Jackson Pollock, Before the Drip
“Mural,” his largest painting, is back in New York for the first time in 20 years, at the Guggenheim.
By Jason Farago
For Jacques-Louis David it was “The Oath of the Horatii,” for Kazimir Malevich it was “Black Square,” for Virginia Woolf it was “Jacob’s Room,” for Amy Winehouse it was “Rehab.” These are the breakthrough works — the hinges between the early career and the mature one. Everything before them looks like a warm-up, everything after like a natural outcome, though at the moment of their creation, who could tell?
For Jackson Pollock the hinge was soldered in 1943, when Peggy Guggenheim commissioned him to execute his first monumentally scaled painting: a 20-by-8-foot mural for the narrow vestibule of her Upper East Side townhouse. He’d already won some acclaim for early, Surrealist-inflected paintings, heavily influenced by his teacher Thomas Hart Benton and by the Mexican muralists he revered. But in “Mural,” Pollock opened up into canvas-covering gestural abstraction, with raw, sweeping lines applied with the action of the full body. The ponderous symbolism and overcalculated squiggles of Pollock’s first years got channeled to something rhythmic, automatic, almost dancing, and almost drippy.