Unreal Nature

May 11, 2015

To Nail Quicksilver to Lead

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… Yet no matter how daunting the store of verbiage on art, there is always — if the subject is indeed art — a great deal (sometimes the core) left over …

… Of course, the only cure for the imprisonment of old words will be more and better words, provoked by better doubts …

This is from the essay ‘Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work’ by Kirk Varnedoe found in Jackson Pollock (1998):

… Since the artist’s death, the tremendous volume of new information, and all the thorough cataloguing, has not assuaged the basic problem Leo Steinberg faced when he looked at the Janis retrospective of 1955. In fact the issue has grown proportionately: if this work has such renown and is so widely influential, what does that signify for our culture?

… Other painters, like Frederic Remington or Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper, have codified certain ideas of what Americans like to think about themselves, and thus enjoy a sweet, finally provincial standing as national artists. Along with Walt Whitman and a few others, though, Pollock stands in an entirely different class, as someone powerfully understood, at home and abroad and for better or worse in his grandeur and in his misery, to represent the core of what America is. And the story of America’s attempt to define itself culturally in the last half century — the mix of insecurity and ambition, the internal conflicts and the ambivalence of outside observers — is written into the histories of both his career and its legacy. Innumerable efforts to explain Pollock, or to assess his achievements and flaws, have been bound up in the notion that, as much as the nation defines him, he also defines it.

Pollock_1948Number_1ADetail
detail of Number 1A, 1948

… The paintings live on as art (as opposed to interesting historical documents) principally through unrecorded, nonverbal, subjective responses. This needs emphasizing again. There was a time when it seemed very important that these be pictures without words — when the man who made them and many who were drawn to them believed that trying to say what they meant was a pointless betrayal; and when skeptics for their part found the works’ groping inarticulateness all too typical of the low surliness of the age, as manifest in the moody stammering of James Dean. By now, though, these are pictures amply wrapped with words: the many stories have themselves become a story, and cocoon the work so densely that a full-time devotee of Pollock studies might thrive without ever escaping their fabric. Yet no matter how daunting the store of verbiage on art, there is always — if the subject is indeed art — a great deal (sometimes the core) left over, and only learnable firsthand.

… it’s hard to accept that history’s primary work is to nail quicksilver to lead. Of course, the only cure for the imprisonment of old words will be more and better words, provoked by better doubts; but confrontation with the material presence is a very good prod for getting to those questions. Certain rewards, and rewarding uncertainties, only come through periods of private silence in front of the art. They are what exhibitions, after the clatter of crates, budgets, and bargaining, should strive to provide. And accompanying essays, after wrestling with histories and issues, should similarly trust the art and the audience, and accept that an important aim, primary and final, is simply to direct attention back to the works themselves. Doubtless a lot of what went into Pollock’s head, a lot that came out of his mouth, and a lot that has been and continues to be written about his pictures, embodies just the common cultural clutter of the time. The paintings do not. To be reminded of this, look at them.

-Julie

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