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Never Mind the Pollocks

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.


Harry Cooper

I find myself in broad agreement with the account of Pollock’s classic work outlined by Michael Schreyach in the twenty or so brilliant and intense pages that we were assigned. Schreyach’s intellectual investments—in Clement Greenberg over Harold Rosenberg, and relatedly, in intention over accident, to put it too simply—match my own, both when it comes to modernist painting in general and to Pollock in particular. However, Schreyach pushes the consequences of those investment choices beyond my comfort zone, arriving at a Pollock whose intentionality I find overly elaborate. In his zeal to establish Pollock’s intentionality on firm and reasonable grounds, in a way that does not attend too much to the exact placement of individual drips and splatters and thus strain our credulity, Schreyach, if I read him correctly, relocates that intentionality to what I can only describe as a meta-level. And Pollock is not, for me, a meta-painter.

There is a lot at stake here, given that Schreyach’s starting point, his third type of automatism, may be the most widely shared and reported experience of modernist artists, namely the sense that works of art “emerge automatically, according to their own casual logic, absent of any willful motivation and outside the range of one’s deliberate control” (97). He quotes Pollock’s famous “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing” as well as Juan Gris’s “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be” (5). One could add several other versions of this, whether Henri Matisse’s “When I am not conscious of what I am doing, it’s a complete success,” or Pablo Picasso’s “When a form is realized it is there to live its own life,” or Pierre Soulages’ recollection, decades later, of making one of his earliest paintings:

Je travaillais sur ce brou de noix, et brusquement la chose s’est mise à m’imposer, à ma surprise, une série de formes, de gestes… J’étais pris par une logique propre: là une oblique, et obligatoirement j’en mettais une autre ici parce que cette oblique-là appelait celle-ci. J’éprouvais à la fois un sentiment de plaisir et presque de gêne de voir à quel point j’étais manipulé par cet objet.

One could easily stop here, content in the observation that a fundamental aspect of modernist painting, at least when it is going well, is a lack of premeditation, an improvisatory, flowing, all-consuming submersion of painter in medium to the point that will, consciousness, and even time itself can seem suspended or annihilated as the artwork takes over. But—and it is to Schreyach’s great credit that he pushes us to ask the question—so what? As viewers, after all, what we care about is not the painter’s experience but our own. This automatism, which Schreyach defines generally as a “dissociation of intention and outcome,” has to be put across, so to speak, to mean something. As he writes, it “must be pictorially thematized or represented in order to be interpreted and understood” (98).

There are two moves that I find telling here. One is the insistence that this kind of automatism, for it to be meaningful to viewers, must be represented or thematized. Why this insistence on a word that suggests in itself a high degree of conscious intention, a willed act of selection and presentation? Did Pollock really set out in his classic paintings to make automatism the theme of the work? Did he even think in terms of themes? And the other is Schreyach’s recasting of the reported experience of automatism from one of a mere absence of conscious intention (which characterizes all the examples just cited) to one of a positive dissociation, gap, opacity, or conflict between intentions and results.

The idea of conflict turns out to be a key set-up in Schreyach’s account, for he aligns the conflict between intention and outcome with that between the brute materiality of the painting and its potential meanings. For Schreyach, the visual upshot of Pollock’s classic paintings is to emphasize both of these tensions. Analyzing several instances of uncanny (my word) rhyming or gesturing bet-ween what must surely be accidental incidents in the paintings, Schreyach concludes that while Pollock could not have intended or “pre-visualized” them in advance (or at least it would be “rash to insist” that he did), he nonetheless did “anticipate” such effects and (Schreyach implies) valued and preserved them, perhaps even enhanced them. Why would he do that? Because they “call on the viewer to gauge the distinction between non-signifying materiality and pictorial meaning” (104). “The viewer scrutinizing such marks confronts at each moment the difficulty of deciding whether Pollock has caused an accident, realized an intent, or transformed one thing into another” (100). To put it simply, using terms that Schreyach happily avoids, Pollock sets out to foreground and problematize intention. He intends to.

But that is not all. At this point Schreyach brings on Greenberg in order to help make the point that there is actually less conflict than might appear between accident and intent, between “classic automatism” and the “factors of control” that Pollock increasingly claimed in his verbal statements as his own (107). What Pollock achieved, Schreyach now suggests in an important turning in the argument, are less pictures of conflict than pictures of harmony. The Greenberg passage in question is one of his most lyrical. Citing Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism of 1912-15 (it has always puzzled me why Greenberg did not instead cite the cubism of 1908-11), the critic writes:

There is something of the same encasement in a style that, so to speak, feels for the painter and relieves him of the anguish and awkwardness of invention, leaving his gift free to function almost automatically.

Schreyach meets this lyricism with some of his own, extending Greenberg’s “elasticity” to suggest that latent in the critic’s formulation is the idea that Pollock transfers the very fact of agency or intention from himself to the painted surface, “making the painting shimmer with its own purpose”—a beautiful line, and one that reminded me of the discussion of Aquinas’ aesthetics in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The radiance is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing.” Schreyach continues:

By imparting to the field such a thoroughgoing liveliness, Pollock pictorially thematizes a connection betweeen the agency that actually produced the picture (his own, even if deployed “automatically”) and the fictional agency the painting represents (the “inevitability” of its inherent, self-regulative “logic”).

This seems to me something of a leap in the argument, and it further seems appropriate that it was inspired by Greenberg, who was himself a master of dialectical conversion. What Schreyach thus manages to do is to take very seriously the modernist artist’s experience of intentionless flow and convert it into the fact of an intentional surface, or a surface that presents the fiction of having intentions. Whether or not that was Pollock’s achievement as well is a question that will continue to bother me every time I look at one of his paintings.


