in our Middle Ages, were men who expressed a communal myth, what does the man whose temper moves him to express such a myth choose to become in our time? Is he not likely to become a movie-maker, a writer of science or detective fiction, or an advertising man? Brach agreed and said, “Yes, and the sort of man who now becomes a painter would, in the Middle Ages, have become an alchemist.”
… Questions as to the validity of Pollock’s work, though they remain perfectly good in theory, are simply blasted out of relevance by these manifestations of Herculean effort, this evidence of mortal struggle between the man and his art. For the man mortifies his skill in quest for something other than accomplishment. From first to last the artist tramples on his own facility and spurns the elegance that creeps into a style which he has practised to the point of knowing how.
… the Pollock looks as every Van Gogh looked fifty years ago — something that you and I could do as well. But this is surely what the artist means. He has no love for conspicuous diligence; and if it comes to that, have we? The Middle Ages gave high rank to the artifact as a symbol of perfection; the thing of cunning workmanship stood near the top in their hierarchy of values. For us who think in terms of function, the artifact per se, though of multiplied ingenuity, is no longer in the order of ideal things. And so the artist, in the excellent words of Parker Tyler, “charges the distance between his agency and his work with as much chance as possible, the fluidity of the poured and scattered paint placing maximum pressure against conscious design.”
Of course it is possible to carp at such painting, and not from any lack of taste or sensitivity to art, but from a love for humanistic values. Where we get stupefaction instead of enlightenment; where the mind is not confirmed in authority but rather scandalized; where, instead of rationality and freedom, we confront the apparent sport of aimless ferocity and chance — there it becomes legitimate to waive the question of the artist’s merit and to enquire what it might signify for our entire culture if such work as his is indeed our best.
… To me the most hypnotic picture in the whole show [at the Janis Gallery] is Echo, done in 1951; a huge ninety-two-inch world of whirling threads of black on white, each tendril seeming to drag with it a film of ground that bends inward and out and shapes itself mysteriously into a molded space. There is a real process here; something is actually happening. Therefore the picture can afford to be as careless of critique as the bad weather is of the objections of a hopeful picnicker. With all my thought-sicklied misgivings about Pollock, this satisfies the surest test I know for a great work of art.
Echo [image from MoMA]