“Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” is a sensational exhibition (at Tate Liverpool, until 18 October) – grand, exhilarating and so unexpected as to make the painter’s career look altogether different. It brings together nearly half of the semi-figurative Black Paintings from the early 1950s. This would be unique enough – they haven’t been shown together since Pollock’s death, drunk at the wheel of his Oldsmobile in 1956 – but here they appear among a tremendous selection of paintings from every period, to reveal a startling continuity between the figurative and the abstract in Pollock’s career.
Early Pollock’s, like the marvelously exuberant Summertime: Number 9A (1948), which opens this show, are now almost 70 years old. Their making was closer to Victorian times than our own. And yet how staggeringly fresh and daring they still look, Pollock’s leaping black lines – apparently describing nothing – as free as a bird to be purely, sheerly visual as they dance across the canvas. They were the liberation of American painting, but they are liberating for the viewer too. You feel your heart lift at their soaring vitality.
And immediately you notice that whatever he is doing with that line – drip never seems the right word for it – varies with every single painting. Arm and hand produce delicate calligraphy, wild lariat, swaying undulation and knitted skein; fireworks go off, constellations of stars spatter the darkness, paint seeps into unprimed canvas like blood or melting ice. With Summertime, Pollock conducts a sultry music across a dense panorama of sunlit clearings and undergrowth.
Try this at home, incidentally, and you find it’s almost impossible or to alternate whiplash vigor with spun-sugar fragility so that it’s impossible to tell which lines are above and which below. Pollock was irritated by the routine accusation that he just stood about and dripped on the floor. “I control the flow of the paint. There is no accident, just as there is no beginning or end.”
Are there classical figures in Summertime? The curators hint at it, encouraging us to look more deeply into the painting. And that’s the genius of the show. It is beautifully paced so that inklings of the future were always there in hindsight, as it were; when you come to the Black Paintings, they still look irreducibly abstract in their visual lexicon, no matter how figurative they may be; and the same becomes true in reverse.
Sparklers ignite the night sky; five explosions go off in slow-mo sequence like the frames of a thriller; a rose flares open in the heat. Three ladies in high fashion are getting along on their heels through squares of silver canvas, comical but elegant; a massive figure powers along against a billowing yellow sky. The black paintings are rarely all black.
There is a certain Rorschach aspect to them. Some people claim to see demonic Goyaesque faces, or writhing figures descended from Picasso’s Guernica. But everyone can see the muckle head in Portrait and a Dream, from 1953, as a self-portrait by other means. Heavy, tragic and stymied, it dreams sadly of the nude next to it. The doctor who successfully treated Pollock’s alcoholism had himself died in a crash and Pollock was drinking heavily again.
Reproductions give very little sense of Pollock’s paintings because they shrink the characteristic expansiveness and still the mobile surface. You see this especially in the black works, where the enamel paint he used gleams and glints, speeding the line around the canvas. One painting will fizz; the next will slow the eye, matt lines appearing mute and spectral grey against the black. There is limitless variety to Pollock’s invented method.
He used sticks and basting syringes like giant fountain pens. And the writing of these compositions irresistibly presents itself in the stunning works on watercolor paper. Here the marks are isolated – serifs, hyphens, hooks and curlicues – lying on the surface in glazes, capturing the exact moment of their making. Here is the pure beauty of Japanese calligraphy, of fine mists, reeds and rivers, and of the floating world of Monet’s water lilies, all achieved in dazzling black and white.
Go back two years from these 1951 works to a nominally abstract painting like Number 3, 1949: Tiger – all yellow, black and auburn, the painting arm prowling across the surface, hints of green burning through the camouflage of brush marks – and the wild beauty of the beast is so magnificently invoked that the painting amounts to something beyond metaphor. It isn’t a representation so much as a translation into Pollock’s fiercely original language of art.
And it could have gone on and on, this ceaseless invention; that’s one of the revelations
of this exhibition. You can treat this as the survey of a brief and neglected phase – the Black Paintings were all made between 1951 and 1953 – but it is, in effect, a brilliantly condensed Pollock show in its own right. What it presents is an idea in constant revolution and a way of painting of such infinite variety that each work – against all the odds – comes as a radical surprise.