Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 12, 2018
Michael Schreyach Pollock's Modernism New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 344 pp.; 45 color ills. Hardcover $45.00 (9780300223262)
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One cannot complain that Jackson Pollock is an understudied visual artist of mid-twentieth-century American abstraction. Some of the leading art historians working in the modern and contemporary period have scrutinized and contextualized and theorized this artist’s practice, including Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, T. J. Clark, and Michael Leja, to name but a few. One might have felt hard pressed to imagine a need for more scholarly attention, especially when not occasioned by the introduction of substantial new source documents or a focus on lesser-known works in the oeuvre (1). This puts Pollock’s Modernism, Michael Schreyach’s recent monograph on the painter, in a bibliographic context of considerable pressure. Despite these formidable odds, the author makes a convincing case for taking another look.

The book opens with the deceptively simple-sounding ambition to talk about Pollock’s modernism in terms of the artist’s self-professed intent on making “statements” in painting. Statements, as Schreyach elaborates, fall within the realm of representation, of the mediation of meaning or content through materials and conventions, of artist intention, and of viewer interpretation. Schreyach, however, points out that two pervasive tendencies in accounting for Pollock’s importance hardly align with the notion that his paintings make statements. One is the immersive account where distinctions break down between viewer and painting, with the two becoming merged in the oceanic, in an engulfing oneness. Another is the account that takes Pollock’s significance to be in technical innovations and automatic painting processes. What is common to both is the “conflation of meaning with experience” (18) that is direct, absorptive, unmediated, and as such leaving no space for reflection and interpretation.

Avoiding the reduction of meaning to either simply the experience of the viewer or, conversely, that of the artist, Schreyach insists that if we are to talk about meaning in Pollock, we need to pay attention to the mediating term, to the painting as statement. But, what were they statements about? Schreyach’s underlying claim is that Pollock was trying to say things about the nature of perception and the embodied viewer, about the whole phenomenological experiential complex of seeing, thinking, feeling, and that he was doing this through deep investigations of modes of pictorial address and structures of beholding (concepts drawn from Fried) and the formal conventions through which they are manifested. Moreover—and speaking to the book’s title—Pollock undertook this inquiry as a modernist, as one whose art is “commit[ed] to experimentation and self-criticism carried out in relation to the conventions of his chosen medium” (2). Schreyach organizes his argument around five terms—autonomy, anamorphosis, automatism, embodiment, and projection. Each is treated in a separate chapter; they form the key themes through which the “artist subjected the phenomenological interdependence of sensation and cognition in our embodied experience to pictorial scrutiny” (7).

In the first chapter on autonomy, the author introduces a set of distinctions between “what the object is materially” and “what the painting is virtually” (31), or between the empirical and projected, the literal and representational, the actual and pictorial. Maintaining these distinctions is a critical concern carried throughout the book, as Schreyach sees their collapse—that is, failing to see Pollock’s paintings as framed in the sense of pictorial autonomy and being set at a remove from the rest of the world—as feeding the immersive, immediate, anti-representational accounts and as blinding us to the essence of Pollock’s project. In order to grasp what Pollock was trying to do, we need to take his work as mediated expressions. What makes this so tricky is that Pollock was working on conventions governing pictorial space and the viewer’s access to it in terms of the “twinned problems of dimensional effect (which solicits a projective gaze into ambiguous depth) and virtual planarity (which counters that projection)” (37). Tracing this dual theme in the earlier paintings The Moon-Woman (1942), Stenographic Figure (ca. 1942), and Male and Female in Search of a Symbol (1943), Schreyach sees its full articulation in the classic “drip, pour, and spatter” painting Number 28, 1950 (1950). What Pollock achieves, Schreyach argues, is the “effect of visual immediacy,” which though seemingly running counter to pictorial autonomy, must be understood as an effect carefully wrought from within the conventions of painting as a medium. Pollock’s sublimity is in presenting visual immediacy, but as a picture, as an autonomous work of art.

