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Pollock’s Formalist Spaces

Jackson Pollock, Number 27, 1950

Blue Threads

Attentive viewers of Jackson Pollock’s Number 27, 1950 (figs. 1-2), will notice a blue thread running almost parallel to the right framing edge until it meets the edge about half way up the picture. It then very closely tacks the corner fold of the canvas without ever quite disappearing from view over the tacking margin. Such blue selvage threads—which indicate the upper and lower limits of a bolt of canvas, while protecting it against fraying—are sometimes noticeable in other paintings by Pollock, especially along the top and bottom edges of his classic 1950 drip, pour, and spatter paintings, which utilize the full vertical dimension of a standard nine foot bolt of canvas and extend laterally to over seventeen feet. Number 27, 1950 is four by nine feet, which orients the threads to the left and right edges, rather than to the top and bottom. In addition to being differently placed in relation to the pictorial field, the thread in Number 27, 1950 appears to be more conspicuous here than in the larger works. It is not that it is conspicuously used as an element in the overall composition: standing a few feet away, the thread is difficult to see. Rather, at close range it seems meant to indicate the edge as a limit beyond which the representation cannot, literally, extend. Obviously, the material surface of the canvas is framed by actual limits, as all painted surfaces ultimately are. The object, Pollock reminds us, has a frame. But the artist’s inclusion of the thread seems to acknowledge this fact in a pointed way. In calling our attention to the actual frame by matching its edge so precisely with a common manufacturing detail—yet one which also slips under the painted skeins it abuts—I’d like to suggest that Pollock encourages us to imagine another kind of frame. That “frame” is of a pictorial (as opposed to literal) nature. Its “limits” should be thought of a qualitatively different from those of the actual material because, unlike physical limits, they do not first operate as constraints. The apparent limits of Pollock’s pictorial fields do not necessarily, and indeed rarely do, coincide with his paintings’ actual limits.1 Those apparent limits—which have an important role in establishing what I’ll later call the format of the picture—are generated by the activity of painting itself, and thus emerge as a result of artist’s expressive purposes. The selvage thread helps mark the difference between the two different kinds of frames, and the limits they imply.2

detail of Number 27, 1950

I’d furthermore like to suggest that the demarcation facilitated by Pollock’s blue thread between the actual and the representational—the literal and the pictorial—is analogous to another important distinction: namely, between the empirical viewer’s experience and the artist’s meaning. What we might call the validity of the artist’s expression—its truth, at least insofar as the viewer is compelled to feel or understand it—depends largely upon how effectively he convinces the viewer that the experience to be derived from the framed work of art is independent of the viewer’s experience at large, unframed as it is likely to be. Maintaining a sense of separateness between the artist and the empirical viewer also helps ensure the independence of the meaning of the work of art from the viewer’s meaning. In Pollock’s case, formalist criticism—especially that of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, but also by William Rubin—provides a crucial platform for interpreting the meaning of the work of art, because it provides the most compelling accounts of how Pollock’s paintings achieve that independence. It is perhaps needless to point out that the formalist insistence on the independence or separateness of Pollock’s work from the viewer runs counter to the pervasive tendency to see Pollock’s visual fields as absorbing or engulfing the viewer, creating an immersive effect in which the viewer loses a sense of herself. On such accounts, Pollock establishes so powerful a continuity between the viewer and the painting that the distinction between them collapses, leaving only an anti-representational immediacy the gestalt psychologist Anton Ehrenzweig famously described as “undifferentiated oceanic envelopment.”3

Although formalist criticism provides the strongest account of how Pollock’s works achieve their independence from the viewer, the implications of that independence for interpretation remain underdeveloped. Why does it matter if we see Pollock’s works as continuous with or separate from the viewer? In what follows, I suggest an answer to this question, first by reviewing key aspects of formalist accounts of Pollock, and second by pursuing the theme of self-grounded meaning those accounts imply.

Jackson Pollock, Cathedral, 1947

Cubism and “re-created flatness”

Greenberg’s criticism of Pollock is scattered over a twenty-five year period, and rarely takes the form of sustained analysis. Articulating his “account” of Pollock, then, is a somewhat speculative enterprise. One constant: the critic never abandoned his initial impression that Pollock’s work, as he put it in 1962, had “an almost completely Cubist basis.”4 As early as 1948, Cathedral (1947) (fig. 3) reminded him of Picasso and Braque’s works from 1912-15, although he did not at that time say why.5 But twenty years later, again referring to Cathedral, Greenberg suggested the connection resulted from the painting’s “oscillating movement between different planes in shallow depth and the literal surface plane,” a movement he identified with Cézanne and analytical cubism.6 The high degree of control Pollock exhibited over this oscillation—a control consolidated by the development and mastery of the drip, pour, and spatter technique—sustained the comparison. In “all-over” works such as Number 27, 1950 and Number 1A, 1948, Pollock, according to Greenberg, wanted

to achieve a more immediate, denser, and more decorative impact than his late Cubist manner [i.e. paintings such as Gothic (1944) (fig. 4)] had permitted. At the same time, however, he wanted to control the oscillation between an emphatic physical surface and the suggestion of depth beneath it as lucidly and tensely and evenly as Picasso and Braque had controlled a somewhat similar movement with the open facets and pointillist flecks of color of their 1909-1913 Cubist pictures.7

Pollock’s “impact” depended on the degree of control he exhibits over the play between literal surface and illusionistic depth, between the material and the pictorial. To help draw out the implications of Greenberg’s description, I’d like to consider a key—but somewhat idiosyncratic—term the critic used in his analysis of cubism, namely “re-created flatness.”