Eva Ehninger

I admire this book. I applaud its dedication to specific paintings by Jackson Pollock, and its unwavering focus on the description and analysis of his pictorial strategies. The way Michael Schreyach leads his readers through his argument, with his concise and beautiful writing that captures his observations with great clarity, results in some of the most thorough, differentiated, and convincing statements about Pollock´s painterly practice that have been written to date. The book is a pleasure to read. What is more, it is an ethical statement. This is what I want to comment on in the following.

The third chapter, “Automatism,” is at the heart of the book. Here Schreyach takes that technique of Pollock as the nucleus for his argument, a technique that has long been regarded as the defining feature of the artist’s work process: the dripping of liquid color onto the canvas surface lying horizontally and unstretched on the studio floor. According to Schreyach, Pollock´s automatism does not just describe the artist´s procedure of painting (dripping, pouring, splattering color), or the automatic functions of his living body, nor does it designate solely an automatic psychological experience dissociated from the artist´s conscious decisions.

Rather, Schreyach describes automatism as the very content of Pollock´s art. Automatism is not just employed, it is pictorially thematized: it is represented. All elements of automatism—the dripping; the body; the psyche—need to be addressed from the background of automatism as the topic of the painting itself. Schreyach argues that by putting pressure on conventional strategies of finding pictorial form Pollock zeroes in on the question of what it takes to make a meaningful picture. The artist might acknowledge and even address with painterly means the gap between his artistic intentions and the ultimate effects of his artworks—by putting marks in places that either provoke or limit their contextual interpretation, for example, or by liberating the line from its function of defining a pictorial shape. However, according to Schreyach, Pollock does not submit to this challenge. Rather it is fundamental to the artist’s structure of expression. This is the gist of Schreyach’s argument: Pollock´s paintings, which show the workings of automatism, are declarations of the artist’s intention to make a picture.

In his detailed and precise interpretation of the painting Cathedral (1947), Schreyach argues that each of the innumerable marks on the canvas immediately enter into possible relationships with one another, forming pictorial incidents that might, despite their circumstantial appearance, be “backed by a deliberate intention.”1 By calling attention to Pollock’s painterly decisions that are in evidence everywhere on his enormous drip-paintings, Schreyach argues that the artist’s automatism shows his artistic intention. Despite the fact that the paintings’ overall appearance seems to continuously slip into automatically produced chaos, Pollock, by means of his pictorial strategies, continues to give us clues as to how his pictures were made. Intention, then, is built into the work itself, it is what the work is made out of.

With this, the stage is set for the underlying issue, the true raison d´être for Schreyach’s book. “I take the general position,” he writes, “that ‘automatism’ designates a complex relation between an agent, her intentions, and the consequences of the actions she undertakes to realize or express those intentions.”2 It is Pollock´s (don’t be confused by the politically correct female pronoun thrown in) intention, then, that Schreyach is after, and he argues that we are able to lift this intention off Pollock´s paintings despite the fact that they are abstracted networks of liquid paint seemingly applied with methods that cannot be controlled by the artist’s mind or body. Schreyach does not arrive at this emphasis on intention by means of his pictorial analyses—it is the other way around. His serious attention to single works of art by Pollock is geared toward his underlying argument in favor of intentionality. For Schreyach, to search for and discover the artist’s intention is an ethical necessity. It needs to be the start and endpoint of any interpretation.

Schreyach´s book contributes to an argument between those art historians who see as their job the authoritative interpretation of an artist´s intention (the “intentionalists”), and their assumed counterpart, those who orient their interpretation along individual responses, which might not have much to do with the artist´s initial aims (the “anti-intentionalists”). I have gleaned this differentiation of the two schools of thought from an issue of from 2012, which was dedicated to the re-evaluation and rehabilitation of the “intentionalist” approach.3 Clearly and thankfully, the world of art history is much more differentiated than the juxtaposition of these two contrarian approaches allows, though. I am astounded by the vehemence with which the “intentionalists” dismiss any methodology that employs structuralist, post-structuralist, hermeneutic or other viewer-oriented approaches. According to the “intentionalist’” argument, all of these succumb to the fundamental fallacy of focusing on the effects an artwork actually produces, rather than on the effects it was intended to produce. According to the “intentionalists,” however, to describe what happens to the audience of a work of art is not the same as to describe what happens in the work. The beholder’s affective response is no window to the work’s meaning.

I have come to understand that the term “intention” is (still? or once again?) a bit of a minefield in the U.S.-American realm of art history and art theory. The “intentionalist” insistence on the work’s meaning as it is intended by the artist has come under attack in the face of post-colonial, feminist, queer or socio-historical approaches that question, bracket or at least contextualize both the idea of artistic intention and that of interpretive authority. From the position of a growing number of art historians, the “intentionalist” argument seems a losing battle. The unapologetic focus on an artist’s intention appears not just as misguided but as increasingly irrelevant, as the field critically reinvents itself by questioning its geographies, canons, institutions, authors and authorities. But to blankly dismiss the “intentionalist” effort is to turn a blind eye on scholarship such as Schreyach’s, whose book is a revelation to anyone thinking about Pollock’s work specifically and the late-modernist critique of representation in general, and who clearly follows a larger ethics of understanding with his approach.

