“Blind Spots,” the subtitle of this exhibition, is an allusion to the idea that Jackson Pollock’s late works, especially his so-called black paintings—monochrome drips on unprimed canvases—have been written out of the canon. By assembling an impressive range of works made between 1950 and 1953 (the artist died in 1956), the show, co-organized by Tate Liverpool, offers grounds for a reassessment of the received wisdom about the arc of Pollock’s mature career, which is thought to span from the development of a style indebted to Surrealism in the 1940s, a classical period of allover abstraction that peaked in 1950 with such large-scale masterpieces as Autumn Rhythm, to a time of decline when the artist succumbed to alcoholism and his art regressed into mannerism.
The heart of the exhibition is a group of more than 30 paintings from 1951, many of which were shown together that year at Betty Parsons Gallery. Gone are the metallic paints and overlapping webs of color characteristic of the classic pieces. These black paintings are also somewhat smaller than those pieces and are generally rendered in pours of paint that are more variable in width, length and density. It’s possible to see calligraphic forms or even full-on figures, elements that had seemingly been purged from Pollock’s work by the end of the 1940s. Echo: Number 25, 1951, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, epitomizes this mode: a forest of long, sinewy pours of black paint suggests an ensemble of creaturely bodies and biomorphic blobs. Short, tight vertical lines nest in the curves of the longer ones. These hash marks appear to be both free-flowing and constrained, rippling across the dense canvas. Clement Greenberg was right to see in such work (on his initial assessment) “a maximum charge at the cost of a minimum of physical means.”
If you like Pollock, you’ll like these paintings. If you have good taste, you might like them even better than the classic ones, since the monochrome palette allowed Pollock to avoid potentially embarrassing decisions about color. The whole idea that they could represent a betrayal of American art is going to strike many visitors as overheated. And yet, Pollock defined his own task in terms steeped in modernist notions of progress (“new needs need new techniques”). A return to figuration and away from the radical allover abstraction he had pioneered would seem to be a failure on those grounds. Greenberg later accused Pollock of “turning to the other extreme, as if in violent repentance.” Other critics were baffled by the Betty Parsons exhibition, a stance confirmed by initial lackluster sales, and then fully codified in later retrospectives, which, as the show’s curator, Gavin Delahunty, documents in the catalogue, featured progressively fewer examples of black paintings through the 1980s and 1990s.
The exhibition affirmed the idea that difference can exist within an artist’s body of work—that not everything has to conform to a supposed signature style. You can walk away with a new understanding of Pollock working in a minor key, an important correction for an artist who continues to be assessed on the basis of major statements. The presentation of black paintings is bolstered by the inclusion of drawings on handmade paper, screenprints that show an artist whose reputation rested on the supposed authenticity and spontaneity of his gestures embracing a technique for repeating imagery, and sculptures in which knots of plaster on wire barely hang together, looking abject and experimental.
However, the last room in the exhibition, which features a return to garish, sometimes acid color in 1952, reveals a potential blind spot of the exhibition itself. Paintings like Convergence: Number 10 (1952) show that Pollock had hit upon a potentially rich vein, though these works receive scant treatment in the catalogue, which is limited by its continued reliance on traditional formalist analysis of Pollock’s work. The anchor here is the masterful Portrait and a Dream (1953), in the DMA’s collection. It’s a double image: a field of drips on one side of the canvas, and on the other a figurative head that appears partially covered by a kind of mask. Formally, the work shows an artist moving back and forth between approaches, both of which are tied to a sense of self, with the drips quoting former signature and the portrait image offering a narrative of struggle with identity and artifice. This is a painting about variability, convoluted feelings and mutable identities. In short, it’s about freedom.
By 1952 Pollock had enlarged his technique, which could now accommodate a wide range of figures or even allusions to other artists’ works, as with Number 12, 1952, which resembles an early Rothko overlaid with an oil slick of black. The drip method feels full of unruly potential here, to the point that the critical fetish for allover abstraction, with its overtones of heroic authenticity, starts to seem prudish and one-dimensional.