Jackson Pollock, Gothic, 1944

It is of no passing interest that Greenberg first used the term “re-created flatness” in a 1947 review of Pollock’s work.8 (The term had a pedigree, originating as it did in the teaching of Hans Hofmann.9) Commenting on such paintings as Shimmering Substance (1946) (fig. 5) and Eyes in the Heat (1946), the critic noted the “consistency and power of surface” the artist’s pictures exhibited. “As is the case with almost all post-cubist painting of any real originality,” he went on, “it is the tension inherent in the constructed, re-created flatness of the surface that produces the strength of [Pollock’s] art” (“Review, 1947,” 124-125). The significance of that thought-provoking term may perhaps be illuminated by turning to Greenberg’s later account of cubism, where he most fully pursues the concept of re-created flatness in relation to pictorial meaning.

Jackson Pollock, Shimmering Substance, 1946

In two key articles from the late 1950s, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (1958) and “Collage” (1959/61), Greenberg holds that the Cubist project, at base, is motivated by a desire to preserve “an art of representation and illusion.”10 But, he claims, it was evident to Picasso and Braque by 1910 that the “fictive depths” of Cubist pictures were becoming so shallow that they seemed to be in danger of coinciding with the literal, flat surfaces of their canvases.11 If that happened, Greenberg thought, illusion would capitulate to decoration—to mere “surface pattern[s]” (“Pasted-Paper,” 62) or “cadences of design” (“Collage,” 71).12

Georges Braque, Le Portugais, 1911-12

Braque’s solution to the problem of preserving illusion is to “spell out” or make explicit the literal flatness of the physical canvas. Applying stenciled letters and numbers to his surfaces allowed him to specify literal flatness to the degree that other pictorial elements were “pushed into illusioned space by force of contrast” (“Pasted-Paper,” 62) (fig. 6). Once the “brute, undepicted flatness” of the literal surface was in view, Braque’s paintings could preserve the illusion of a very shallow—but still salient—fictive depth between that literal flatness and what Greenberg now called “depicted flatness.” (These points might recall to the reader’s mind Pollock’s decision to leave the selvage thread visible in Number 27, 1950. He could just as easily hidden it in the tacking margin, as he did on the left side of the painting. Perhaps it functions somewhat like Braque’s stenciled letters do.)

This depicted flatness “transforms” the literal, undepicted kind. Cubism “re-constructs” or “re-creates” flatness, “endowing self-confessedly flat configurations with a pictorial content” (“Pasted-Paper,” 66).13 For Greenberg, that content derived from the way cubism “isolated” plasticity, preserving generalized illusion—illusion as such—independently of conventional, three-dimensional representational means (“Collage,” 77). A crucial point of Greenberg’s account is that in order to achieve pictorial content under the conditions he attributes to the Cubist project (that is, under the charge of retaining illusion without resorting to the conventional representation of three-dimensional space and of avoiding mere surface pattern or decoration), literal flatness must be continually “re-created” or “reconstruct[ed]” (“Collage,” 77 and “Pasted-Paper,” 65). The literal surface must perpetually be transformed into a “picture surface” proper. (“Collage,” 80 and 77).

To the degree that painters accomplish this transformation, they give pictorial form “an autonomy like that hitherto obtained through illusion alone” (“Pasted-Paper,” 66). If plasticity, “isolated,” now sustains pictorial content, my inclination would be to construe this content as self-grounded by the artist in painting as a medium. Given the theoretical weight Greenberg gave to re-created flatness, I hazard to guess at least something like this conception of the artist’s self-validated meaning was at stake. To re-create flatness was to render the material an autonomous medium by which an artist could express himself. 


Greenberg’s sociology of formalist space

In his comparison of Pollock’s all-over pictures to those of Picasso and Braque, Greenberg noticed something else about drip, pour, and spatter technique—an observation which bears directly on the issue of the painting’s framed independence from the world and the viewer. The continuously dripped or poured line, creating meshes or skeins that contained bold oppositions of dark and light, allowed Pollock, as he later put it, to “hold [his] surface[s] with inevitability” (“Inspiration,” 248).  Pollock, he said, exhibited a

capacity to bind the canvas rectangle and assert its ambiguous flatness and quite unambiguous shape as a single and whole image concentrating into one the several images distributed over it. (“American-Type,” 225)

Here I take “bind[ing]” the canvas rectangle to be intimately related to “holding” the surface with inevitability. But there’s a difference, too. While “bind[ing]” might certainly convey the gist of the painting’s confinement by a literal frame, I think it also points to Pollock’s achievement of an “unambiguous shape” that is more than just the “canvas rectangle.”14 Yet in both these cases, the sense of the word is tied to a demarcation of the painting’s area (its proper zone) from the world which laterally surrounds it, beyond all four of its edges. “Holding,” on the other hand, suggests something about the way the pictorial field, the “whole image,” composes itself—as if automatically (“inevitably”)—in anticipation of being beheld. (As I see it, this composure is not unlike a kind of holding back, as when one feels that the object of one’s regard prepares for, and thus resists submitting to, one’s gaze.) It helps separate the painting from the viewer, and to distinguish the painting’s specific intended effects from the viewer’s responses in general. Which is to say that the effects of binding and holding contribute to establishing what I referred to above as its format (I’ll soon elaborate on the special meaning I give to this word).

Greenberg’s terms for what Pollock’s surfaces achieve—binding, integrating, holding, concentrating, asserting, and controlling the painting’s ambiguous flatness, its shape, and its imagistic unity—are similar to those he uses in regard to cubism’s re-created flatness. But it is important to recall that these terms do more than just describe a formal achievement. They underpin Greenberg’s sociological interpretation of Pollock’s work. In 1952 he wrote:

Tautness of feeling, not “depth,” characterizes what is strongest in post-Cubist art… [T]he ambitious contemporary artist presents, supposedly, only that which he can vouch for with complete certainty.15

Tautness is not just a useful word to describe the way a canvas is stretched around and tacked to its frame; it is meant to designate expressive content. The need to vouch for the certainty of one’s feeling, the critic explains, is a reaction to living in an urban world where every field of human activity is organized for profit, which flattens and empties human endeavor until nothing is left except, as he memorably phrased it in 1947, the “dull horror of our lives” (“Prospects,” 163). At that time, Greenberg was looking for an art the would “release” his feelings, one that did not rely for its intensity on “sensibility confined.”16