What I consider as worthwhile exploring in the argument between the two (imagined) counterparts of art history (the “intentionalists” versus the “anti-intentionalists”) is that both positions accuse each other of political conservatism and orthodoxy. What those of us who have subscribed to the run-of-the-mill, socially conscious, viewer-oriented, context-driven art history accuse the “intentionalists” of is clear: chasing an artist’s intention which can never be clearly delimited, and producing their own interpretations as authoritative statements while dismissing other affective, individual, or historically specific reactions a work of art might generate. But what does the “intentionalist” critique target? In the eyes of Walter Benn Michaels, whose writings serve as an important source for Schreyach, the “anti-intentionalist” approach is an orthodox ideology of neoliberalism. Not only does it conflate the effects of an artwork with its meaning, thereby denying the artist’s intention any role in determining the meaning of the work; it also produces subjects whose differences cannot be understood as disagreements (you cannot argue about the different effects an artwork has on you). Its valorization of effect is defined by alterity and identity, that is by the acknowledgment of difference “as such.”4 I can understand Benn Michaels’ critique. The mere acknowledgment of difference—a vacuous kind of relativism—does not justify the moral high ground that a socio-critical art history regularly claims for itself. However, I also don’t believe that a return to the authoritative ascription of an artist’s intention is the solution.

Michael Schreyach acknowledges the fragility of the relationship between modern artists and their audience with regard to the content of a work of art. His own interpretive work is an attempt to respond to Pollock’s intention rather than to simply react to his canvas, to go beyond individual observation and enter a shared space of seeing. It is, then, a study in communication through and about art, which believes in art’s possibility to address its audience in a meaningful way that was intended by the artist. One might say, “Schreyach still believes,” and dismiss this belief as a retreat into a modernist dream-world. However, to present and demand the willingness to enter into a serious and focused form of communication is anything but irrelevant today.


1.Michael Schreyach, Pollock’s Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2017), 101.
2.Ibid., 98.
3.Charles Palermo, “Introduction: Intention and Interpretation,” 6 (Summer 2012):
4.Walter Benn Michaels, “Intention at the College Art Association (2010),” 6 (Summer 2012):


Megan R. Luke

“I lost contact with my first painting on glass,” Jackson Pollock confesses in voiceover in Hans Namuth’s 1951 color film of the painter at work. “And I started another one.” As we hear these words, we see Pollock wipe off paint from his transparent support. He does not obliterate the painting we have just seen him make, but rather his signature, floating in empty space. At some point, off-camera, we tell ourselves, he must have written this script backwards, for the benefit of our reading. We think we know this because the name he rinses away recalls the very first shot of the film, which had appeared to record a bravura demonstration of reversible writing. At Black Mountain College, Josef Albers had challenged his students to perform a similar exercise, called “drawing in air.” Standing before them, Albers would gesture in space, and they, in turn, first had to recognize that he was writing his signature from behind (“so that they could read it—not for my reading,” as he later recounted). Then he would demand they master this motor skill, flipping and spinning their own names to estrange themselves from habits of looking and embodiment. We might say it was a lesson in previsualization rooted in an aesthetics of empathy—“a matter of feeling, not of seeing.”5

But in Namuth’s film, something is amiss. For starters, Pollock’s two signatures—the one he paints at the beginning and the other we find him erasing at the end—are not the same. We see the second signature just long enough to recognize that Pollock had given it the wrong date, “50,” and in that recognition, we become aware that he must have painted it before the first, accompanied by the right date, “51.” This reversal of chronological ordering in the filmic sequence stresses the power of Namuth’s editing to upend the automatic relationship between “before” and “after” and to offer a particular gloss on Pollock’s claim that “there is no beginning and no end.” What is more, the spectacle of Pollock’s “drawing in air” obscures another sleight of hand. It takes some time (and subsequent shots showing the painter at work) to realize that we had seen the painter write his signature with what appeared to be his left (that is, wrong) hand. And the moment we do, we understand that Pollock did not write backwards for our benefit at all, but that Namuth had, in fact, flipped the film so that it would appear that way, thereby exploiting the transparency of the screen of projection to identify it with the glass of the painting.

What do we talk about when we talk about Pollock’s painting? This is the chief question raised by the account Michael Schreyach gives of his art and the idea of automatism. The answer depends on whether we think we are talking about a “picture” or an “event” when we respond to the word “painting.” The history of abstraction has long relied upon the ambiguity latent in the gerund (by analogy, just think of the consequences that words like the German Gestaltung or the Dutch beelding have had for its early theorization). As Schreyach rehearses, this ambiguity structured the critical reception of Pollock’s poured technique from the very start. Here again, we are asked to review the relative merits of ideas about autonomy (Clement Greenberg) and action painting (Harold Rosenberg). For readers intimate with the discussion of automatism and modernist painting offered by Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed, this will be familiar terrain.6  Schreyach does not aim to disturb the seeming inevitability of these critical alternatives, but to refine their terms instead. In his own efforts to articulate the meaningful difference between the automatic act and the chance event—between Pollock’s use of his materials “as a means to achieve an expressive end” and the impulse to use them “simply to find out what happens” (115)—he introduces the metaphor of speculation. The significance of an artistic act is not revealed after the fact, as in a game of risk. Instead, the artist works with and against “opacity”—that is, he works with and against the specter of failing to express what he means with the means at his disposal. Working with the knowledge that he might always “lose contact” with a painting, Pollock understands that this opacity conditions his expression, but he does not make it the end of his art.

