In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim commissioned her newest protégé, the thirty-one-year-old Jackson Pollock, to paint a mural for the entrance hall of her apartment in a townhouse on East Sixty-first Street. Earlier that year, the truculent young Westerner had exhibited a canvas of an abstracted reclining figure—or, possibly, two upright figures on opposite sides of a table—in the Spring Salon for Young Artists at Guggenheim’s recently opened Art of This Century gallery. The painting, now known as Stenographic Figure (1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York), impressed the exhibition’s jurors, Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian. Mondrian, who had been resident in New York since 1940, called Pollock’s submission “the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America.” This enthusiasm probably influenced Guggenheim’s support of the aspiring painter, which, in addition to the commission, included a stipend that allowed him to paint full time for the next four years, as well as his first solo exhibition, to be held at the end of 1943. Pollock’s career was launched.

Jackson Pollock, Stenographic Figure, 1942, Oil on linen. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Pollock wrote to his artist brother Charles that the mural commission came “with no strings as to what or how I paint it. I am going to use oil on canvas. They are giving me a show November 16 and I want to have the painting finished for the show. I’ve had to tear out the partition between the front and middle rooms to get the damned thing up. I have it stretched now. It looks pretty big but exciting as all hell.”

Pollock himself never claimed that Mural was a one-shot effort.

“Pretty big” was an understatement. The painting was conceived to fill the entire wall in Guggenheim’s entry, and at eight feet high by a couple of inches short of twenty feet long, Mural was and remained Pollock’s largest painting. Its rhythmic procession of over-scaled sweeps and full arm gestures, its luminous pales and emphatic darks, and its unstable structure are prescient, pointing towards the pulsating skeins and webs of the poured paintings with which the artist is most closely identified. According to his wife, Lee Krasner, Pollock was initially daunted by the sheer expanse of the canvas and didn’t begin working on it immediately, an idea graphically brought to life in the one convincing moment in the otherwise silly Ed Harris movie about the artist, when Pollock confronts the huge stretched canvas and the entire screen stays blank and white for a long moment. Krasner’s recollections, repeated in the problematic Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith biography of Pollock, combined with the movie, perpetuated the myth that the immense painting was completed in a single burst of energy in one night.

Pollock himself never claimed that Mural was a one-shot effort. To the contrary, he said that he painted it over the summer of 1943. The record has been definitively corrected by conservation and technical studies conducted at the Getty Conservation and Research Institutes in 2012 to 2014, confirming that, not surprisingly, given the painting’s size and the importance of the commission, Pollock worked on Mural over an extended period. There’s physical evidence that he not only applied wet paint onto still-wet areas, rapidly, but also allowed layers to dry (this can take days or even weeks) before approaching the canvas again. In fact, this can be seen if we look closely at Mural and concentrate on the way its radiant pinks, varied blues, sharp yellows, and forthright black and blue-black swipes are imposed on each other, remaining distinct and crisp as they intersect and surround zones of lighter hues that melt together. There’s none of the dense piling up of pigment so characteristic of Pollock’s early easel paintings, nor is there any of the dragging and smudging that later became a signature of Abstract Expressionist angst, especially among Willem de Kooning’s followers—a method ultimately so common that it was dismissively termed “the Tenth Street touch” by Clement Greenberg, but one that was never of interest to Pollock.

The fact that Mural was made with deliberation and consideration rather than in a headlong rush may not accord with the popular characterization of the admittedly troubled and alcoholic Pollock as tormented, driven, and prone to working in a drunken frenzy—a view described by a colleague as arising from “the van Gogh’s ear school of art history.” It is, however, perfectly congruent with the graceful man we see pouring controlled trickles and delicately tapping and flicking paint off the end of sticks in Hans Namuth’s celebrated film of Pollock at work in 1950. It is supported, too, by his friend and champion Greenberg’s frequently repeated assertion that Pollock was always cold sober when he painted. Certainly knowing that Mural evolved over a period of time does nothing to weaken the impact of its ample, calligraphic brush marks—unscrolling across the entire length of the canvas and arcing from top to bottom—or to slow the unpredictable play of its light-struck palette. Pollock himself described the roiling rhythms of Mural as “a stampede . . . every animal in the American West . . . cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.” Was he thinking of the powerful, economically rendered animals on the walls of prehistoric caves? Or of cave painting filtered through his own experience of the landscape and wildlife of the West when he accompanied his father on surveying trips, growing up in California?

After conservation of Mural was completed, the painting was shown at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, in 2015, and was then featured in a large survey of Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, London, in 2016–17, before being exhibited at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. Now we can see Pollock’s magnum opus in New York, in “Away from the Easel: Jackson Pollock’s Mural” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—the first showing of the canvas here since the Museum of Modern Art’s Pollock retrospective in 1998–99.1

Spend some time looking closely, and we can be completely absorbed by trying to figure out how the picture was made.

The vast picture is installed more or less at its originally intended height, in excellent light, in one of the upper-floor galleries off the rotunda, so we can not only admire its sheer size and audacity from a distance (farther than was possible in Guggenheim’s hallway, it would seem, which is a good thing), but also come close enough to scrutinize its subtleties. We can get lost in the complexities of its surface and discover its nuanced color. We can take in its chalky pinks, green-tinged blues, and acidic yellows, applied opaquely, in contrast to the pastel, softly brushed, more transparent hues that escape from beneath the generous gestural “drawing” or were added as infill in areas surrounded by loops and curves. We can savor Mural’s unexpected variations in paint application, noting trickles and bubbles that sit on top of the surface, reminding us that the label itemizes the mediums as oil and casein—a water-based, opaque pigment that would remain distinct and spattery when applied over oil paint. We note a few drips and splatters, signs of energy and speed, but mostly we revel in the assurance and fluidity of the biggest marks—the oversized, dark swoops and slashes, obviously made in the final stages of the painting, that unify the shifting expanse and assert the “stampede” of movement that Pollock clearly sought. Making suave marks with conviction, at the scale of the rhythmic “procession” of Mural, is not easy. The vigor and energy of those big arcs and flourishes are testimony to both Pollock’s fearlessness and energy. (In the section of the Ed Harris movie devoted to Mural, those last marks are the actor’s first interventions on the canvas; I said it was silly.)

