A work of art demands to be the right size, whether that entails the artist rising a little higher to the occasion or scaling back. For example, certain Vermeers would forfeit their intimacy if the artist had gone larger. Likewise, a certain monumentality would never have emerged if Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” at LACMA was a few feet smaller. For that matter, if the airliners that perpetuated the collapse of the World Trade Center had opted for a couple of hangars or a warehouse our visual memory of that day would resonate somewhat less.
James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888) is an immense painting, perhaps the largest one consistently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum. However, through June 1, Ensor’s “Christ” is playing second fiddle to Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” (1943), which was transported to the Getty in July 2012 for conservation treatment. It was recently placed on display, and damn if it doesn’t look like new! But that’s only part of the story.
“Mural” was commissioned by the wealthy arts patron Peggy Guggenheim to smother an entire wall in the hallway of her New York apartment. Guggenheim’s intentions were to return to Europe after the war, which she did, and presciently it was Marcel Duchamp who suggested to Pollock that he should paint his picture on canvas rather than on the wall itself. It’s a good thing he listened.
At the time, Pollock was living with artist Lee Krasner. Because of the size of their studio/apartment, a partitioning wall needed to come down so that Pollock could create “Mural,” which measures almost 96” by 238” (Ensor’s painting, by contrast, is a tad under 100” by 170”). It turned out to be Pollock’s largest canvas in every sense of the word, a battlefield waiting for the battle.
Energy snagged in midflight
Pollock would have been 31 when he created “Mural,” with his famous “drip” paintings still to come. Although he’d developed a recognizable style a while before this, it’s fair to speculate on his influences, and in the book that accompanies the display of “Mural” Ellen Landau walks us through the sources, those people whose work or ideas may have helped shape or crystallize Pollock’s aesthetics. Names that come up include Stanley William Hayter, Roberto Matta, Robert Motherwell, Pablo Picasso, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros – the latter two, with Diego Rivera, comprising the Mexican muralists known as los tres grandes. However, the latter artists being figurative painters, it was probably their attitude rather than their content that most impressed Pollock.
This writer would also speculate on the possible influences of Albert Pinkham Ryder and the German Expressionists such as Franz Marc and Oskar Kokoschka. Even more specifically, I’d wonder about Wilfred Lam (“The Jungle” also dates from 1943) and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” the latter being one of the eye-openers during the Armory Show held in New York City in 1913. Pollock wouldn’t have seen the show, but if he later knew Duchamp then he surely knew of the painting. An early critic described it as “an explosion in a shingle factory,” and one can visualize striding figures in “Mural” as well, although in Pollock’s work it may be more of a stampede.
I’m not sure if Pollock’s conception of what to paint was influenced by the space where the picture was to be installed, but the measurements were off and it took a bit of effort to get the work snugly into place, during which time Pollock lost his patience and others – including Duchamp – had to finish the job. Pollock seems to have been moody and temperamental and capable of losing his cool – one of those artists dubbed an enfant terrible when they’re young and old farts when they aren’t – and this fueled various myths about him as well as, most probably, indirectly leading to his willful carelessness while driving and ultimately to the single-car accident that cost him his life, plus that of one passenger.
Keeping in shape
Foremost among these myths was that “Mural” was painted during an all-night creative binge. I think that we like to hold onto wild or farfetched stories where art or artists are concerned, and are not in a hurry to debunk them. In the case of “Mural,” though, which was thoroughly analyzed during conservation, it was discovered that the picture could not have been painted in one monomaniacal session. Essentially, the conservators were able to determine which paint had been applied first by taking note of which other colors were applied on top of them. That is, they could peel back the layers, so to speak, and retrace Pollock’s steps. In some cases, the paint below was already dry when new colors were added. The evidence thus points to at least two subsequent sessions, which doesn’t really contradict the myth that the canvas was painted in one adrenalin-fueled bout. Instead, it reveals that Pollock stepped back from the work for days or even weeks, mulled over what he’d hammered out, and then pumped it up a little more into the picture that he wanted – or rather what the picture wanted to become. This isn’t unlike a writer grinding out a short story in one sitting, and then going back to grind the lenses and touch up the manuscript. And so, with “Mural,” we can now see both the passion and the discerning eye, which is more the mark of a true artist.