However, I’ll admit to being rather more interested in another facet of Schreyach’s return to the matter of automatism, namely the possibility of failure in the course of recognition—a kind of failure we might see represented by Namuth’s film. In the excerpt under review, Schreyach quickly admits that Pollock’s technique generated paintings that evade our ekphrastic control. He openly acknowledges that his own fastidious attention to minute details of paintings such as Lucifer and Cathedral (both 1947) is, at some level, absurd—the equivalent of holding a loupe to inspect a tiny fragment of an enormous field permeated with visual incident. However, he maintains that such intense scrutiny is only truly meaningless if we focus on arbitrary details. And a detail is only arbitrary if we fail to recognize its relationship to the whole (what he calls the “structure of expression”) and to the intentionality of that whole (the “structure of beholding”). It bears stressing that, for Schreyach, intention does not primarily refer to Pollock’s own agency, whether conscious or unconscious. Rather, he uses the term as it functions in Husserl’s phenomenology, to describe a certain orientation, a specific being-in-the-world that nevertheless resists identifying being with world. A painting by Pollock represents the artist’s agency on its surface as “pervasive intentionality or general directedness” (99). Like a message in a bottle, the work orients itself to be perceived, but who exactly will see it and how cannot be predetermined.

All works of art share this condition, but in the case of Pollock’s poured paintings, Schreyach posits that the viewer is faced with a choice that mirrors the painter’s own. Here I will briefly recall Frank O’Hara’s declaration that Pollock’s completed painting on glass, Number 29, 1950, is “a masterpiece seen front or back, and even more extraordinary in that it is the same masterpiece from opposite sites of viewing.”7  It is crucial to stress how site conditions intention. Orientation is not simply a given; it takes place. The glass ground figures a relationship between painter and viewer defined by mutuality, not identity or, worse, hostility (note that O’Hara is careful not to say “opposite sides”). Each subject acknowledges the other, and the painting is the horizon of that acknowledgement. Like the painter, the viewer is also engaged in “an almost primordial contest between materiality and meaning” (100). Our intention must also be to “deny the accident,” to orient ourselves to the “all-over” as a field saturated with significance, rather than monotonous uniformity. (Meyer Schapiro had suggested something along these lines when he argued that “only from a distant view, which loses sight of the intimate personal qualities of the surface and execution and all the passion and fantasy within the small areas, can one mistake the ornamental aspect for the essential trait of the whole.”8 )

Schreyach leaves little doubt that he believes there’s a right way and a wrong way to respond to Pollock’s painting. Nevertheless, his argument culminates in an utterly arresting claim that demands more attention, namely that the painter’s “automatism initiates a kind of parturition” (116). I would like him to reflect more explicitly on the intentionality of the beholder in light of this generative metaphor. What would change if we were to understand Pollock’s “seminal” abstraction in terms of maternal labor? At stake, I suspect, is our ability to take Pollock’s paintings seriously as both intentional and historical agents—or, at the very least, to account for how “failures” in response to Pollock’s art have indelibly shaped the history of postwar art and criticism. “Sometimes I lose a painting,” we hear Pollock admit in Namuth’s film, the pain and promise of miscarriage now impossible to ignore. “But I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image. Because a painting has a life of its own, I try to let it live.”


5.Josef Albers, “Josef Albers: March 1965 Interview,” in Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts, ed. Mervin Lane (Knoxville: University Tennessee Press, 1990), 36. I discuss this lesson at length in my essay, “The Trace of Transfer,” in Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope, ed. Frauke V. Josenhans (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2017), 129–39.
6.Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 101–17.
7.Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1959), 26.
8.Meyer Schapiro, “The Younger American Painters of Today,” The Listener, no. 1404 (26 January 1956): 147.


Michael Schreyach

Pollock’s Modernism makes the case that as a painter Jackson Pollock knew what he was doing. In one way or another, each of my interlocutors disagrees with that claim—or where they might agree, decline its importance. Harry Cooper disclaims the idea that Pollock was a “meta” painter (that is, one who self-reflexively considered and controlled the direction of his activity and its resulting effects); Megan Luke is concerned not with Pollock’s intent but with the “intentionality of the beholder” (who participates as a kind of co-producer of meaning through experiencing the work of art); and Eva Ehninger characterizes my commitment to intention as a methodological “choice” (and, ethical or not, suggests that it is a choice best abandoned for putatively more progressive options in an era of theoretical pluralism).

A short precís of what I think my project amounts to will help illuminate the stakes of the debate. In Pollock’s Modernism, I advanced strong interpretations of the meaning of numerous paintings by the artist. I constructed my arguments in continual awareness of Pollock’s express goal of discovering powerful technical, formal, expressive, and even iconographic “means of arriving at a statement.”9 In other words, I accepted his claims for the propositional content of his art (having already discerned as much in his works) and treated those declarations with the utmost seriousness. Thus, I remained meticulously attentive to the artistic choices by which he made his statement available to understanding: namely, through each painting’s internal structure and its specific mode of pictorial address. Pollock devised many of these strategies by subjecting traditional modes of address, and the conventions upon which he deemed them to be based, to sustained pressure. Hence my scrutiny of those conventions, which ranged from the familiar (relations of figure, plane, and space) to others less so (anamorphosis and pictorial projection). But I also insisted that Pollock’s inquiry was not prosaically technical nor reductively expressive. On the evidence of his paintings, it was driven by a self-imposed demand to represent elusive but ineluctable dimensions of thought, feeling, and experience. My assessment of the representational status of Pollock’s achievement clearly foregrounds the intentional nature of his projects. Indeed, a large portion of my argument was meant to explain why any coherent theory of interpretation involves—even requires—a commitment to intention.