The next chapter, “Anamorphosis,” takes up Pollock’s engagement with the pictorial conventions of perspective and specifically anamorphic perspective, a perspectival system where what appears as a pictorial distortion from one point of view is typically resolved from another point of view. Focusing on Mural of 1943, the work famously commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her entryway, Schreyach situates it in relation to Clement Greenberg’s concerns over the contemporary stakes of painting (“The Crisis of the Easel Picture”); the impact of the artist’s exposure to David Alfaro Siqueiros’s formal experiments at the mural scale with point of view; and correspondences to Sergei Eisenstein’s experimentation with cinematic techniques. He argues that Pollock challenges traditional notions of point of view and establishes in the painting an “anamorphic structure of beholding” (95). For Schreyach the “pressure” Pollock is able to put on pictorial conventions results in a staging of the convention itself (96), such that the viewer of Mural experiences a concerted awareness of point of view in general.

In the third chapter “Automatism,” Schreyach tackles the questions raised of Pollock in regard to artistic agency and automatic painting processes. In the typical discussion, automatism loosely registers as activity in which is the artist is immersed in the process and materials and operates out of the unconscious. On this account, Pollock’s work is considerably open-ended, where the governing values are the accidental, chance, and the unintentional. Schreyach, while wholly rejecting the “abdication of meaning” (122), does not dismiss the importance of the theme of automatism to the artist. Drawing upon a range of insights gleaned from Fried, Charles Palermo, Lisa Florman, Charles Stuckey, and Clark, Schreyach weaves a complex argument that locates Pollock’s automatism in the achieved effects seen in Cathedral (1947) and Number 1A, 1948 (1948) of seeming to be self-generated and of “general directedness or pervasive intentionality” (107). Far from the image of an unthinking Pollock who simply lets the material speak for itself, the Pollock that emerges is a painter insightfully thematizing the nature of agency and expression as structured by the “gap between intention and effect” (99).

The closing two chapters work heavily with phenomenological theory in regard to Pollock’s painting and stand out as distinctly fruitful instances of theoretical concepts illuminating artworks and vice versa. Chapter 4, “Embodiment,” presents a comparative consideration of Pollock’s project in painting—looking primarily at Number 1A, 1948, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 (1950), Number 32, 1950 (1950), and Number 1, 1949 (1949)—alongside Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of pre-objective reality and pre-reflective experience. Also introduced is the psychologist Paul Schilder’s work on the body image (The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, 1935), a concept that is important for Schreyach’s claim that what Pollock was working on and achieved in these paintings is a way of representing the experience of embodiment. Continuing within a phenomenological frame, in the fifth and final chapter, Schreyach turns to Pollock’s late style black figural paintings from 1951–52. Bringing in Merleau-Ponty’s “object-horizon structure” and Stanley Cavell’s “screen-frame” as well as building from the formal analyses of Fried, among others, Schreyach lays out the complex relations between projection and embodiment, seeing and feeling, interior and exterior, the visible and invisible he sees at play. Far from representing anything like an artistic crisis or reversal, the black paintings, he argues, present a mode of vision—of embodied projection—and thus fall coherently in line with the artist’s sustained inquiry into the perceptual and the pictorial.

There is a great deal to commend in Schreyach’s work—the rigor in defining terms; the care in qualifying claims; expansive footnotes; scholarly craftsmanship in the structural clarity of components set in a tight argumentative mesh—but standing out foremost is his “patient observation, description, and analysis” to the “particularity of the paintings themselves” (7). Rejecting and countering anything like the “projection of arbitrary or idiosyncratic meanings” (20) onto Pollock’s paintings, Schreyach diligently grounds claims in concrete details that he can point to and that we can see. In this the author has clearly done his job, but the text demands a reciprocity of effort on the reader’s part. One must be willing to follow, actively and patiently and openly, Schreyach’s navigation of dense visual passages, as he painstakingly builds incident by incident an exceptionally nuanced picture of what Pollock was about. This is not a criticism—and it might even be taken as exemplary of art history’s disciplinary strength—but it is a caution to the potential reader that this is a book where reading must be matched by looking and that little will make sense unless one is willing to spend time with Pollock’s paintings and strive to attend to them as exactingly as the author has.

There seems little question that this study will enter the higher ranks of Pollock scholarship. However, I suspect that readers will need to care very much about Pollock and the debates over the nature of his formal achievement in order to sustain the concentration that the author’s intricate arguments require and deserve. 

Annika Marie
Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Art and Art History Department, Columbia College, Chicago

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.