It was the drip, pour, and spatter paintings of just over a year later that more fully satisfied Greenberg’s wish for an art that conveyed valid feeling. In 1948, he described the all-over or “polyphonic” style evident in the work of Pollock and others:

[The] dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation, seems to answer something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other… the only valid distinction being that between the more and the less immediate.17

Given his recent assessment of the deleterious effects materialism and societal rationalization had on a healthy sense of life, Greenberg’s description of a style of painting that “corresponds” to contemporary sensibility would seem, on the face of things, to imply a negative judgment. Still, that style also “answer[ed]” sensibility, flattened as it was, yet still seeking the “immediate.” There was something to be gained from the new polyphonic painting, in which the artist’s expression took the form of “sheer sensation” experienced by the viewer. Richard Shiff has suggested that in calling Pollock’s surfaces “emphatic,” “positivist,” and “concrete” (“Prospects,” 166), Greenberg seemed to reason that the artist’s work confronted modern materialism on material terms—as if his paintings could provide the culture with a pictorial intensification of its own matter-of-factness, inoculating its viewers against the shocks of modern urban experience by conveying ever more “naked” sensations. From this perspective, Pollock’s paintings are like a homeopathic remedy for those no longer sure not merely of what they feel, but whether they feel at all.18

Discerning what is more or less immediate is a matter of personal experience. Similarly, proclaiming the validity or certainty of one’s own feeling necessarily must be a self-grounded judgment. It is important to distinguish, however, between the “tautness of feeling” the artist presents—something “he can vouch for with complete certainty,” as Greenberg reminds us—and the viewer’s response.  Greenberg does not valorize “immediacy” in the way many postmodern critics do, who seem take Pollock’s art as the occasion for an affective experience independent of any consideration of the effects the artist intended to produce. Greenberg is not giving license to the empirical beholder’s affective responses. Nor is he saying we should see Pollock’s marks as literal traces either of his presence or his procedure. Some version of this latter account can be found, most obviously, in the writings of Harold Rosenberg and Allan Kaprow, who take his characteristic webbed field to be nothing more than a kind of map of action. But the idea of the mark as a trace is pursued to an extreme by Rosalind Krauss. Pollock’s marks, she says, are not to be understood “representationally,” but as literal indexes of the “horizontal” which “invad[e] and undermin[e]” the “optical axis” of the finished painting. Which is to say that the idea of “immediate experience,” recast as an index or trace, goes to war with the idea of pictorial format, exposing a near inflexible tension between formalist efforts to understand the autonomy of the work of art and its meaning and post-modern efforts to flatly deny it and wish it away.19


Michael Fried’s account of Pollock’s line

Fried, like Greenberg, stressed that feeling, the “all-or-nothing urgency of [Pollock’s] desire” is paramount in assessing the painter’s works (“Allusions,” 97). So powerfully could that feeling be conveyed as a picture that it “leave[s] the viewer with no choice other than to accept it or reject it in its entirety” (perhaps we might say: to vouch for it or not). That suggestion came in 1999, in a review for Pollock’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective.  Pollock felt “a drive to realize pictorial intensity at any price,” and he experienced that drive as “an existential demand” (“Allusions,” 97).20 Although Fried has reservations about some aspects of Greenberg’s account—particularly the older critic’s description of Pollock’s alloverness, and his insistence on the artist’s connection to cubism, which I will discuss momentarily—I’d like to point to one suggestive continuity between their views. I find a resonance between Fried’s observation of what he called a “layered impactedness, mobile intensiveness, and experiential density of the painted surface” (“Allusions,” 97) in the painter’s works of 1947-50 and Greenberg’s description of Pollock’s ability to “hold” a surface with “inevitability.” To my mind, what connects the remarks is their mutual relation to the problem of bounding figures and shapes with contour lines, an issue Fried has done the most to explicate.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948

Greenberg’s comment about Pollock’s ability to hold the surface with inevitability was directly connected to an observation he made about the way dripped lines, which “resulted from the falling or flowing of paint,” allowed Pollock to abandon the use of “marked lines or contours” (“Inspiration,” 248). The critic did not elaborate on why he singled out contour as impediment to Pollock’s vision, but just a couple of years earlier, Fried had pursued the same issue in Three American Painters. A main concern of the critic’s unsurpassed formal analysis of Pollock is the character of Pollock’s line in relation to contouring shapes. Of Number 1A, 1948 (fig. 7), he wrote:

[the] allover line does not give rise to positive and negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure… against another part of the canvas read as ground. There is no inside or outside to Pollock’s line or to the space through which it moves. And this is tantamount to claiming that line… has been freed at last from the job of describing contours and bounding shapes…. [T]here is only a pictorial field so homogenous, overall, and devoid both of recognizable objects and of abstract shapes that I want to call it optical, to distinguish it from the structured, essentially tactile pictorial field of previous modernist painting from Cubism to de Kooning and even Hans Hofmann. (Three American Painters, 224)

Pollock’s works, by radically inhibiting our ability to discriminate figure from ground, achieve a new kind of space, “if it still makes sense to call it a space,” Fried cautions (Three American Painters, 224). The critic’s hesitation prompts me to think that rather than facilitating a viewer’s imaginative entry into this space, it thwarts such effects—as if sealing pictorial space against the projections of a viewer and thus holding itself apart from her (this impression is not unqualified). In his later articulation of Pollock’s pictorial intensity, Fried suggests as much when finds the artist’s pursuit of pictorial intensity to be “from the outset correlated with the essential facingness” of his paintings, a facingness I construe to be predicated on a sense of the independence of the work of art from the beholder (“Allusions,” 144).