Everyone including me seems to concur that my book attempts to explain what Pollock’s works are intended to express, signify, or to mean both within the context of a history of the medium’s conventions and within the context of his contemporary historical moment (and obviously, for us). My respondents seem to both laud and lament aspects of this endeavor. But I do not believe that any of them has advanced a productive critique of my claims. That is, while they all voice reservations about various aspects of my account or my position, no one adequately addresses the fundamental interconnection in my analysis between intentionmeaning, and interpretation (indeed, we seem to diverge considerably over what these basic terms mean). Nor does any of them offer an alternative to my account of Cathedral, the reading of which simultaneously demonstrates, as it relies on, that interrelation. If the silence implies that my description of that work’s formal structure and my explanation of its meaning is convincing, that seems like a tacit acceptance of the theory of interpretation on which it relies. And if my respondents found it unconvincing, or even wrong, it is their timely responsibility to advance an argument about why it is wrong, or why an alternative is better.

Instead of competing accounts of Pollock’s works, what we have on deck are three demurrals around “intention.” Predictably, that contentious issue has replaced the task of interpretation with a theoretical debate, the resolution of which has almost no practical impact on the way most art historians work. Insofar as art historians understand their activity as one of discovering, assessing, and evaluating the techniques, objects, and aims of individuals or groups whose professional, social, or personal identification can be understood in relation to the categories of “art” and “artist” (or else enable a redefinition of those conventional classifications), almost everyone works as an “intentionalist.” Read anything Cooper, Luke, or Ehninger has written: like the majority of scholars in our field, they present evidence and make arguments that they hope explain the historical appearance, within works of art or art practices, of complex forms of authorial agency and its various enabling conditions.

Even so, that does not mean everyone is secretly an intentionalist, nor does it mean there aren’t adverse consequences to propagating anti-intentionalist accounts (to stick with the team names for expediency). I adumbrate these implications in Pollock’s Modernism and in doing so followed the lead of numerous writers—many of them published on—who have advanced rigorous claims about the theory of interpretation and its political significance. Yet despite the value of this work for scholarly dialogue and debate, it is often met with dismissal. The anti-intentionalist camp routinely reduces the growing body of intentionalist scholarship to a cliché, then rejects it as mere polemics without feeling the responsibility to offer counter-arguments to those they oppose.

Before addressing some specifics of my respondents’ comments, let me spell out my thoughts on the topic I mentioned above: the interconnection in my account of intention, meaning, and interpretation. To provide an interpretation of a work of art requires one to advance claims about what one thinks that work means, and to advance claims about what one thinks the work means is necessarily to propose what the author, artist, or creator intended the work to be. To make a claim about meaning is to surmise an intent, which is to say that in interpretation, the author’s intention and the work’s meaning are the same thing. The problems start when we introduce a difference between these terms, and begin to conceptualize “intention” as something like a trail of bread crumbs that leads to a hut of meaning in a forest of arbitrary signs. Let me be clear that by intention, I am not referring to intention narrowly construed: as a pre-formed mental plan, introspectively and as if transparently known to the artist, that is then perfectly executed in the work. Nor am I saying it is our job as art historians to “recover” intention through some form of projective psychology or biographical study. Proposing an account of an artist’s intention is the means by which we delimit our basic notion of what it is we are talking about: it helps us fix the limits of what the work is. If we don’t know what the work is, we can’t interpret it.10 To put it bluntly, if you advance an “interpretation,” then you are either giving an account of intention (and you are mistaken to identify as an anti-intentionalist), or it’s not an interpretation (and you are confused about what you are doing).

*          *          *

While praising my analyses of particular works, Eva Ehninger objects to my theoretical position as one that aims to “return to the authoritative ascription of an artist’s intention” in matters of interpretation. (The phrase “authoritative ascription” here seems to carry pejorative or even punitive connotations, as if my explication of Pollock’s intentions for his art entails a kind of coercion.) Correspondingly, she identifies the methodological “start and endpoint” of my interpretations as a commitment to understanding Pollock’s intentions, and insists that “Schreyach does not arrive at this emphasis on intention by means of his pictorial analyses—it is the other way around.”11 I find this puzzling. Or else, maybe this remark goes to the crux of our disagreement: it is as if Ehninger is suggesting that, when it comes to the practice of interpretation, adopting an “intentionalist” approach is an option—just one choice among many others. The implication is that I could just as easily and more productively have taken a “biographical” or “socio-historical” or “feminist” approach. But it is not an option. Every act of interpretation begins with the assumption that its object (or discourse, or performance, or concept) has been produced by an agent. How could any coherent theory of interpretation validate claims about “meaning” for things that are not intended?

If, as scholars or critics of cultural artifacts and practices, we don’t hold the objects and phenomena of our studies to be attempts to materialize or express the intentions of an agent or agents working within a medium under some set of historical conditions, how can we even recognize those artifacts or practices as calling for interpretation? When the goal is to understand and assess what someone (some entity, some group, some society) means to say through a medium’s characteristic (or even idiosyncratic forms), there is no prohibition against using any tool at our disposal to forward our interpretations—whether structuralist, post-structuralist, post-colonial, hermeneutic, feminist, queer, psychoanalytic, formal, socio-historical, or some combination. That’s also why there is no contradiction between being invested in intention (being committed to the artist’s meaning) and what Ehninger diagnoses as the field’s general interest in “questioning [the field’s] geographies, canons, institutions, authors and authorities.” In fact, developing sophisticated accounts of the ways artists determine meaning could rigorously contribute to that project. The intentionalist “position” is not proscriptive, because it’s not a method.12 It names the basic orientation of humanistic inquiry. If that’s what makes it seem to some as “misguided” or “irrelevant,” then we’ve got bigger problems to sort out. What’s more, there is more than just heuristic value in distinguishing approaches that conflate meaning with reception (the “affective, individual, or historically specific reactions a work of art might generate”) from interpretation that explicates the artist’s meaning. They are fundamentally different projects and entail different politics.13

