Museum exhibitions don't often reverse the conventional wisdom on a major artist.
Incremental adjustments happen all the time, and the expansion of contextual understanding or surprising twists occur. But a 180-degree turn?
Yet, that's what happens in "Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots" at the Dallas Museum of Art. The sharply focused exhibition of the artist's so-called "black paintings," made during a brief but intense period between late 1950 and early 1953, is an exciting, enlightening show.
Almost from the day they were first shown, Pollock's controversial black paintings have been commonly regarded as emblematic of a hugely important artist falling apart and flaming out. After seeing "Blind Spots," which unfortunately will not travel in the U.S., I now think of them in a very different way: The paintings instead show him experimenting with the artistic implications of what he had already achieved.
The show covers just a small slice of the artist's career. But the black paintings, successful or not, represent Pollock's determined struggle not to fall apart.
Past the entry, which includes two small, early-1940s ink drawings, one over a black-and-white photograph of a mother and child, the show unfolds in eight concise galleries. Curator Gavin Delahunty has arranged them to evoke the scale and style of a midcentury New York art gallery.
Baseboard moldings frame the walls. Gray carpet covers the floor.
Black leather furniture emphasizes modernity. Le Corbusier's 1928 cube-shaped Grand Confort club chairs put the structural support on the outside and the soft cushions on the inside. The flat platform and single bolster of Mies van der Rohe's 1930 Barcelona couch emphasize linearity.
Modernity, structural reversals and linearity all turn out to be significant.
The rooms are large enough to comfortably accommodate the art — 31 black paintings (twice as many as have been shown together in nearly half a century), plus more than 40 prints, drawings, rarely seen small sculptures, exhibition announcements and other ephemera. But the galleries are also small enough, like the modest spaces in an urban office building or townhouse, to retain the paintings' imposing, sometimes even dramatic punch.
Many classic Pollock drip paintings approach the public scale of a mural. (The L.A.-raised artist was inspired by the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros and, later, the American regional painter Thomas Hart Benton.)
But many did not. One rap on the black paintings has been that they represent a retreat from big murals back to portable easel paintings. Modern American art barely had a market before the 1950s, and portable easel paintings became associated with market pandering — with "selling out."
The complaint lacks merit. The show's first room features six drip paintings, including the museum's own marvelous "Cathedral" from 1947, and none would be described as huge. (The tangled skeins of enamel and aluminum in "Cathedral" are about 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide.) Several are roughly the size of some black paintings — or even smaller.
The "mural versus easel" argument also has something to do with Pollock's radical technique. The drips were mostly done on raw, unstretched canvas laid on the floor, not on a traditionally upright stretched canvas. But the black paintings mostly were too, with Pollock often pouring paint directly from the can.
The epochal drip paintings were controversial, but no one could deny that they galvanized attention in the small but competitive postwar New York art world — and far beyond. As his friendly rival Willem de Kooning famously put it, Pollock "broke the ice" for the rest of them. His drip technique accomplished something unprecedented.
Line got unhinged from its ancient role as the means with which to describe a figure against a ground. Instead, when Pollock dripped thinned paint from a stick or a brush, moving his wrist and arm fast or slow, wide or contracted, high or low in the air above a canvas, an almost infinitely variable range of linear marks fell to the canvas below. The paintings, made by active drawing in space, read visually as energy unleashed.
This is where the real disdain for the subsequent black paintings comes up. Suggestions of linear figures (or fragments of figures) are self-evident — heads, eyes, birds, claws, reclining or seated nudes, ghostly specters and more. Surprisingly, they often recall the stripped-down linear figures Matisse was making at the same moment.
You might see a head, eye or torso amid the swirls, zigzags and splatters of enamel and oil, but never is a figure set against a ground. Instead, the raw canvas duck is as inseparable from the surface as the poured-paint lines. Figure and ground are the same.
The figurative elements are spectral, there and not there, like subconscious phantoms lurking within the stuff of art. Delahunty, the curator, likens it to the psychic turmoil in Goya's black paintings.
Given Pollock's prominence and fame in the late 1940s, the burning question had been what art's "icebreaker" would do next. The magnificent drip paintings set both the art world and the general public on their collective ear. Life magazine even asked in a splashy 1949 story, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"
To many, the black paintings signaled a step back — a retreat from avant-garde abstraction to retrograde figuration. It didn't help that Pollock had started drinking again, after several years of sobriety. Booze was cast as another sign of deterioration, like the supposed recoil into figurative easel painting.
But that's too simplistic. In reality, the radical abstractions from 1947 to 1950 had opened possibilities for thinking of things in new ways. In 1951 and 1952, Pollock explored them.
He wasn't the only artist ever to have employed a drip technique, which he continued to use in the 1950s to make abstractions alongside the black paintings. Some were successful, like the melting red-yellow-blue drip painting "Convergence," while others, such as "Blue Poles" (not in the show), were not.
But the sense of exploratory experimentation is further stressed by the inclusion of a few modest sculptures. The most curious is a spiky clump of clay painted terra cotta and black with speckled white dots. (It's just larger than two big fists.) Almost never shown, not much is known about them.
So, compared to Pollock's drip paintings, how do the black paintings measure up? I think that's the wrong question.
Pollock, more than anyone, understood that the drip paintings had opened up unexpected possibilities. So, he followed their lead. Unresolved or not, isn't that what an artist should do?
Surely he was chastened by the mostly negative response. (Dealer Betty Parsons could barely give one away.) Pollock's indulgence of alcohol, perhaps fueled by anxiety over his success, was no doubt further powered by fretful fears over his experiments' merits. Whatever the case, drinking engulfed him; eventually he stopped painting, dying at 44 in a drunk-driving car crash.
Rather than signs of dissolution, the black paintings embody a bold and poignant moment just before his unraveling. "Blind Spots" lifts the veil.
'Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots'
Where: Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St.
When: Through March 20