Action: Inaction Painting

September 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jonathan VanDyke has written an interesting essay on his experience spending 40 hours staring at a Jackson Pollock painting (for an earlier account of his piece “The Long Glance” see “Action: Watching the Watcher“).

He says: “On June 3rd I turned my gaze away from Jackson Pollock’s 1952 painting Convergence after staring at it for forty hours. To enact The Long Glance, as I had titled my performance, I stood silently in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, eight hours a day for five days. I wanted to approach the painting in peak condition, and trained to stand at length with just incremental movement. By acting as a fixed counterpoint to an “action” painting, I intended, through my immobile body, to reorient the museum’s abstract expressionist galleries.

As manifestations of movement, Pollock’s drip paintings point back to the figure of Pollock; as our eyes follow a line, we are recreating the gesture of his body. When a line reaches the canvas’s edge, in the mind’s eye we carry it onward. The drip paintings activate the relationship between the eye and the body, while referring us to the space beyond the frame. Yet there’s something of a ruse in this: the painting was made with the canvas on the floor, Pollock circling it on all sides. Now it hangs on a wall with a proper top and bottom, despite its lack of an orientation in a true pictorial sense. Standing and looking at a Pollock drip painting, we can feel ourselves disoriented: what was once on the ground is now on the wall in front of us.

Turning towards something, we acknowledge its presence, while we simultaneously turn away from something else. When a work of art calls our attention, it guides our gaze. As we bend our necks to see the painted ceiling of a cathedral, we are meant to realize a celestial space. We are beckoned upwards, and thereby directed away from the ground, which is the space of all things “earthly”: copulation, excrement, and, at last, the corpse. By making his drip paintings on the ground, working with and not against gravity, Pollock returns our attention to the plane of the recumbent body.

[read the rest here]

VanDyke’s remarks on action and inaction reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s claim that his happenings and performances were an extension of Pollock’s idea of action paintings.

From Alan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock (1958)

“Pollock’s choice of enormous canvases served many purposes, chief of which for our discussion is that his mural-scale paintings ceased to become paintings and became environments. Before a painting, our size as spectators, in relation to the size of the picture, profoundly influences how much we are willing to give up consciousness of our temporal existence while experiencing it. Pollock’s choice of great sizes resulted in our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in. Yet we must not confuse the effect of these with that of the hundreds of large paintings done in the Renaissance, which glorified an idealized everyday world familiar to the observer, often continuing the actual room into the painting by means of trompe l’oeil. Pollock offers us no such familiarity, and our everyday world of convention and habit is replaced by one created by the artist. Reversing the above procedure, the painting is continued out into the room. And this leads me to my final point: Space. The space of these creations is not clearly palpable as such. We can become entangled in the web to some extent and by moving in and out of the skein of lines and splashings can experience a kind of spatial extension. But even so, this space is an allusion far more vague than even the few inches of space-reading a Cubist work affords. It may be that our need to identify with the process, the making of the whole affair, prevents a concentration on the specifics of before and behind so important in a more traditional art. But what I believe is clearly discernible is that the entire painting comes out at us (we are participants rather than observers), right into the room. It is possible to see in this connection how Pollock is the terminal result of a gradual trend that moved from the deep space of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the building out from the canvas of the Cubist collages. In the present case, the “picture” has moved so far out that the canvas is no longer a reference point. Hence, although up on the wall, these marks surround us as they did the painter at work, so strict is the correspondence achieved between his impulse and the resultant art.

What we have, then, is art that tends to lose itself out of bounds, tends to fill our world with itself, art that in meaning, looks, impulse seems to break fairly sharply with the traditions of painters back to at least the Greeks. Pollock’s near destruction of this tradition may well be a return to the point where art was more actively involved in ritual, magic, and life than we have known it in our recent past. If so, it is an exceedingly important step and in its superior way offers a solution to the complaints of those who would have us put a bit of life into art. But what do we do now?

There are two alternatives. One is to continue in this vein. Probably many good “near-paintings” can be done varying this esthetic of Pollock’s without departing from it or going further. The other is to give up the making of paintings entirely—I mean the single flat rectangle or oval as we know it. It has been seen how Pollock came pretty close to doing so himself. In the process he came upon some newer values that are exceedingly difficult to discuss yet bear upon our present alternative. To say that he discovered things like marks, gestures, paint, colors, hardness, softness, flowing, stopping, space, the world, life, death, might sound naive. Every artist worth his salt has “discovered” these things. But Pollock’s discovery seems to have a peculiarly fascinating simplicity and directness about it. He was, for me, amazingly childlike, capable of becoming involved in the stuff of his art as a group of concrete facts seen for the first time. There is, as I said earlier, a certain blindness, a mute belief in everything he does, even up to the end. I urge that this not be seen as a simple issue. Few individuals can be lucky enough to possess the intensity of the this kind of knowing, and I hope that in the near future a careful study of this (perhaps) Zen quality of Pollock’s personality will be undertaken. At any rate, for now we may consider that, except for rare instances, Western art tends to need many more indirections in achieving itself, placing more or less equal emphasis upon “things” and the relations between them. The crudeness of Jackson Pollock is not, therefore, uncouth; it is manifestly frank and uncultivated, unsullied by training, trade secrets, finesse—a directness that the European artists he liked hoped for and partially succeeded in but that he never had to strive after because he had it by nature. This by itself would be enough to teach us something.

It does. Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will those bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-f happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, or a billboard selling Drano; three taps on the front door, a scratch, a sigh, or a voice lecturing endlessly, a blinding staccato flash, a bowler hat—all will become materials of this new concrete art.

Young artists of today need no longer say, “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer.” They are simply “artists.” All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well. People will be horrified, critics will be confused or amused, but these, I am certain, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.”

(The full text can be found in Alan Kaprow’s wonderful, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. An online version can be found on the Belgium is Happening site.)

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