Rather than analyze and assess the arguments I make, Megan Luke conjures numerous topics that I might have explored instead (were I someone else, I suppose). The principal one derives from her own interest in the “intentionality of the beholder,” whose “orientation” to works of art, Luke maintains, necessarily “conditions” their meaning. By now, it should come as no surprise that this idea runs counter to my entire project. Nothing could be further from my insistence on the indifference of Pollock’s works to the experience of the viewer than proposing that a viewer’s occupation of a particular standpoint (or subject position, or identity) governs a work’s meaning. The purpose of my account of what Clement Greenberg called the “inevitability of [Cathedral’s] logic” was to show that not only does the work mean what the artist means, but that it is about the fact that it means what the artist means. Which is to say that in Cathedral, Pollock devised ways to foreground the internal relations that structure and institute its self-regulation or autonomy—relations that are in no way determined by or dependent on the beholder’s “orientation” or “intentionality.” The integrity or identity of the work of art that Pollock created serves to declare Cathedral’s independence from the interests, beliefs, and desires of its audience. The picture, in a strong sense, is about the irrelevance of the beholder to the fictional world it projects.

I recognize that my claims are not those which prevail in the Pollock literature (nor in the humanities at large). That is partly why my work in Pollock’s Modernism cannot judiciously be understood, as Luke dismissively suggests, merely to “rehearse” a “familiar terrain” that she seems to think everyone already knows. I have not just asked readers “here again [to] review the relative merits” of Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. To understand what I’ve done in those terms is to have missed the point (or at the very least “to put it too simply,” as Harry Cooper says). The typical, even clichéd, opposition between Pollock’s canvases taken as pictures or events has its uses, but my careful analysis of what each critic wrote does more than replicate those alternatives. Luke is also mistaken to suggest that I believe Pollock’s paintings “evade our ekphrastic control.” Instead, I insist that they can accurately be described, interpreted, and understood. While I admit that “his pictures, and their intended effects, often seem to exceed our capacity to talk about them,” seem is the operative word. Attending closely in each work to the various techniques by which specific pictorial effects are instituted is a key means for discerning and evaluating Pollock’s “statement.” Accordingly, Luke is basically right in glossing my argument by saying that in Cathedral “a detail is only arbitrary if we fail to recognize its relationship to the whole… and to the intentionality of that whole.” Pollock (as I put it) “establish[ed] in every square inch of [its] surface a demand that his viewers consider the relation each deposit of paint bears to an expectation or intention” (108). The work petitions us to consider the internal relations that structure it at the level of each mark.

Of course, my contention doesn’t prevent a viewer from treating a canvas by Pollock as nothing more than an occasion for her experience of an arbitrarily marked surface. As Luke says, “the work orients itself to be perceived, but who exactly will see it and how cannot be predetermined.” I take her to mean that although a painter might manufacture his canvas to establish a particular mode of pictorial address (and thus implicitly ask a viewer to behold it a certain way), the always contingent circumstances of its reception prohibit the artist from predicting with certainty that it shall be perceived or experienced according to his expectations. Probably (and as Luke suggests) this is a basic condition of many, if not all, forms of artistic production. But instead of bracketing such contingencies in our interpretations, a growing number of scholars treat them as the center of analysis.

To illustrate her commitment to subordinating the artist’s meaning to the experience and “intentionality of the beholder,” Luke discusses Frank O’Hara’s 1959 commentary on Number 29, 1950—the painting on glass Pollock made for Hans Namuth’s 1951 film. (As I’ll suggest momentarily, the example doesn’t exactly serve to make her point.) Luke seems to concur with O’Hara that it is “a masterpiece seen front or back, and even more extraordinary in that it is the same masterpiece from opposite sites of viewing.”14 She draws attention the poet-critic’s pointed use of the word “sites.” If that was not a typesetting error (“sides” would have been more germane given O’Hara’s previous invocation of seeing both the “front” and “back” of the painting), then it is an inspired choice. For in the very next sentence—which Luke does not quote—O’Hara clues us in to what he means when he asserts that the work remains the “same” from opposite sites. I quote the sentences together:

[Number 29, 1950] is unique in that it is a masterpiece seen front or back, and even more extraordinary in that it is the same masterpiece from opposite sites of viewing. What an amazing identity Number 29 must have!—like that of a human being.15

In exclaiming his wonder at the identity of Number 29, 1950—its individual integrity, its uniqueness as a totality, its singleness of aspect—O’Hara implicitly proclaims the autonomy of the work of art. We can now surmise that, according to him, even though we might see the painting from “opposite sites” (that is, from different viewing positions), the changeability of our perspective does not impinge upon the work’s identity (that is, it does not change or affect its being what it is). It is the “same” wherever and whenever and by whomever it is seen. That is just another way of defining the unity of Pollock’s intent in contradistinction to the “intentionality of the beholder” that Luke prods me to discuss. O’Hara’s insistence on the painting’s autonomy over the object’s variable appearance from divergent standpoints and in different contexts signals, as it asserts, the distinction between the artist’s meaning and the viewer’s experience.16

Yet as I’ve hinted, the problem is that Luke capitalizes on O’Hara’s remarks to advocate for something like the circumstantial viewer’s participation in, contribution to, or activation of the meaning of Number 29, 1950. Here is Luke:

[The] glass ground [of Number 29, 1950] figures a relationship between painter and viewer defined by mutuality, not identity or, worse, hostility… Each subject acknowledges the other, and the painting is the horizon of that acknowledgement.

