John Armstrong

Portrait of the artist in celluloid
Let's just say that Hollywood loves high drama a lot more than the nuances of art history

In Ed Harris's film Pollock, the depiction of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner's courtship and marriage is vivid and sharp: Their driving ambition, skewed compassion for one another, the destructive alcoholism — and even an oddly shared betrayal — are the sorts of things Hollywood handles well.

But the portrayal of the development of Pollock's art during the last 14 years of his life, although inventive, is murkier and exercises considerable poetic license. Some of the fanciful clues provided in the film to explain Pollock's discovery of his signature drip technique are spreading soil while gardening, keeping warm in a drafty studio and accidentally spilling paint on the floor. And then, Eureka!

The portrait of the artist stumbling, in isolation, on the famous drip method used in his late 1940s-early 1950s "veil" paintings is a creation of the movies. He was the youngest of the core group of Abstract Expressionists (he was 38 in 1950), he became the artist among them to achieve unprecedented popular renown, and he was an innovator in the movement. As Willem de Kooning said, Pollock "broke the ice." But these artists certainly shared ideas.

In 1943, several of the Abstract Expressionists published a statement on their art in the New York Times — at the invitation of the paper's bewildered art critic. "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing," they said. "We assert that subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art."

That shows the bravado and drama of the Abstract Expressionists, and their interest in accessing what they felt to be a more universal, or archetypal visual language. The statement also outlined a belief they would long maintain: There is no clear line separating abstract and representational art, abstract art can be about something. Pollock felt that the best "source of art" was the unconscious and that his artwork embodied emotional states, that his works were almost living beings with human attributes.

Pollock's epiphany likely didn't arise out of locking himself in a Greenwich Village walkup for three weeks, as the film suggests. Abstract Expressionism built on European modernist painting. The two artists Pollock admired most were Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. The impact of Picasso's expressionist figural art can be seen in the early work of Pollock and in the paintings of Lee Krasner. Miro's Surrealist strategy of creating aqueous, free-form painted backgrounds by working his paintings on the floor and later finding forms within them to further develop prefigured Pollock's methodology. There is a logical development from Pollock's early realist attempts under the tutelage of Thomas Hart Benton through his contact with the stridently unpretty murals of Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and on to his late work.

In 1947, Pollock described his hallmark style as follows: "My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor, I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

In looping movements that involved his entire body, Pollock dripped fluid paint onto his mural-scaled canvases using a variety of implements — sticks, trowels and knives, to name a few. He had great control over the result, and even went so far as to work with chemists to modify the enamel house paints he worked with to his liking. Pollock made a distinction between a more unconscious, generative state of being "in" the painting, and a later, conscious state of assessing the result.

Pollock's work was supported by the influential New York critic Clement Greenberg, whose ideas about what paintings should do uncannily coincided with what the veil paintings did. Greenberg, who figures largely in the film, saw Pollock as an important link in a sweep of modernist thinking that began in the 19th century. Painting should, according to Greenberg, de-emphasize the literary or storytelling aspects of traditional depiction and stress formal and abstract properties that were exclusively found in painting's realm: line, two-dimensionality, colour and the materiality of paint, nostrums that are solemnly intoned by Greenberg in the film.

The film casts Pollock's relationship with Greenberg as being both mutually admiring and adversarial. This struck me as plausible, and along with the film's central motif of Pollock and Krasner, sets out a powder keg of an interpersonal universe.

Director/star Ed Harris did take great pains to accurately represent Pollock's art. For example, early in the film, Harris has Pollock put the finishing touches on a convincing rendition of the Surrealist-inflected Male and Female of 1942. But the artwork's real role in the film is to move the story resolutely toward the narrative goal of the invention of the veil paintings, and to serve as a barometer measuring the Pollock character's emotional pressure.

Of course, Hollywood is never going to provide art-historical exegesis of great depth. To really experience Pollock's work, one must look at his actual paintings, and at their continuing resonance.

After Pollock's death in 1956, the critic Greenberg went on to support artists through the 1960s and 1970s who extended Pollock's innovations. American artists such as Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and the Canadian Jack Bush (dubbed Post-Painterly Abstractionists) worked first with solvent- and then water-based acrylic paints on large expanses of unstretched, raw canvas in an intuitive manner that built on Pollock's precedent.

In many North American art schools throughout this period, and certainly by the time I was studying in the mid-1970s, this way of painting became a virtual academy. In the relative isolation of New Brunswick, one of my instructors, Harold Feist, made subtle and wonderfully minimal colour studies in a radial format using scraped-on paint on unstretched canvas. On several occasions, he sent Greenberg slides of his recently completed paintings. Greenberg would reply with meticulously typed assessments on notecards. In response to one of Feist's comments, Greenberg wrote back: "Pollock didn't break through until he [too] resigned himself to not liking his paintings."

By the 1970s, however, Greenberg's ideas were contracting to narrowly focused dogma, reflected in some of the painting he supported. And artists had moved on. Andy Warhol, ever attuned to shifting artworld fashion, made his Dance Diagrams in 1962, paintings based on step-by-step dance-lesson charts that he exhibited on the floor. His pictures offered a witty makeover of Pollock's choreographic painting technique, perhaps ironically editorializing on the nature of Pollock's legacy.

The Globe and Mail, Friday, March 16, 2001