Fried stresses another important basis of the virtual autonomy achieved by the all-over, optical field. Again, it’s worth quoting him at length on this issue:

The skeins of paint appear on the canvas as a continuous, allover line which… [creates] a kind of space-filling curve of immense complexity…. [The] other elements in the painting…. are woven together… to create [a]… homogenous visual fabric which both invites the act of seeing on the part of the spectator and yet gives the eye nowhere to rest once and for all. That is, Pollock’s allover drip paintings refuse to bring one’s attention to a focus anywhere. This is important. Because it was only in the context of a style entirely homogenous, allover in nature, and resistant to ultimate focus that the different elements in the painting—most important, line and color—could be made, for the first time in Western painting, to function as wholly autonomous pictorial elements. (Three American Painters, 223-224)

Despite his disagreement with Greenberg on the legacy of analytic cubism in Pollock’s work, I take Fried’s description of the painter’s autonomization of line and color as parallel to Greenberg’s suggestion that Pollock, like Picasso and Braque, isolated plasticity—thereby liberating it from conventional, three-dimensional representational means and re-creating flatness in the drama of oscillation between the literal surface of the support and the illusion of shallow depth. Furthermore, I see Fried’s insistence that Pollock wanted to preserve figuration within the context of an optical style that works against it (a problem solved, according to Fried, in Out of the Web [1949]) as analogous to Greenberg’s insistence that Picasso and Braque wanted to preserve illusion within the context of a style that—by making fictive depth increasingly shallow—worked against it.21

Arguably, in each case the pursuit of a paradoxical project was neither arbitrary nor merely a formal exercise, but motivated by a demand to discover new means by which the work of art and its pictorial meaning—the artist’s meaning—could be secured as something separate from and independent of the viewer’s experience. (For example, in Carl Einstein’s account of cubism, the effect of a beholder’s exclusion from the pictorial world figures largely.22) Fried’s description of Pollock’s drive to realize “pictorial intensity” strikes me as congruent with my suggestion that the painter aimed to establish the validity of his expression in the face of the viewer’s experience—as if Pollock felt that the viewer’s recognition of the validity of his meaning hinged upon the degree to which he convinced the viewer of the independence of the work of art.


William Rubin’s formalist frameworks

The most detailed formal account of Pollock’s all-over style remains William Rubin’s “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition,” a four-part series published in Artforum in 1967.23 He followed Fried in suggesting that Pollock’s signal achievement was the unprecedented degree to which the artist established the independence of his formal means from conventional description. But the basis upon which he asserted that claim differed. For Rubin, it was Impressionism—and specifically of the late Monet—that was key to understanding Pollock’s pictorial space.

Monet’s advances beyond classic Impressionist pictorial structure, Rubin argued, had to do with maintaining pictorial cohesiveness in the face of an extreme increase in the size of his paintings. Classic Impressionist structure had depended on the juxtaposition of a variety of pure colors, held at an approximately even value. Form was articulated primarily through changes in hue. As Monet dramatically increased the size of his pictures (Rubin reproduces three of the Orangerie’s Nympheas paintings [1916-1926]), he began to reverse this proposition. Because the sheer size of the multi-panel works threatened their compositional unity and cohesiveness, Monet’s solution was to hold them together by varying value within a dominant hue. This all-over tonal quality prefigures Pollock’s similar tendency to absorb color into a tonal framework of blacks, whites, and middle-value aluminum, and to avoid strong, saturated colors. But unlike Monet, whose use of light and dark—despite what we may see as the nascent abstraction of the motif—was still associated with a model in nature, Pollock renders such modeling autonomous by disengaging line from contouring, and by implication, from shading. (There is a Greenbergian echo here. As I mentioned above, he too had noticed that the light-dark oppositions of Pollock’s skeins and meshes work to “hold the surface with inevitability” without capitulating to conventions of chiaroscuro. Which is to say that even though Greenberg did not make it an explicit theme of his analysis, he implicitly recognized Pollock’s autonomization of the elements of pictorial convention. Insofar as he did, his analysis shares something important with Fried and Rubin, despite their double rejection of the older critic’s assertion of Pollock’s debt to analytic cubism.)

Let me qualify immediately. Rubin was more amenable than Fried was to the cubism connection, and made a particular effort to track how cubist space was modified by Pollock via Mondrian. Rubin argues that Mondrian’s plus-and-minus pictures of 1913-14 rendered cubism’s conception of a shallow, illusionistic, atmospheric space more absolute, and, as a consequence, isolated it so that it could be “discarded” (or “drained off” [III, 31 n. 20]) in favor of the “non-illusionistic optically spatial scintillating web of sensations” that “coalesce[s]” in Pollock. (And, there’s evidence that Pollock himself considered Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean series pivotal for his own drip works.24) Rubin concludes:

The very shallow optical space of [Pollock’s] pictures is not a matter of illusion but of the actual overlapping of different color skeins and the tendency of certain colors to ‘recede’ or ‘advance.’ Pollock worked to minimize any sense of spatial illusion by locking the warm colors literally inside the skeins of the non-hues, of which the aluminum in particular was used to dissolve any sense of discreteness the space of the web might have—in effect to ‘confuse’ it into a unified mass of light sensations. (III, 25)

The oscillation Greenberg noticed in Pollock’s works between an emphatic physical surface and the suggestion of illusionistic depth beneath it—an oscillation that was the chief means of connecting Pollock’s drip, pour, and spatter paintings to cubism—has been abandoned by Rubin in favor of a shuffling of colored layers that tend to recede or advance in visual perception. That optical emphasis brings a part of his account into alignment with aspects of Fried’s. Still, because Rubin found the sensational effects of Pollock’s scintillating webs to be rooted in cubism at one remove, through Mondrian, his account also owes something to Greenberg. The nuances of each account are instructive, but even more important in the present context is to note the formalists’ collective targeting of some specific ways Pollock’s paintings achieve their independence from the viewer.