Invoking the mold of Cavellian “acknowledgement” that is also central to my account, Luke posits an occasion to which both artist and viewer contribute, two subjects responding to each other.17 While I obviously share Luke’s sympathy for forms of acknowledgement, her next statement perplexes me:

Like the painter, the viewer is also engaged in [quoting me] “an almost primordial contest between materiality and meaning.” Our intention must also be to [quoting Pollock] “deny the accident,” to orient ourselves to the “all-over” as a field saturated with significance, rather than monotonous uniformity.

This is to misunderstand both me and Cavell. It’s not the viewer’s orientation (conceptual or actual) that renders Pollock’s paintings meaningful. “Acknowledgement” captures the complex subordination of individual interest, belief, desire, and experience (the “intentionality of the beholder”) to the internal relations and fictional order that Pollock realizes in a work of art. That is to say that the significance of Pollock’s work is not a consequence of the attitude we bring to it: of arbitrarily deciding that the field is “saturated with significance” instead of a drop-cloth exemplifying “monotonous uniformity.” It’s just not up to us.18

While Harry Cooper compliments my interpretation of Cathedral (and reading of Greenberg), his reservations about my account take the form of discomfort with my zeal (his word) for the “intentional Pollock.” Our basic variance concerns my seeming to Cooper to have situated Pollock’s intentionality on a “meta-level,” an explicitly formulated framework of understanding that guided him in his effort to pictorially address the modernist problems I identify in his art. Did Pollock mean to do what he did? Cooper seems to think the case would rest on evidence of a “conscious intention, a willed act” for it to be so. I’m not sure what better evidence there might be than that of Pollock’s paintings, which are in plain view. Regardless, Pollock’s intent toward these issues need not have been “meta-” to be operative as the determining factor in his pictorial expression. His pursuit was undoubtedly partly conscious and subconscious, explicit and implicit, by varying degrees. As I put it in the introduction: “[Pollock’s] acrobatic enterprise of feeling and thinking, in his own way, about the history and possibilities of painting—and then considering how to make thinking and feeling about painting part of a practice that informs how one feels and thinks more generally—is the creative project that my use of ‘modernism’ is meant to capture.” (I wish I hadn’t said “in his own way”: it sounds like I’m trying to hedge my bets.)

Part of my argument about intention was that attributing intentions to an agent is justified as a means of description even when “knowing” (as judged according to introspective testimony or external assessment) doesn’t adequately characterize an agent’s activity. As long as we conflate intending and knowing or declaring, we remain mired in the narrow definition of intent, according to which it is a pre-existing mental content, a premeditated or pre-visualized end, cognitively available as if transparently to an introspective subject who undertakes some action to perfectly realize it. But as we all are aware, during an experience that retrospectively might seem to us as having involved non-willed acts (or an “all-consuming submersion” in our activity), where only an “intentionless flow” guides or channels our decision-making processes, there persists the general directedness of our embodied agency that comprises automatism and intention—conscious or not. In other words, whether or not it helps to define Pollock’s project as “explicit” or “implicit” does little to reduce the power of a broader notion of intentionality to encompass what his paintings are about.

That is why Cooper’s discomfort with “intention” strikes me as more a resistance to the term itself than to the condition the term signifies. In experience, we often recognize our intentions as having been expressed only after we have worked successfully within some medium to express them. It may be a challenge to say (or write, or paint) what one means, but the saying (or writing, or painting) is not in conflict with our intent—those activities are the very means by which we embody it. Naturally, in the process of working, intents evolve as if of their own accord, and an agent may acknowledge them as his or hers (this is what secures the claim of intentionality for “automatism”). There are degrees of alignment or divergence between what one does (result) and what one wants to have done (intent)—and between both and what one retrospectively thinks or feels one wanted to have done. A gap (or dissociation, or opacity) simply names the condition under which we strive to align intent and outcome as best we can. Here, “best” is measured not by comparing results against some ideal mental image, but according to one’s holistic sense that one has achieved the right expression.

*          *          *

As I have briefed here—and argued extensively in Pollock’s Modernism—commencing one’s inquiry into the modes of feeling, thought, and experience that artists represent in works of art is basic to any attempt to understand how agents can create or embody meaning through various projects. A commitment to intention, in short, defines the enterprise of interpretation. Why, then, do so many scholars repudiate it? The “vehemence” of the opposition which astounds Ehninger—an attitude she perceives as originating from those supporting their interpretive claims about a work’s meaning and significance with arguments about an artist’s intent—is matched by an equally polemical retort on the part of anti-intentionalists that artists don’t engender meaning, viewers and readers do. That belief is simply the critical dogma of our time—a kind of ideological default setting. Anti-intentionalism is so pervasive, so ubiquitously presumed as a fact of the matter, that those who subscribe to its fundamental principle seem to feel no obligation to support their view with arguments that make sense of that claim for either the theory or practice of interpretation. And, it is the flip-side of an equally widespread but unacknowledged methodological skepticism: from the anti-intentionalist viewpoint, it is as if art historians are utterly incapable of formulating valid and convincing historical and interpretive accounts of what creative agents do. Then again, the incapacity to advance claims about an artist’s meaning is hardly troubling to anti-intentionalists since, to them, individuals are powerless in the first place of “determining” the meaning they wish to express or give form to in works of art.


