Donald Judd: Jackson Pollock

Not much has been written on Pollock’s work and most of that is mediocre or bad. And not much more has been written on anyone’s work and usually not with any more thought. Art criticism is very inferior to the work it discusses. Bryan Robertson’s book, published in 1960, is the only large one on Pollock; its text is useless.  Whatever is accurate is factual and appeared earlier in Sam Hunter’s short preface to the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art’s first show of Pollock’s work in 1956-57 and in various reviews and general articles. There are only a couple of articles on Pollock, one in 1957 by Clement Greenberg. The rest of Robertson’s book is wrong in one way or another, usually just glibly wrong. Frank O’Hara’s small book, published in 1959 in the Braziller series, has the same biographical and received information as Sam Hunter’s preface, some baloney and no real thought. There isn’t anything reasonable, then, on Pollock’s work but a few early reviews by Greenberg. They’re all right as reviews; Greenberg was beginning to think about the paintings; but he quit. William Rubin has written a large book which will be published in the fall. The book may add something to the knowledge of Pollock’s work. Art Forum’s current publication of parts of it certainly acknowledges the show of Pollock’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in May. The show at Marlborough-Gerson three years ago was pretty much ignored by the art magazines.

I’m not going to write here, in only a small article, what I think should be written about Pollock. Anyway I can’t write it. That would take a book and complete attention. Also there’s a big difference between thinking about someone’s work and thinking about it in a way that others can understand. It would take a big effort for me or anyone to think about Pollock’s work in a way that would be intelligible. A thorough discussion of Pollock’s work or anyone’s would be something of a construction. It’s necessary to build ways of talking about the work and of course to define all of the important words. Most discussion is loose and unreasonable. The primary information should be the nature of his work. Almost all other information should be based on what is there. This doesn’t mean that the discussion should only be ‘formalistic.’  Almost any kind of statement can be derived from the work: philosophical, psychological, sociological, political. Such statements, usually nonsense, should refer to specific elements in the work and to any statements or biographical information that might be relevant. Certainly the discussion should go beyond formal considerations to the qualities and attitudes involved in the work. Arguments leading from the elements of the work to its general implications are difficult to form and should be formed very carefully. Quotations and biographical information should be considered more carefully than they usually are. Dumb interviewers often get dumb answers. So far there has not been anything thorough on anyone’s work; certainly not on Pollock’s. Most historical studies are pretty sloppy and insufficient, too. The most common nonsense is the conclusion of a few pages of verified fact with a highly unverified cliché. Wittkower’s book on Bernini is an example of a pretty thorough job.

Another thing essential to a good review, article or book is an estimate of how good the artist is. That includes a comparison with other artists, even though much is incommensurable. Comparisons lead to ideas of how art develops and of what the connections are between artists. Usually those ideas are too simple. I want to make clear, even as just an assertion, how good I think Pollock’s paintings are. Almost everyone thinks he’s a great painter, but they also seem to give equal standing to quite a few other people. The quickest assertion of ability is of the comparative kind rather than through a complete discussion: I think Pollock’s a greater artist than anyone working at the time or since. That gives him an edge on Barnett Newman, which I hate to admit. Most painting since Pollock’s is somewhat conservative in comparison. The idea that Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland and Olitski form a line of advance from Pollock’s work is ridiculous. There are some new and different aspects in Louis’ and Noland’s work but in general it is not as unusual and remarkable as Pollock’s. David Smith’s sculpture, almost the only good sculpture until recently, is obviously somewhat conservative, even his last work, in comparison to Pollock’s paintings. I think it’s clear that Pollock created the large scale, wholeness and simplicity that have become common to almost all good work. The Blue Unconscious, Eyes in the Heat and Shimmering Substance were painted in 1946. Full Fathom Five and Cathedral, both typical “all-over ” paintings, were done in 1947. Everyone else, some quickly, learned from these.

Pollock used paint and canvas in a new way. Everyone else, except Stella for the most part, used them in ways that were developments upon traditional European or Western ways of handling paint and canvas. This use is one of the most important aspects of Pollock’s work, as important as scale and wholeness. The nature of this is difficult to make intelligible. It’s a different idea of generality, of how a painting is unified. It’s a different idea of the disparity between parts or aspects and it’s a different idea of sensation. The effect of most painting is of the disparity increased as much as possible within the limits of a given quality, wholeness or generality. The disparate parts and aspect s are particular and the whole they form is the general and main quality. The quality of the parts is like the quality of the whole. There’s a gradation or evening out of the parts and aspects·. The quality always has something of moderation, the long view and the unity of all things. By now this kind of resolution seems easy and also untrue. The elements and aspects of Pollock’s paintings are polarized rather than amalgamated. The work doesn’t have the moderated a priori generality usual in painting. Everything is fairly independent and specific.

The dripped paint in most of Pollock’s paintings is dripped paint. It’s that sensation, completely immediate and specific, and nothing modifies it. It also does things that drips never do, but that doesn’t change the specific sensation. It’s not something else that alludes to dripped paint. The use of the paint and the whole of any painting are further apart in qual ity than is usual. A fragment of a Pollock would have a good deal less of the quality of the whole than a part of a De Kooning, for example, would have of the whole. This is true of color, configuration and kind of s pace it forms. The various colors in any painting are more discrete than they are in most paintings, in which they are with in a range or relate to an identifiable scheme. Most paintings seem harmonious in comparison. Also, the paints as materials and surfaces, as well as the canvas, are more discrete than they usually are. A painting of Pollock’s that I saw recently, one owned by William Rubin and in the show at the Museum of Modern Art, has aluminum paint and some other colors that I can’t remember slung across a surface of burnt sienna, apparently painted on unprimed canvas. A recent painting of Noland’s by way of unfavorable comparison, might have the burnt sienna, burnt umber, a dark and a medium green, all the same canvas texture, and maybe a less related color. Noland’s paintings, though, weren’t always so harmonious.

The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was a big mistake. For one thing it implied that Pollock and De Kooning were alike and that both were Expressionists. Pollock’s paintings are much more remarkable than that. De Kooning’s paintings are substantially the same as those of the various Ex pressionist painters from Soutine back to Van Gogh and back through the recurrent use of expressive brushwork. That portrays immed iate emotions. It doesn’t involve immediate sensations. That kind of expression of emotion occurs through a sequence of observing, feeling and recording. It’s one of the main aspects of European or Western art. It’s one kind of art, not all art. It’s bad that it involves reactions to things to such an extent. Its premise that those reactions say something about the nature of the things observed is false. Obviously what you feel and what things are aren’t the same. Anyway, Pollock’s paintings don’t involve the immediate emotions of traditional art and don’t involve the ways in which these are generalized.