Spend some time looking closely, and we can be completely absorbed by trying to figure out how the picture was made. If we pay attention, we quickly notice that even though the dominant chromatic colors—pink, blue-green, acid yellow, and notes of cinnabar red—are distributed fairly evenly in looping strokes across the surface, there is nothing systematic about the sequence in which they appear to have been applied. Pink is on top of blue-green in some places, underneath in others. Pollock may have worked across the entire expanse of the canvas with a single color—as he seems to have done in his poured paintings—but he also appears to have returned later to a particular hue, perhaps in response to what developed when he added strokes of another color. The result is a pulsing fabric of touches, both bold and delicate. It’s as if Pollock thought of the literal fact of the canvas on which Mural was painted neither as something to be dissembled—to be dissolved by the viewer’s imagination, as in Renaissance paintings—nor as an inviolable flat expanse. Instead, the surface plane becomes something that could be penetrated freely or hovered against to create an ambiguous, constantly shifting, indeterminate space that can hold our attention endlessly.

Peggy Guggenheim’s commitment to Pollock continued even after she closed Art of This Century in 1947 and moved to Venice; in 1950, she arranged for his first European exhibition to be held at the Museo Correr. But she didn’t take Mural with her. Instead, she donated it to the University of Iowa, which seems to have dithered about the gift, probably because of the size of the painting. Initially, the university objected to what it saw as the high price of shipping the work from New York, but it eventually relented. Mural was first installed in the university’s School of Art and Art History and finally moved to the university museum in 1969. (A small mystery: The exhibition wall text gives 1951 as the date of the donation, while the painting’s accession number is 1959.6. Assuming that the University of Iowa agreed to accept the work in 1951, was it then officially transferred to the museum in 1959 and left hanging in the School of Art and Art History for a decade, before being physically moved to the University’s Stanley Museum?)

Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, 1943, Oil, gouache, and plaster on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

At the Guggenheim, Mural is contextualized by three additional paintings. The She-Wolf (1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York) was featured in Pollock’s solo exhibition at Art of This Century at the end of that year and purchased by moma at the end of 1944, making it the first of his works to enter a museum collection. The mythological reference—to the wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus—is typical of the period. Think of Adolph Gottlieb’s variants on the story of Oedipus or Martha Graham’s improvisations on Greek tragedies. Pollock’s four-square beast, in stylized profile, all but fills the canvas, nearly subsumed by brushy swirls, strokes, scribbles, scrubs, and assertive black drawing, rather like the big gestures of Mural, with relatively broad areas of opaque dark gray alternating as background and as imposition, employed to clarify and cancel. The She-Wolf shares, too, the horror vacui of Mural and most of Pollock’s other works—his insistence on filling just about every inch of the canvas with full-throttle incident—a characteristic that transubstantiates into the sensuous all-over webs of his strongest paintings. Greenberg reviewed the Art of This Century show in The Nation, singling out several canvases (but not The She-Wolf) as “among the strongest works I have yet seen by an American” and writing that “There are both surprise and fulfillment in Jackson Pollock’s not so abstract abstractions.”

How those surprises evolved can be seen at the Guggenheim in the tough, confrontational Ocean Greyness (1953, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), with its heaving knots and coils of near-primary hues submerged in an expanse of brushy grays and scrawls of black, a painting whose insistent rhythms echo, at a very different scale, the thundering progression of Mural. In the context of the Guggenheim installation, Ocean Greyness stands for Pollock’s return to applying paint with a brush and, probably, to working on a vertical surface, as he did on Mural, after years of pouring on canvas laid on the floor. The only letdown in “Away from the Easel” is the small Untitled (Green Silver) (ca. 1949, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), included as emblematic of the poured paintings. Unfortunately, it’s clotted, airless, and pretty obviously a not-too-felicitous crop from a larger field. At the National Gallery, Mural was accompanied by the museum’s own radiant Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), one of Pollock’s most transcendent, diaphanous expanses of fragile swirls and trails, which read as both descending from and expanding upon the pictorial ideas announced by Peggy Guggenheim’s commission. If the intention of the Guggenheim’s Megan Fontanella, the curator of “Away from the Easel,” was to denigrate the poured paintings and emphasize the significance of Pollock’s brush marks, then the presence of Untitled (Green Silver) makes sense. But while I realize there are few things more irritating than critics who try to rethink carefully considered exhibitions, it’s impossible not to wonder why the airy No. 18 (1950) or the assertive Alchemy (1947), both in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, wasn’t co-opted to stand for the poured paintings in general. Neither comes close to Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), but the muscular, horizontal Alchemy, in particular, with its syncopated rhythms and counterpoint of white marks, would have demonstrated the persistence of Mural’s dna very effectively. And, since it is fairly modest in size, it would have almost certainly fit on the wall where Untitled (Green Silver) is installed. Still, it’s churlish to complain. Untitled (Green Silver) may not add much, but it’s exciting and nourishing to see Mural, both for its own merits and with its other companions.

1 “Away from the Easel: Jackson Pollock’s Mural” opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on October 3, 2020, and remains on view through September 19, 2021.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 3, on page 41
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