9.William Wright asked: “Mr. Pollock, isn’t it true that your method of painting, your technique, is important and interesting only because of what you accomplish by it?” Pollock responded: “I hope so. Naturally, the result is the thing—and—it doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on, as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement” (“Interview with William Wright” [1950], Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, ed. Pepe Karmel [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998], 24).
10.Another way to make the same point is to say that if the infinite number of subject positions and perspectives that can be brought to bear on the work constitute it, then we can never be in a positon to make claims about the work—simply because we can’t know what the work is.
11.For the record, my use of the feminine pronoun—which Ehninger highlights as a kind of dissimulation—was not merely “politically correct.” As a writer, I sometimes alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns in order to more equally distribute agency in my rhetoric across gender identifications within conventions of expository writing that have tended historically to privilege a single gender.
12.Nor is it helpful to characterize intention as something that I am “searching for,” “chasing,” trying to “discover,” or “clearly delimitate”: framing the issue along these lines reproduces the very problem of conceptualizing intent as a private mental content—known as if completely and transparently to an introspective consciousness—that my interpretation is aimed against.
13.To grasp the connection between the interpretive commitment to intention and the political commitment to eradicating exploitation and inequality, start by considering the staggering disparity of wealth distribution in the United States today: the top 20% of the population owns 90% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 40%—that’s about 130 million people—either have none or are in debt. It comes as no surprise to learn that a disproportionate percentage of individuals who are in the bottom quintiles are minorities. And the reasons are obvious: discrimination of all types—especially racism and sexism—has functioned historically to select the victims of wealth (and income) inequality. But it’s important to bear in mind that discrimination itself hasn’t produced this unprecedented inequality: what has produced it is a capitalist market economy tied to a neoliberal economic agenda (and what is accelerating it is globalization). Still, given that minorities are over-represented at the bottom, it’s understandable why many on the liberal left blame the regressive redistribution of wealth to the upper quintiles on discrimination, and routinely identify the solution to the problem of economic inequality as the elimination of discrimination. That is indeed a laudable and indispensable goal. But the attempt to overcome the effects of discrimination (injurious biases against individuals on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other ascriptive categories) draws attention to the identity of the victims of economic inequality, not its root cause. (In other words, the left converts the task of fighting exploitation into a discussion of the subject position and identity of the exploited.) Hence, as Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr. have been arguing for years, efforts to eradicate discrimination do little to alleviate economic inequality. (On these issues, see Adolph Reed, Jr., “Black Politics After 2016,” 23 [June 2018], n.p. and Walter Benn Michaels, “The Political Economy of Anti-Racism,” 23 [June 2018], n.p.) The connection of all this to the matter at hand is that disavowing artistic intentionality— rejecting the artist’s statement as embodied by a work of art—is rooted in the theoretical claim that a viewer’s experience of the work determines its meaning. Who that viewer is, then, becomes the center of analysis. Simply put, anti-intentionalism is a form of identitarianism. Denying the dual claim that an artist delimits the meaning of the work of art and that an account of her intention helps us determine what the work is, anti-intentionalists convert the task of interpreting a work of art into a discussion of the viewer’s subject position. And that is why the interpretive commitment to intention is best understood not as an ethical choice, but a political one.
14.Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock (New York: George Braziller, 1959), 26.
16.Barnett Newman might have wished the red of Vir Heroicus Sublimis to persist indefinitely, but under conditions of poor lighting, or in the advent of material changes to the canvas or discoloration of the paint, it might appear brown. That doesn’t prevent me from understanding that Newman meant the painting to be red. Which is to say that my actual experience of the object is categorically distinct from my effort to understand the content of the work of art. That is partly what is meant by saying that the work is indifferent to me. One might say, even more provocatively, that my subject position or identity is irrelevant to Newman’s meaning.
17.The reason, I suppose, that Luke thinks the glass ground of Number 29, 1950 “figures a relationship between painter and viewer” is that its actual quality of transparency funds a metaphorical transposition between the two sides, permitting the viewer to project the presence of another person seen through it. It bears keeping in mind, however, that the encounter is necessarily a fictional one. Pollock can’t literally be involved in a relationship of “mutuality” except by virtue of his surrogate creation, which crystalizes his meaning independently of the contingent circumstances of its reception. The communication is unidirectional. And that explains why, on my adoption of Cavell’s terms—in a different sense than Luke understands him—acknowledgement is meant to capture the complex subordination of my individual experience (the “intentionality of the beholder”) to the fictional order that Pollock realizes in a work of art. For those interested in a broader explication of Luke’s position, see her essay “Painting in the Round” (Getty Research Journal 9, Supplement 1 [2017]: 149-182). My contrasting account of Mural is contained in the same special issue (“The Crisis of Mural as a Painting,” Getty Research Journal 9, Supplement 1 [2017]: 182-199).
18.Just as, for Cavell, overcoming one’s skepticism of other minds is not simply a matter of changing one’s opinion. The whole point of his example of encountering someone who testifies to experiencing pain is to differentiate “acknowledgement” from a mere attitude adjustment. His example is a friend with a toothache (see Stanley Cavell, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” in Must We Mean What We Say? [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969], 238-266.) How can I know with certainty that the other person experiences pain? I cannot literally feel it, and thus must remain in doubt about the declaration. For Cavell, it’s not changing my opinion of the situation that allows me to acknowledge that my companion is suffering. “Acknowledgement” is an extension of trust, sympathy, and responsibility toward the other who is in pain (to say to him: “I know your pain the way you do,” as Cavell’s last line reads).