Jackson Pollock and The Death Dance of the Avant-Garde
Dr. Gerry Coulter (Bishop’s University, Canada)
Did not the circumspection of human gesture amaze you?
Ranier Maria Rilke
Pollock at work (Photograph: Hans Namuth)
Dance is of primal origin and among its functions has long been the resolution of violence. Dance can also absorb violence from without and one of the wonders of culture involves dance’s transformation of trauma into artistic expression. Dance thus can be integral to other forms of creation as it was to Jackson Pollock in the making of many of his paintings. Pollock danced around, over, and on many of his works at a time when violence everywhere pointed toward the end – the burning of Japanese and European cities, the opening of the gates at Auschwitz, and the unleashing of the atomic bomb on civilian populations.
Despite the global plenum of death and exponentialized violence Pollock used its energy to pursue a unique trauma dance in his painting which pushed formalism to its outer limits as war had pushed reason past its limits. Perhaps abstract expressionism was itself part of a flux in a time caused by the atomic age which opened a vast array of contingencies which continue to increase today.
Pollock’s work was considerable both in terms of its quantity and its effect. It spoke to the disquieting time in which it was created and it echoes on into the present. In Pollock’s painting objectivity succumbs to the subjective gaze, meaning at the meta-level breaks down and truth can be considered only along the local horizon of the maker of the image or the reader of the image. Pollock’s paintings are one artist’s efforts to be free, to resolve the violence, to make art, to express the very residue of his ambivalence to his times – before succumbing to his inability to cope with them. Pollock’s paintings are among the most sumptuous obituaries ever written by a man for himself.
Pollock (Photograph: Hans Namuth)
Pollock sometimes worked with music in the background including the atonalities of John Cage (Robertson, 1960:147). He often worked with canvases spread out on the floor and his unique way of dancing over the canvas became integral to his process. His was a liberated and elegant kind of modishness which made its mark in the flowing freedom of the line of industrial paint diluted with thinner. His paintings record the excitement of the free dancer excitedly and passionately struggling with gravity and the limits of the body. When we stand before one of these works today we cannot hear the music which is frozen into them (his paintings share this quality with architecture), but we can see it. Dance makes music visible and never more so then in a Pollock. It is a shame museums do not display his works laid out on the floor so that we may share the perspective of their maker.
Pollock Blue Poles (1953)
Pollock’s canvases are literally composed by dance. He danced over them leaving the mark of the dancer
Many have speculated about the blue objects (the blue “poles”) in his 1953 work which we know now under that name. Some have speculated that they represent the masts of ships but I have long seen these “poles” more as dancers which Pollock left on the work as a mirror of his own process.
Claude Tousignant Monochrome Orange [detail] (1955)
Pollock’s paintings are also records of another dance – the death dance of avant-garde. The avant-garde would continue on well after Pollock in the world of dance but in the world of painting he signaled its end. After him came the grave markers of modernism in the flat monotone canvases of geometric abstraction (such as Claude Tousignant). Pollock danced us out past words to a place where only danced paint became the new language of ambiguity and wonder. Aside from the efforts of a very few poets, musicians, and dancers, no one else followed. We look across an abyss at his canvases today even when their surface rests less than three feet from our eye. At the limits of freedom – inspired freedom – Pollock participated in the pure unconscious dance of moving feet and flowing paint which had no object but itself. Pollock’s dance pushed convention out past its known horizon and his canvases leave us with complex suggestions about what they might mean. They are, as are all works of art, attempts to express an individual’s experience of becoming. Sometimes he even shows us the dancer in his work as in his Rhythmical Dance of 1948:
Pollock Rhythmical Dance (1948)
New forms and styles continued to emerge in painting after Pollock but he had exhausted so much of what formalist modernism could be that we soon realized he had danced us past a “post” modern condition. From Warhol and Pop and onwards the modernist avant-garde has experienced what Jean Baudrillard perceptively identified as “a period of posthumous representation” (in Baj, 2001:144). With Pollock’s abstraction the modern avant-garde ended and painting since has tended to be little more than kitsch in comparison to it (Ibid.).
Pollock Number 1A (1948)
Pollock’s painting can be read as choreography. Standing in front of one we try to retrace his steps. His moves are very difficult to follow by times but we can appreciate the effort of this great dancer who simultaneously invented and performed the death dance of the modernist avant-garde. Etymologically “choreography” literally means “dance- writing” and given how Pollock’s dance made the paint write his movement while finding its own – this kind of abstraction may be as close to automatic writing as humans have ever come.
Enrico Baj (2001). “The Transparency of Kitsch: A Conversation with Jean Baudrillard” in Gary Genosko (Editor). The Uncollected Baudrillard, London: Sage Press.
Bryan Robertson (1960). Jackson Pollock. London: Thames and Hudson.