DALLAS — In 1950 Jackson Pollock was the most famous artist in America, if not in the world. That's an easy thing to write; what it elides is the difficult fact that the quality of his fame was closer to notoriety than celebrity.
Everybody was talking about "Jackson Pollock" — thanks largely to the four-page spread about him that had appeared in Life magazine late the previous year. But no one wanted to buy his paintings. A brilliant solo show at the end of 1950 at Betty Parsons Gallery failed to sell — with the exception of the stupendously beautiful "Lavender Mist," which went to an artist friend for half the asking price. Fame had fallen in his lap, but who had put it there?
He had, of course, with his brilliantly innovative new technique, which involved dribbling skeins of liquid paint from brushes and sticks onto canvases laid out on the floor. But for all his insufferable boasting, Pollock seems to have persisted in feeling himself strangely unworthy.
It's often the way with great innovators. Fifty years later, how obvious it seems: Of course they were great! But at the time, not even they can muster enough objectivity to register what they have done.
Pollock had a few crucial supporters. But he was surrounded, too, by envious snipers. Earlier in the year, Edwin Heller, the doctor who had successfully treated Pollock's alcoholism, had died in a car crash. Eight months later, at the end of weeks of grueling filming that left Pollock feeling like a phony, he fell off the wagon.
And thus, the stage was set for 1951. This was the year that saw Pollock put aside his colored paints and begin "drawing" (squirting, flicking, and dribbling, with uncanny control) thinned black enamel paint onto beige, unprimed, cotton duck canvases.
The results, 28 almost entirely black paintings titled "Number 1" to "Number 28," were shown at Betty Parsons Gallery at the end of the year. That show, too, sold poorly, but Pollock continued to paint in this new manner. A second series was shown at Sidney Janis Gallery at the end of the following year.
If you're unfamiliar with these paintings, it's because they have been gradually weeded out from the narrative of Pollock's midcentury triumph. Only rarely have any of them been selected for Pollock exhibitions. (An exhibition of 11 "black paintings" at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, organized by Francis O'Connor in 1980, was a very rare exception.) Instead, by common consensus, they have always seemed to mark the beginning of Pollock's spectacular decline.
This received idea is called into question by a fascinating show, "Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots" at the Dallas Museum of Art. The achievement of the exhibition — the organizers describe it, with probable justification, as a once-in-a-lifetime event — is to gather together almost all of the black paintings and present them more or less as audiences in 1951 and 1952 would have seen them.
In some senses, the show is revelatory. The cumulative impact of these works is impressive, and forces a fundamental shift in our understanding of Pollock. What becomes clear is that he was not, in 1951, quite yet falling apart. Rather, he was in the grip of something, he was willing to experiment, and he was painting with real audacity.
One of the benefits of seeing these paintings in the flesh is that you see, in ways that photographs of the work never reveal, the curious behavior of Pollock's enamel paints. At the edges of each mark or "puddle," the paint has seeped into the canvas, creating a matte effect, while the center of each mark, where the paint is more saturated, retains a wet, glossy, and from some angles almost sparkling effect, comparable to the metallic paints Pollock used in his earlier drip paintings.
For this and other reasons, the black paintings are full of interest, even if just from a technical viewpoint. In other senses, however, there's something sadly confirming about the display: It contains no more than a handful of paintings — among them "Echo (Number 25, 1951)", "Number 22, 1951," and "Number 9, 1951" — that possess anything like the combination of explosive force and ethereal beauty of the earlier drip paintings.
In the eyes of critics, most of them writing with the benefit of hindsight, the "black paintings" were deemed a retreat from the color and complexity of the revolutionary 1947-50 works. For all their interest, you can understand why. But the question of their quality has long been muddled by a secondary question: whether these paintings constituted a retreat from abstraction.
In summer 1951, Pollock had written to Alfonso Ossorio, the same friend who bought "Lavender Mist": "I've had a period of drawing on canvas in black — with some of my early [figurative] images coming thru."