At the outset of this essay, I suggested that the blue thread along the right edge of Number 27, 1950 helped us distinguish between two kinds of frames. The first was connected to the literal boundaries of the canvas—its actual edges, a physical limit beyond which the representation could not extend. The other kind of frame, I claimed, was of a pictorial nature, and was generated through the activity of painting itself. The second kind of frame is thus intimately connected with intention (the artist’s meaning), insofar as it finds pictorial expression. And, it serves to make that meaning independent of the viewer by asserting the separateness of the work of art from the viewer’s experience at large. The two kinds of frames entail competing notions of pictorial structure. The first depends upon the degree to which the elements within a composition are seen to be adjusted to each other and to an external limit, specifically to the literal frame. The second is a matter of how the total array, the allover visual field—which is something more than just the accumulation of separate marks—creates its own frame, achieving independence from the literal frame. I will use the term format to signify the qualitative difference. Format, like re-created flatness, has to do with the self-grounded meaning of the work of art.25



It’s not hard to agree (as did Fried and Rubin) with Greenberg in seeing a cubist logic in Pollock’s pre-drip paintings, such as Gothic (1944) (fig. 4). Part of that logic, as I’ve recounted, is prizing apart the means of representation from their conventional functions, rendering them increasingly autonomous. Yet the elements that comprise the compositional array, independent of conventional description as they might be, appear strongly related to each other and to the framing edges of the canvas. In Gothic, I see the bold black arcs in orbit around an implied yet insistent central vertical to suggest the symmetrical massing of a body. Despite the titular reference to cathedrals and stained glass windows, the arcs more convincingly suggest the presence of hips, shoulders, possibly breasts, a head, and legs (possible in multiple sets). Smaller bulbs outlined in red near the upper left framing edge, and a series of short, black marks along the lower edge, resemble the crude toes and fingers Pollock often attached to his figures around this time, and might indicate the ends of otherwise difficult to discern arms and legs. Passages of a bright green-yellow and a rusty but vivid orange conform themselves to the black arcs and suggest modeling, but the cool blue-violet Pollock used to fill in the areas defined by the arcs fails to contribute to the illusion of volume. Instead, the blue-violet reads as a background glimpsed, as it were, through the interstices of the diagrammatic or stenographic anatomy.

Thomas Hart Benton, detail of Mechanics, 1924

If we see in Gothic an instance of autonomization of pictorial elements—of line being freed from the role of contouring shape, and light-dark contrasts being separated from the role of shading volume—that liberation is not unqualified. For that emancipation generates the problem of representing the “body” within pictorial space. Pollock had grappled with the problem throughout his career: viewers of Gothic might be reminded of the lessons the artist took from his mentor Thomas Hart Benton, whose 1924 “Mechanics of Form Organization” rehearsed a technique of dynamically controlling a body’s centrifugal and centripetal forces (fig. 8). Rather than shoring up a sense of the body’s integrity, though, the radical schematization of the body (or bodies) in Gothic seems to suggest a kind of uncontainment of the figure. The drift of this uncontainment appears to proceed laterally from a mesial vertical with which the spread of the arcs maintains an increasingly attenuated, but still salient, compositional relationship, to finally be braced by the picture’s right and left framing edges. Or rather, not exactly braced: I want to say that the way field meets the edges establishes those edges as comprising a pictorial frame. In attempting to explain exactly what I think occurs in Gothic as regards to this claim, I’ll turn to a recent account of how cubism handled a related problem.

Pablo Picasso, Composition with Skull, 1908

Charles Palermo’s recent analysis of Picasso’s Composition with Skull (1908) (fig. 9) is a useful way to get the cubist lesson in focus. Palermo argues that Picasso’s theme is “the ability of art to contain the human body.” Additionally, he suggests that Picasso’s concern with human presence in pictorial space is also a concern “with the autonomy of painting,” its separateness, in relation to the breadth of the experienced world.26 Palermo draws our attention to the way Picasso dramatizes the theme of containment by highlighting how the corner of the fictional painting, as well as the elbow of its depicted figure, acknowledge the top framing edge. The contour of the human figure—its limit—urges us to identify it with the limits of both the depicted as well as the literal framing edges within which it is set. Slightly differently, in Three Women (1908-09) (fig. 10), the figures are “engage[d] in a drama of mutual definition,” in which the contours of bodily form function not as limits to a thing, but as the beginning of another thing, as if, Palermo writes, “there were no negative spaces, only saliences” (“Wholeness,” 30). (I’m prompted here to think of Fried’s claim about Pollock’s line, as if it were a radical version of Cubist contour: a line that has neither inside nor outside, that is detached from defining any thing. I’m also compelled to note the remarkable formal correspondence established by the play of arcs that contour body parts in both Three Women and Gothic.) But note, too, how those saliences—the “pleats and ridges… [of] an irregular lattice of arrises” that are the condition of volumetric effects—seem to be produced by internalizing the division enacted by the framing edge between the world of the picture and the world we imagine to persist beyond its borders.27 Palermo suggests that the discontinuity both physically acts upon and simultaneously is brought inside the bodies: the compression of the edges causes the women to buckle, just as their volume is created by the internal division represented by the arrises. The net effect is to remove all sense of continuity between our space as viewers and the painting’s space, rendering it radically independent of us.

Pablo Picasso, Three Women, 1908-09

The suggestion that Picasso’s handling of the contours of objects and bodies in relation to the framed space of the picture allegorizes the problem of painting’s autonomy strikes me as a useful way to think about Gothic. In fact, I find the schematic suggestion of a body to share something, by way of reversal, with Three Women. In Picasso’s painting, the division enacted by the literal edges between the space of the painting and the world outside it is internalized by the represented body. Consequently, the painting’s autonomy can be understood as allegorized by the represented body’s containment within or openness to the pictorial space surrounding it. The expanding effect of Gothic’s isolated figure, though, meets the edge from the other direction. Instead of internalizing the division, the all-over field swells to meet the framing edges. The effect imparts to those edges a role of containment, transforming the literal edge—where the picture has to end—into a pictorial limit—where the represented body finds its end. The division between the space of the painting and the visible world outside it, including the viewer’s space, is enacted by the uncontained body seeking its limit. The pictorial limit of Gothic, that is, is self-determined.


