It might seem idiosyncratic to scrutinize such tiny details in such a large painting: Cathedral’s surface area is eighteen square feet, each dot I have discussed smaller than a dime. Yet my purpose in calling attention to Pollock’s small-scale painterly decisions, the evidence of which he left plainly in sight, is to demonstrate his fastidious concern with the integrity of his surfaces. From the perspective of their studied particularity, limiting the use of “all-over” to describe stylistically the putative uniformity of Pollock’s canvases forecloses the possibility that “all-over” might just as well designate the intentional character of every mark. In Pollock’s automatism, everything matters, at least potentially.
Consider looking at that cursive “c” through a microscope, the edges of the dried ink branching out in irregular furrows into the fabric of the paper. Could Dickinson mean that? Could any human mean that? Would ever more powerful microscopes uncover more and more layers of meaning? It made sense to me to think the answers here should be “no.”
Imagine two surfaces: one, a flat stretch of canvas secured to a physical support; the other, a picture plane. What’s the difference? The canvas is an actual piece of fabric upon which a painter will apply physical material with brushes, rags, and trowels to render an image, whether abstract or representational. The picture plane is an immaterial and intangible screen of pictorial projection. The image that sustains the virtual reality of the depiction is neither identical to nor reducible to the pigment and canvas that literally constitute its configuration.
There is a deep schism within Pollock criticism. Taking Pollock’s marks to index the artist’s activity elevates the causes of his paintings over their meanings, with the consequence that his works of art are reduced to intentionless surfaces that just register his “traces.” That position implicitly requires us to reject the status of a painting as a medium of expression, and treat it instead as an occasion for a viewer’s experience. But Pollock’s project–one that finds its most rigorous articulation in formalist accounts of his art–is based on demarcating the actual from the representational, the literal surface from pictorial meaning.