This simple statement was more charged than it sounds. At the time, the art critic Clement Greenberg, Pollock's great early champion, was arguing not only that the future of "progressive" art lay in abstraction, but also that Pollock himself embodied that future. This show reminds us that, between 1951 and 1953, Pollock had other ideas.
Of course, one school of thought says that Pollock always saw even his great abstract drip paintings as figurative. Certainly, the idea that he was drawing recognizable shapes, prompted by his unconscious mind, in the air over his canvas — or alternatively that such figures were deliberately veiled beneath overlapping whirls of paint — is beguiling. If true, the black paintings may be less of a break from the earlier work than they appear.
But those earlier works were certainly abstract in effect, unlike the black paintings of 1951, which see Pollock return to explicitly figurative mark-making. The images retain a kind of agitated ambiguity, and are often difficult to read. But almost all of them contain drawing clearly intended to be read as faces, arms, legs, breasts, mouths, or fingers.
Much of the time, in paintings like "Number 6," 1952, glimpses of figures appear almost to have been etched out of darkness, in the manner of Picasso and Braque's Cubism, or of Willem de Kooning's 1950 masterpiece, "Excavation." At other times, as in "Number 5 (Elegant Lady)," 1951, the effect is akin to doodling, as if Pollock were absent-mindedly filling up a white page with a pattern here, a scribble there, the outline of a female body there . . .
I mention de Kooning because his role in all of this is impossible to set aside. The two artists had a lot of shared history. Pollock's earlier breakthroughs, along with his raucous and unbridled attitude to life, had done much to shake up de Kooning's own work in the late 1940s. In terms of the public reception of modern art in America, Pollock had undoubtedly "broken the ice," as de Kooning famously acknowledged.
But by 1951, de Kooning had at the very least drawn level with Pollock. The two painters were looked upon as the most vital of their generation. They were at once friendly and intensely competitive.
De Kooning could draw — like an angel. Pollock, by contrast, had never had any aptitude for conventional drawing. His drip painting technique was, among other things, a brilliant way to leapfrog this obstacle.
De Kooning had been making black and white paintings since 1947. Pollock knew these works well. He was not especially interested in the difference between abstract and figurative imagery — it was all paint, as far as he was concerned. And so it was no great switch for him to embark, in the immediate aftermath of the largely abstract "Excavation," on his garish, violent series of paintings of women.
Greenberg hated the "Woman" paintings because they were a return to figurative imagery. But Pollock was drawn to de Kooning's visceral and tactile feeling for paint in a way the more intellectual Greenberg wasn't. He must have been especially intrigued by the first "Woman" painting taking shape in de Kooning's studio (it took two years to complete). It seemed to express feelings about women, from fascination to loathing and dread, that he recognized in himself.
It is surely no coincidence that Pollock switched back to figurative imagery, in which distorted female bodies and heads recur repeatedly, at this very time. He didn't know himself whether they were a retreat, a failure of nerve, or a bold step forward. But he believed in them enough to persist with them for at least two years.
In a sense, it doesn't matter whether he was right to pursue this course or not. Artists must go where they must go. Only critics and theorists need concern themselves with whether the resulting work conforms to their notions or breaks with them.
Sadly, the catalog accompanying "Blind Spots," which was capably organized by Gavin Delahunty, contains an essay by Michael Fried, the academic, critic, and onetime protégé of Greenberg, whose tortuous, self-involved prose has acted like a wet towel repeatedly thwacking the sensibilities of art-history students across the world for at least two generations.
Fried's tendentious, endlessly self-quoting arguments, which attempt to infuse observations gleaned from "close-looking" with a significance so portentous that it quickly becomes self-parodic, need not detain us here. But they are a sobering symptom of the theoretical wars that have long waged around Pollock's work.
These can be traced back to the 1950s, and the toxic animosity between Greenberg and his rival (and de Kooning's champion) Harold Rosenberg. As they continue to purl out beyond the paintings themselves, these never-ending debates blind us both to the momentousness and, in a way, the disconcerting slenderness of Pollock's achievement, adding to the fug of sadness that will always surround his name.
Jackson Pollock : Blind Spots
At: Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, through March 20.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.