Jackson Pollock is arguably the most famous American artist of the 20th century. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, he was the face of an assertive, macho artistic movement called abstract expressionism. His layered “drip” paintings that he created by placing a canvas flat on his studio floor and prowling thoughtfully around it, dripping paint down onto it without a brush, became something of a symbol of the energy and drive of the United States after World War II.
The Dallas Museum of Art has a special Pollock exhibit, “Blind Spots,” on view through March 20. It focuses on a lesser-known series of black-and-white paintings that Pollock created several years after his big breakthrough. It’s one of the more intriguing shows I’ve seen in a long time, and anyone who considers himself a Pollock fan needs to see it.
More so than other artists these days, Pollock is the poster boy for the “my-kid-could-paint-that” skeptics, and it’s probably the case that those who think this aren’t going to have their opinions changed by this exhibit. (For those in thrall to that notion, however, take a look at Pollock’s 1935 “Cotton Pickers,” which he painted while he was still working in a realist style.)
But many of the works here look nothing like his dense-all-over paintings from a few years before, and the best part of this exhibit is that you’re watching an artist try to work away from the style that brought him acclaim and attention, yet remain true to his vision. These paintings are more open than his earlier works, with larger spans of blank canvas visible between the looping lines, of which there are far fewer. There’s usually only one layer of paint, and it’s predominantly black or brown.
“I’ve had a period of drawing on canvas in black,” he explained to a friend in the middle of creating these pieces, acknowledging that abstract but undeniably human forms were returning to his paintings. “I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time,” he said. “But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”
And they do. Without intending to, you can find yourself interpreting the
vague shapes that seem to swim up out of indiscriminate backgrounds. If you’re not careful, you’ll feel like a psychology student who has to complete a lengthy Rorschach test interpretation exercise. It’s tiring and risks reducing Pollock’s significant works to an interpretative parlor game
All the pieces in the exhibit are not of equal quality. The better ones hold your interest as something complete. In the lesser ones, you catch your brain wandering, trying to fill in details that aren’t really there.
Although I really like many of these works, I came away unsure of what I think of Pollock’s “black and white” period as a whole. One of the last rooms contains paintings from a 1952 show, and in these he has mostly returned to color and the big, dense, layered format. It makes it look like his more open black and white work was a passing phase, which I guess it might have been.
It’s an exhibit with a solid focus but not one without faults. Like the DMA’s memorable Toulouse-Lautrec poster exhibit of three years ago, this one runs a little long. Nevertheless it’s a serious exhibit—and not particularly an easy one—that will make you think more deeply about an artist’s thought process. You’ll come out with insights and questions you didn’t have when you went in. And that alone makes it very worthwhile.