Number 1A, 1948

I have been suggesting that Pollock’s literal framing edges do not automatically function to divide the world of the picture from the world outside of the picture. In each case, those edges must be established as a pictorial frame. The allover visual field, in its total array, is a means by which Pollock accomplishes this task. And, as I hope to have suggested in my summary of the formalist positions on Pollock, expression—the artist’s meaning—plays a crucial role in this regard. Now I want to claim that the expressive meaning of Pollock’s works, whether we understand it as “pictorial intensity” (Fried) or “tautness of feeling” (Greenberg), is intimately bound up with the problem of formatting the work of art and establishing its independence from the viewer’s experience. Number 1A, 1948 (fig. 7) tests my claim.

It has become standard procedure to assert that Pollock’s all-over style, characterized by a seeming uniformity and lack of hierarchy, challenges the power of the painting’s internal structure and external boundaries to establish pictorial coherence. (In contrast, I suggested that the arcs of Gothic provide a certain emergent structure, as if its pictorial structure—its format—is internally self-generated.) In her attack on the idea of structure in Number 1A, 1948, Rosalind Krauss made an even stronger claim. Taking Pollock’s handprints as indexes of a vertical, figural, “schema” lying below the dripped, poured, and spattered skein, Krauss contended that the web not only struck at and “cancel[led]” that figural schema, but “operate[d] instead on the very idea of the organic, on the way the composition can make the wholeness of the human form and the architectural coherence of the painting into analogues of one another.”28 Krauss’s “organic” seems to refer to a correspondence between the painting’s “capacity to cohere” and the unity of the human form we expect figuration to produce. To her, Pollock’s webs dismantle both. I mention Krauss’s views at this juncture merely to point out that in rejecting the capacity of Pollock’s paintings to cohere, Krauss does more than strike at unconventional techniques of composing paintings. She also implicitly rejects the idea that Pollock’s paintings can establish their independence from the viewer, because apprehending a sense of the painting’s integrity is directly related to perceiving it as a discrete, contained, framed work of art. In failing to see the integrity or coherence of Number 1A, 1948, Krauss denies its ability to achieve an ontological status of separateness from the viewer. Which is to say that she “cancels” Pollock’s meaning, converting it into a matter of a viewer’s experience. Her position thus entails abandoning the idea that paintings can serve as means of expression.

Recalling Greenberg’s analysis of the cubist’s effort to re-create flatness by controlling the oscillation between literal flatness and illusioned depth, it would not be difficult to see the handprints along the upper right framing edge of Number 1A, 1948 as functioning analogously to Braque’s stenciled letters. Similarly, they might be taken to work like the blue selvage thread in Number 27, 1950. As indexical signs of Pollock’s palms, they make the literal flatness of the support explicit, helping to differentiate the physical nature of the canvas from the pictorial field. It is this distinction, I have been arguing, that conditions our apprehension of the painting as a medium of expression.

But the handprints also function representationally. That is, Pollock intends to signify something about the relation of his mark-making procedures to both figuration and abstraction. Counter to what may be our initial impression that the painting was made without traditional techniques or implements, it is important to note that Pollock utilized a brush to create a diagrammatic figure just emerging from or sinking into the web at the upper left corner. Given the artist’s tendency to bracket the interior space of his pictures on either side with standing figures like this one, we might reasonably assume it to have a mate. In using his palm—the limit of a body’s reach and touch—to create a sequence of prints, Pollock pairs the iconic figure with indexical marks. But the marriage complicates the stability of the categories. By convention, it’s easier to take the painted figure as part of the representational world of the painting, since we rarely take paint strokes that define an object or a figure—however schematic—as indexical signs. They are often invisible to us, supplementary to the object or figure we behold and identify. But such strokes are indeed indexes. Focusing our attention on the marks that comprise an object or figure—detaching those marks from the iconic image they collectively make—we can see that they index the angle of a brush, the pressure with which it is applied to the canvas, the speed and direction of an artist’s stroke, and other material properties. There is an oscillation, one might say, between taking a sign as indexical or iconic.29 It is this oscillation which helps us now see Pollock’s handprints not as indexes of his palm, but as iconic signs belonging to the world of the picture. He represents the hand and its multiple touches; he does not just index a causal activity of marking.

And, the handprints do more than indicate the flatness of the support. The manner in which they tack the right-side and upper framing edges, as if pushing or spreading parts of the webbed field towards the corner in an effort to secure it there (notice the oblong passage of heavy black that further anchors the web to the corner), serves to express something about the painter’s approach to a limit. Consider the fact that as he painted, the framed edge as a literal limit was not yet in place. Pollock made Number 1A, 1948 while the canvas was on the floor of his studio, only framing it after its composition was complete. He was thus at liberty to choose how his handprints—as well as other marks on the surface, including the overall web—would exist in relation to the edges, the frame. The expressive power of those choices has not gone unnoticed. T.J. Clark explained the relevance of such an adjustment to the top framing edge in Number 1A, 1948 (fig. 11): “The central black whiplash with its gorgeous bleep of red, and the final black spot to the right of it,” Clark wrote, “condens[e] the whole possibility of painting at a certain moment into three or four thrown marks.”30 Given my own stress on the establishment of the edges as pictorial limits that can sustain expressive content, and thus formats the painting as a work of art, I’m tempted to indulge in Clark’s hyperbole.


Jackson Pollock, detail of Number 1A, 1948

Establishing those limits, as I have hoped to explain, does everything to separate Pollock’s painting from the world at large and from our experience at large. Number 1A, 1948 is the meaningful expression of an artist, and our evaluation of the validity of that expression—its truth, insofar as we think we understand or feel it—is not an act that consummates the meaning. The meaning is independent of us. But I tend to think that Pollock’s project of separateness is not motivated by a radical renunciation of communicability. Rather, it originates in the desire to insist that one’s own meaning, and its expression, is not contingent upon a viewer’s interpretation. The commitment with which Pollock pursues pictorial intensity and tautness of feeling asserts his expression, and his meaning, as his own. In the difference between the indexical and iconic interpretations of Pollock’s paintings is the difference between the literal and the re-created framing edge, between the shape of the canvas and its format, between limits that are actual constraints and limits that are created—paradoxical as it may sound—as the condition of expression.