So, what are we left with?
The Getty has pretty much given “Mural” a cage to itself; there are no “competing” pictures in the room because Pollock’s would simply eat them up.
In scope it’s Wagnerian, a Venusberg orgy of color and form, form that swims freely with its clothes off, and as a prime example of an “allover” painting (eschewing the singular point of entry) it hits like an explosion – think of Cai Guo-Qiang, whose work resembles orchestrated firecrackers – and we’re swallowed up or barraged all at once.
That’s somehow fitting. Artworks should be like big animals that don’t like us much, that chase us from gallery to gallery and have us thinking nervously about them for weeks to come.
A dozen years after “Mural,” however, Pollock seems to have been at an impasse. In the earliest monograph, published only three years after Pollock’s death, Frank O’Hara wrote that there is no ambiguity in the paintings: “Each is a direct statement of the spiritual life of the artist. Each is its own subject and the occasion for its expression.”
A couple of pages later, O’Hara adds: “‘Blue Poles’ is our ‘Raft of the Medusa’ and our ‘Embarkation for Cytherea’ in one. I say our, because it is the drama of an American conscience, lavish, bountiful and rigid.”
Well, that’s a lot to hold over an artist, or for an artist to try and measure up to, who maybe felt he was running out of gas. “Mural” is a high point, it’s ahead of the pack, but one can and should still ask how it is we can tell a good Jackson Pollock from a mediocre Pollock, or one that’s very good from one that’s simply great. What are we looking for that elevates a certain canvas not only above its siblings but above much of the other art of the time?
Would Pollock, had he lived to be an old man like Ensor, have ended up on a plateau merely repeating himself, as Ensor did? Or did he sense, like Hemingway, and certainly like Mishima, that there was no longer any there there – as Gertrude Stein would have put it?
But that’s food and fodder for another day, after “Mural” has hitched a ride home with you to roost and root about in your imagination. If you’ve previously ignored or been indifferent to Pollock’s work you won’t be after you’ve stood open-eyed, open-armed, in front of this one.
Recommended, also, is the accompanying book, “Jackson Pollock’s Mural: The Transitional Moment” (Getty Publications, 124 pp., $29.95), which begins with an agile, insightful introduction by actor-comedian-novelist-art collector Steve Martin, and goes on to be informative about the entire history of the work in the time since Pollock created it.
The painting, after being on loan to Yale University, was then donated by Peggy Guggenheim to the University of Iowa in 1951. When it was shown at MOMA in 1967 there was concern about the ensuing wear and tear, for by then “Mural” had been rolled and unrolled at lest five times and (the paint really too heavy for the canvas and frame) a noticeable sag had developed.
Although treated in 1973, a coat of varnish applied at that time slowly dulled Pollock’s bright colors over the next 40 years. The picture lost its healthy pallor and by 2009, if not before, it was clear that some restoration was mandatory and would have to include yet another, and sturdier, frame. And so “Mural” found its way to the Getty. Before heading back to Iowa it awaits – no, it beckons – all of L.A. to come and stand in its vibrant, tangled, colorful warm glow.
Coming up: On Saturday, May 3, there is a screening of Pollock (directed by and starring Ed Harris) at 4 p.m. in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium at the Getty Center, followed by a panel discussion – “Exploring Pollock” – at 6:30. In addition to Harris, the panel will include the Getty Conservation Institute’s Tom Learner, Pollock composer Jeff Beal, and New York University art professor Pepe Karmel. Free, but reservations recommended.
Mural is on view through June 1 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Free; parking, $15. Call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu.
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