The Weasel

Amazement at the Tate's Jackson Pollock drip paintings gives way to dismay when confronted with Mrs W's monochrome leanings
Click to follow
STALKING THROUGH the Tate Gallery at the press launch of the Jackson Pollock show, Germaine Greer bellowed at an art hack: "I'm renewing my acquaintance with a very old friend." Speaking on Radio 3 that evening, the grande dame explained that the friend in question was a massive drip painting entitled Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, which has been lent by the National Gallery of Australia.

As you may imagine, the work attracted a degree of pungent Aussie criticism when it was purchased for $A2m in 1972. I too was keen to see a particular Pollock, though in my case I was familiar with it only in reproduction. Another titanic example of his drip technique, Convergence: Number 10, 1952, occupied the cover of an influential Penguin anthology called The New Poetry, published in the mid-Sixties. In common, I'd guess, with many other Eng Lit students of my vintage, I became much more familiar with the colourful explosion on the cover than with the ground-breaking works by Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin (who must have detested Pollock) that lurked unread within.

As it turned out, both Germaine and I were disappointed. "When I first saw the painting in Canberra, I was stunned by its glitter. It was like listening to jazz for the first time," she sighed on Radio 3. "But now it looks dim. It can't have been restored. Could it be me?" But I was even worse off. Though it appears in the catalogue, my painting never made it across the Atlantic. As with so many other areas of life (income, food, homes...), we Limeys have to make do with a truncated version of the exhibition that wowed America.

But it is still a tremendous visual feast, beginning with Pollock's youthful struggle to forge his own style and concluding with a room of desperate, murky daubs before his death in 1956 at the age of 44. A desperate alcoholic, Pollock was notoriously belligerent, though rarely physically violent. He put himself about as a rugged hombre, a native son of Cody, Wyoming, though it may be pointed out that the artist left the town named after Buffalo Bill at the age of 18 months.

Most of the works are interesting, but at the heart of the show are a dozen of the most exciting canvases painted this century. His great drip paintings are surprisingly varied, ranging from shimmering veils of colour to scratchy calligraphy. One of the largest, it has to be said, is like a mouldy cheese, grotesquely magnified.

They irresistibly reminded me of jazz. Their improvisatory quality mirrors the bebop revolution that was taking place at the same time. The exploding trajectories of Pollock's paint are the physical equivalent of Charlie Parker's take-no-prisoners sax solos or Bud Powell's ferocious prowling of the keyboard. So it is unsurprising that the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the show was first mounted, has issued a CD selected from Pollock's record collection. It turns out to contain such deeply angst- ridden waxings as "Lazy River" by Louis Armstrong and "It Had to be You" by Artie Shaw.

Of course, there's no reason why the dominant artist of the atomic age had to be a lover of avant-garde jazz, but I wonder if this CD holds a key to Pollock's seismic discontent - that, beneath the raging exterior, he was a bit of a softy? It struck me at the Tate that Pollock's key works are often enjoyably decorative, sometimes obviously so, as in the case of an 18-ft mural called Summertime: Number 9A, 1948. Unfortunately, "decorative" was just about the worst term of abuse you could apply to an artist in New York at the mid-point of this century. If Pollock had only been reconciled to this tendency, he could have lived a long and happy life on Long Island, renowned for the subtlety of his crochet work and the adventurous shape of his drop scones.

JACKSON POLLOCK isn't the only one who suffered traumas with paint. Our snail's-pace struggle to refurbish Weasel Villas hit a snag last week when we came to tackle the dining-room. After infinite rumination, Mrs W decided on grey, exactly the same shade as before. The only trouble is, it's not longer being made. So, you may ask, why not buy another grey and slap it on? That's not the way we do things at Weasel Villas. What we do is scoot round to a local trade supplier and look at the grey offered by Sanderson & Co. According to the royal warrant, this is the company that supplies the wherewithal when the Queen decides to mount the stepladder and slosh on the magnolia at Sandringham.

The only trouble is that Sanderson does not supply a single grey. More like 84. We took home 14 colour cards, each with six varieties of grey printed on them. Holding each against the wall, Mrs W squinted at the pigments like a jeweller assaying precious gems. She did not like Quaker Maid ("too purplish"), Seacliff ("too greenish"), Eventide ("kind of blue") or Kittiwake Grey ("more like fawn"). Sky Grey was "too wishy-washy", Andean Grey was "too murky", Kent Grey was "um, I don't think so", while Stormy Sky was, bless my soul, "too grey". She dismissed the transcendental (Cosmic Grey) along with the down-to-earth (Chimneysweep Grey), the poetic (Halation - it means the halo around a bright object on a photograph) along with the uninspired (Steel Grey), the evanescent (Alpine Mist) along with the substantial (Bastille).

After I began to display the symptoms of a mild apoplexy, Mrs W finally plumped for Early Dawn and Smokescreen. After purchasing the tins, she started dabbing away at the dining-room wall. But not, somewhat to my surprise, with one of the Sanderson paints. She was using a small sample pot of Dulux purchased before we had plunged into this agony of decision- making. More astoundingly, the colour emerging from Mrs W's bristles was not even grey, but a startling shade of green-blue called Fresh Aqua. Wow. It was not so much luminescent as radioactive. "Whadyathink?" barked Madame. There was only one sensible reply: "Great." Sorry, Sanderson, you've still got Her Majesty.


MRS W has developed an inexplicable taste for something called "Just Juice". She glugs a variety called Cranberry and Redcurrant Crush by the Tetra Brik. Going by the ingredients, it should really be called "Just Sugary Water", because "Water" and "Sucrose" come at the top of the list, with "Fruit Juices" not appearing until third place. However, the Trades Description Act has not been breached. On closer inspection, the words "Just Juice" are prefaced by "From the" (in small type) and succeeded by "Company" (in small type). I think I'll stick to my own tipple, which, to drop a hint, is Chateau Lynch-Bages '82. That really is Just Juice.