I would like to thank Todd Cronan, Charles Palermo, and Ken Walker for discussing with me some of the ideas expressed in this essay.
1.For example, Michael Fried remarked on the visual effect in Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 resulting from Pollock’s “flooding of the painted field beyond the framing edges in all directions” (Fried, “Optical Allusions,” Artforum [April 1999], 97-101, 143, 146; 99 [hereafter, “Allusions” in the text]).
2.Richard Shiff discusses issues of surface and materiality with regard to the blue selvage thread at the lower edge of Jasper Johns’s Target (1958) in “Breath of Modernism (Metonymic Drift), in T. Smith, ed., In Visible Touch: Modernism and Masculinity (Sydney and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 184-213; esp. 207-213. I owe the idea of my section title “Blue Threads” to Shiff’s essay.
3.Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art [1967] (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 120.
4.Greenberg, “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name” [1962], The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. J. O’Brian. 4 vols. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993), 4: 141 (hereafter, CEC). Second references to particular essays will be cited within the text by shortened title.
5.Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Worden Day, Carl Holty, and Jackson Pollock” [1948], CEC, 2: 200-203.
6.Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock: ‘Inspiration, Vision, Intuitive Decision’” [1967], CEC, 4: 245-250; 247 (hereafter, “Inspiration”).
7.Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting” [1955], CEC, 3: 217-236; 225-226 (hereafter, “American-Type”).
8.Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Jean Dubuffet and Jackson Pollock” [1947], CEC, 2: 122-125; 125 (hereafter, “Review, 1947”). He later used the variant “created flatness” to describe successful Painterly Abstraction in “The ‘Crisis’ of Abstract Art” [1964], CEC, 4: 176-181; 181.
9.Greenberg’s use of the term derived from Hans Hofmann, whose 1938-39 lectures in New York Greenberg attended. For an extended analysis of the connection, see the author’s forthcoming essay, “Re-created Flatness:  Hans Hofmann’s Concept of the Picture Plane as a Medium of Expression” (currently under review).
10.Greenberg, “Collage” [1959/61], Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 70-83; 70-71 (hereafter, “Collage”). Lisa Florman points out that “Collage” [1959/1961] should not be taken as a straightforward revision of “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” [1958] (the latter essay is in fact a reworking of a 1948 exhibition review of the Museum of Modern Art’s Collage show [Greenberg, “Review of the Exhibition Collage” (1948), CEC, 2: 259-263)]. Florman’s is the best and most extensive analysis of Greenberg’s essays available. See “The Flattening of ‘Collage’,” October 102 (Autumn 2002), 59-86. Also relevant for the present discussion is Florman, “Different Facets of Analytic Cubism,”, Issue #5: (accessed 16 July 2012).
11.Greenberg, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” [1958], CEC, 4: 61-66; 61 (hereafter, “Pasted-Paper”).
12.Picasso and Braque “seamless[ly] fus[e]” the decorative and the illusioned: “Th[e] point [of cubism as a renovation of pictorial style], as I see it, was to restore and exalt decoration by building it, by endowing self-confessedly flat configurations with a pictorial content, an autonomy like that hitherto obtained through illusion alone. Elements essentially decorative in themselves were used not to adorn but to identify, locate, construct; and in being so used, to create works of art in which decorativeness was transcended or transfigured in a monumental unity. Monumental is, in fact, the one word I choose to describe Cubism’s pre-eminent quality” (“Pasted-Paper,” 66).
13.The key passage reads:  “Flatness may now monopolize everything, but it is flatness become so ambiguous and expanded as to turn into illusion itself—at least an optical if not, properly speaking, a pictorial illusion. Depicted, Cubist flatness is now almost completely assimilated to the literal, undepicted kind, but at the same time it reacts upon and largely transforms the undepicted kind—and it does so, moreover, without depriving the latter of its literalness; rather, it underpins and reinforces that literalness, re-creates it” (“Collage,” 77).
14.The issue of literal versus depicted shape is addressed best by Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons” [Nov. 1966], Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 77-99.
15.Greenberg, “‘Feeling is All’” [1952], CEC, 3: 99-106; 102.
16.Greenberg, “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture” [1947], 2: 160-170; 163 (hereafter, “Prospects”).
17.Greenberg, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” [1948], CEC, 2: 221-225; 224-225.
18.Shiff has pointed out that Greenberg associated contemporary sensibility with a materialist and positivist mentality that underpinned modern social and cultural conditions. Writing in 1946, Greenberg suggested that modern abstract art’s tendency to assert the specificity of the medium “expresses our society’s growing impotence to organize experience in any other terms than those of the concrete sensation, immediate return, [and] tangible datum” (Greenberg, “Henri Rousseau and Modern Art” [1946], CEC, 2: 94). Shiff quotes this passage and glosses the point: “The only way to shock a materialistic culture out of its restrictive cultural identity was through a radically homeopathic appeal to its materialism” (Doubt, vol.3 of Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts [New York and London: Routledge, 2008], 124).
19.Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 322. Considered as indexes, Pollock’s signs are thus converted into marks that transcribe their cause. The implication is that his work must be taken to consist entirely of its physical features, which reveals Krauss’ commitment to the materiality of the signifier. In her post-structuralist view, signifiers are empty of meaning in themselves. They become meaningful only because of their difference from other signifiers and by virtue of their syntactical placement. So the meaning of Pollock’s signifiers—his indexical marks—depends upon the beholder’s judgments regarding competing possibilities of signification. Which is to say that meaning becomes a matter of the viewer’s experience. In reducing signs to indexes, Krauss transforms Pollock’s paintings into just marked surfaces, objects to be encountered—not artworks to be interpreted. This point is derived from my reading of Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), and from discussions with Todd Cronan and Charles Palermo. For a more extended account of Krauss’s position, see Michael Schreyach, “Intention and Interpretation in Hans Namuth’s Film, Jackson Pollock,” Forum For Modern Language Studies 48:4 (October, 2012).
20.Obviously, Fried strongly disagreed with the “existentialist” interpretations of Pollock put forward by Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg. To their “fashionable metaphysics of despair,” he saw Pollock’s work as engaged with encountering, engaging, and solving problems of form and content that had preoccupied the best modernist painters since Manet (Fried, Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella [exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass., Apr. 21-May 30, 1965], reprinted in Art and Objecthood, 213-265; 222 [hereafter, Three American Painters]. Fried reprinted the section of the catalogue devoted to Pollock as “Jackson Pollock” in Artforum 4:1 [September 1965]: 14-17).
21.Although I do not address the debate between “opticality” and “materiality” in the course of this essay, I would like to point out that Fried offers a succinct abstract of the debate and effectively addresses his critics (particularly Kirk Varnedoe, Pepe Karmel, and Rosalind Krauss) in “Optical Allusions.” There, he makes the important admission that while critics often accuse him of hypostatizing vision as “disembodied,” he “never thought of it that way” (101). Indeed, there seems to be some fundamental confusion at the heart of the postmodernist criticism that Fried’s “opticality,” as a mode of the visual perception of pictures, is somehow antithetical to an “embodied” experience of art. That is a false opposition, one based on a misunderstanding of the “tactile” insofar as it pertains to looking at paintings. As Alois Riegl made clear, both the optical and the tactile are modes of visual perception. It is true that in Riegl’s scheme, the optical mode of vision opposes the tactile mode of vision, but neither of them necessarily opposes embodied perception. I also think that considering some points Riegl made about the optical and the tactile (what he called the “haptic”) might be useful in approaching Fried’s comments about Pollock’s line—although I am not prepared to suggest that Fried was thinking of Riegl when he developed his account. Riegl’s understanding of the haptic in planar representation is based on the observation that an artist can ensure the absolute integrity of objects by two central means: 1.) through flatness, or the elimination of depth from planar representation (since depth tends to blur the secure boundaries between things by immersing them in space and atmosphere); and 2.) by using line as a strong contour to create a sense of bounded, securely circumscribed, self-contained things (his main example is Egyptian art). Pollock’s drip, pour, and spatter paintings clearly assault such integrity. Since Pollock’s line doesn’t bound anything (he “freed at last [line] from the job of describing contours and bounding shapes” [Three American Painters, 224]), he undermines the viewer’s sense of self-contained things. The absence of circumscribed shapes or figures has the additional effect of eliminating one of the main cues of spatial depth, namely secure figure-ground oppositions. Still, it is obvious that Pollock’s works often convey a sense of atmospheric, if not strictly spatial, depth—effects that compete with the simultaneous impression of the physical flatness of the surface (a flatness that is achieved, in part through the “layered impactedness” mentioned by Fried [“Allusions,” 97]). Riegl’s complementary term, the “optical,” refers to representations in which such bounded forms, and the integrity they convey, is compromised (e.g. Late Roman and Christian art), and its use seems fitting for Pollock. But it is as if Pollock himself wanted to move beyond the division Riegl enunciates. On Fried’s account, Pollock wanted to preserve figuration (Three American Painters, 227). But he was compelled to do so within an optical mode that worked against it. The consequence was that it produces what Fried sees as a kind of “virtually self-contradictory character” in his allover style (Three American Painters, 223). The solution, on Fried’s account, ends up being Out of the Web, 1949. (Riegl presents his theory in numerous places, but most notably in Late Roman Art Industry [1901], trans. R. Winkes [Rome: G. Bretschneider, 1985]. I am indebted for my understanding of Riegl to Michael Podro, The Critical Historians of Art [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982], esp. 71-97, and to Margaret Olin, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992]. Olin attempts to elaborate on the connection between Fried and Riegl in “Forms of Respect: Alois Riegl’s Concept of Attentiveness,” Art Bulletin 76:2 [June 1989], 285-299; esp. 297-298, but in the process of making her case, the author presents a reductive version of Fried’s formalism.)
22.Charles Palermo elucidates Einstein’s views in Fixed Ecstasy: Joan Miró in the 1920s (Refiguring Modernism Series) (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008); see esp. 119ff.
23.William Rubin, “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition: Part I,” Artforum (February 1967), 14-22; “Part II,” (March 1967), 28-37; “Part III,” (April 1967), 18-31; “Part IV,” (28-33). Hereafter cited by part number in the text.
24.The artist Tony Smith testified on two occasions to Pollock’s affirmation of the connection to Mondrian. See Rubin, III, 23; and E.A. Carmean, Jr. “Jackson Pollock: Classic Paintings of 1950,” American Art at Mid-Century (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1978), 127-153; 150 and 153 n.73. See also Landau, Jackson Pollock, 196 and 262 n. 28.
25.Aspects of my theorization of format follows Fried’s lead in “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons.”
26.Charles Palermo, “A Project for Wholeness,” Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment 1910-1912 (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2011), 15-37; 21 (hereafter, “Wholeness”).
27.Palermo quotes Leo Steinberg on this point, “Resisting Cézanne: Picasso’s Three Women,” Art in America 66:6 (November 1978), 128.
28.Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, 266.
29.An excellent discussion of iconic and indexical signs in painting is Richard Shiff, “Performing an Appearance: On the Surface of Abstract Expressionism,” in M. Auping, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Critical Developments (New York: Abrams, 1987), 94-123. Krauss is committed to a hard and fast distinction between the two kinds of signs. As I point out in the text, Pollock’s marks, she says, are not to be understood “representationally,” but as literal indexes of the “horizontal” which “invad[e] and undermin[e]” the “optical axis” of the finished painting.
30.Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 313.
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