EXHIBITIONS: Pollock: the drunk redeemed

Jackson Pollock

Tate Gallery, London

Fifty years ago, in August 1949, Life magazine published a picture of , smoking moodily, under the headline: "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" America, not surprisingly, was eager to challenge centuries of European artistic domination, and so was desperate to find a figure who could paint the nation into the history of 20th-century art; and Pollock emerged as the most likely candidate.

Even among New York's finest, it wasn't easy to find a completely American painter: Willem De Kooning was Dutch, Mark Rothko Russian by descent, Barnett Newman Polish, Arshile Gorky Armenian. But had the makings of a genuinely home-grown hero. Born on a ranch in Wyoming in 1912 and famously photographed in full cowboy dress 15 years later, he looked the part - : cowboy, artist, all-American hero.

Even without Life magazine turning him into a centrefold; even without the tales of his drinking and brawling (he once tried to settle an argument with the painter Philip Guston by throwing him out of the window); even without his premature death, drunk, in a car crash in the summer of 1956; even without all this, the Pollock myth was begging to be made. American art was looking for an American legend, and was that legend on a plate.

Enough of the myth. What of the paintings? When they were last shown in this country in any quantity, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958, the watchwords were "violent", "chaotic", "raw" - words which tied the work back into the life of the hard-man drinker. 50 years on, it's still hard to separate the paintings from what we know of the man - such is his physical presence within them - but the overriding impression at the Tate is one of calm. The best paintings are as energetic and physically exciting as the day they were painted. And yet, the mood of this exhibition is a seductive one with moments of real clarity, especially in the two years from September 1948 (and this really doesn't square with the legend) when Pollock was off the booze completely.

The first thing that becomes clear at the Tate is that the great American hero had a distinctly European start. There are some influences from closer to home: Milton Avery, Thomas Hart Benton, and shades in some early drawings of the influence of the Mexican muralists, but it is Pollock's admiration for Picasso and Joan Mir that looms largest over the opening rooms. Both were exhibited extensively in New York in the late 1930s, and young Jackson borrowed all that he could. And he adapted and he Americanised: casually in the case of Mir - Pollock's Untitled (Blue (Moby Dick)) of the early 1940s is a homage to the Spaniard in all but title - and thoughtfully in the case of Picasso. Picasso was the challenge; an exhibition of his work at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1940 was, for Pollock, a gauntlet waiting to be picked up.

It was another exhibition at Moma in the following year, "Indian Art of the United States", which provided him with the means. Just as Picasso had been fuelled by the arts of Africa, here was a so-called "primitive" art that Pollock could call his own. Something of the wrapped-around, all-over quality of tribal totems found its way into his work almost immediately, but the lingering and most significant impression was that of the Najavo medicine men making paintings by pouring sand upon the ground. Jackson the cowboy, it seemed, was more of an Indian at heart.

His shift from fledgling Picasso to full-grown Pollock didn't happen in an instant, and the build-up at the Tate is slow and not altogether steady. There are some really bad pictures, and others that now look like landmarks of his early career. Stenographic Figure shows a figure painted in a kind of looping shorthand surrounded by secretarial swirls. It was described by Piet Mondrian in 1943 as "the most interesting work I've seen in America" and convinced Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock's first and most important patron, to take him seriously.

Another work, shown at the Tate (the first time it has been seen in this country), which looks absolutely key to Pollock's development is the 20-foot-long Mural that he painted for Guggenheim's apartment, reputedly in 24 hours at the end of 1943: a giant pattern of green and yellow swirls tied by bending black verticals. It's a painting that goes back 10 years to a little picture, Untitled (Composition with Figures and Banners), the first to use the recurring motif of strong black lines to dissect the swirl in vertical segments, and forward to the works where these lines take on the character of dancing figures.

These are paintings which have to be experienced close up. The scale is crucial: the sense of their being just larger than life, of a man working within and around the picture. It is often said that the "all over" quality means that they have no focal point, though I'm not so sure - the layers come and go, constantly shifting, almost dancing, most often from left to right - and our eye goes with it. One sees this fluidity time and again in these pictures, and most clearly in a work like Summertime of 1948, a famous and familiar image from the Tate's own collection, but shown here in a new light.

The curators have indulged in a piece of intriguing, if prescriptive, hanging, surrounding Summertime with a series of little-known works in which the shapes of figures are sliced from the paint-leaden canvas, revealing dancing silhouettes. These owe something perhaps to Matisse's cut-outs of around the same time, hinged back to the jokier side of surrealism, and not in themselves very interesting. But they turn Summertime into an essentially figurative picture - the dripped and poured black paint becomes a series of dancing figures.

The dripping began in 1943, and by 1948 it was a completely resolved technique. Gradually the denseness and claustrophobia of the first dripped works gave way to a lighter touch, allowing space between the arcs and splashes, forming a way through the layers. Ironically, given that there was always air between the end of his brush or stick or turkey-baster and the canvas, there is a stronger sense in these works of the artist's physical touch than in any other work I can think of. No illustration can begin to do it justice: it is something that has to be experienced to be understood.

Between 1948 and 1950, Pollock's superficially messy technique reached a peak of sophistication. Pictures such as Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 and Lavender Mist are controlled, and even a little beautiful, some would say decorative (Francis Bacon called him "the old lace-maker"). But the lasting impression is that these are still some of the most exciting paintings ever painted. It's no accident that the best of them were painted sober - there's a measured quality, despite the swirls and skeins of paint.

Hans Namuth's film of the artist at work in 1950 confirms this: at times the pace is furious, but more often Pollock moves around, across and within the works in a deliberate, balletic trance. It's quite a performance, and one which turned Pollock into the grandaddy of performance art - action painter extraordinaire - more fuel to fire the myths of painter hero.

Sobriety didn't last. The doctor treating his alcoholism died in a car crash in 1950, and soon after, Pollock was back on the booze. There followed, in 1951, a series of intensely dark and powerful pictures, painted in black enamel on raw canvas. Black had long been the defining colour of the work, but in these late pictures, blackness became the driving energy of the work itself.

By 1952 the technique was taking over. He knew it and (all credit to the man's integrity) he stopped. Two pictures hung in the last room of the Tate's exhibition look like the proof of his final facility. The superbly calligraphic Number 1, 1952 and best of all Blue Poles - a return to the monumental scale and rhythms, and almost even the colours of the 1943 Mural reworked by the master dripper. The patterns of the paint follow the same shapes, the eight vertical lines define the sections - there's nothing accidental about it.

Blue Poles is the closest thing to a mature work, and it's a well-thought- out bit of curating that has made it the end point of the show. Chronologically, that honour should have fallen to an unresolved group of pictures from 1953 and 1954 which show him searching, blindly, for a new direction. Neither the schizophrenic Portrait and a Dream, nor the murky depths of Ocean Greyness, nor the Matisse-inspired Easter and the Totem provide any convincing clues as to what might have happened next.

Blue Poles closed the circle and in a sense there wasn't anywhere left for him to go. Paralysis set in, and Pollock hardly painted at all for the last 2 years of his life. He died, drunk, in his car - just in time to guarantee the legend.

Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 6 June.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral