This is the official description of a large painting (approx. 9' x 17') hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having wandered through rooms laden with works representative of several thousand years of civilization, I arrive at last at this welcomed bench posed for meditation upon this pivotal work of the 20th century.
Several people walk past; among the comments overheard: "If you had saved the dropcloths (after painting the kitchen) and framed them, we could have hung them in the living room and passed them off as art." As a deliberate act of painting (and not just as a by-product of having painted the kitchen walls), the object itself, the finished canvas, shows a remarkably limited palette; I can discern no more than four colors (black, white, tan and blue-gray) on a field of raw canvas. The paint has been thinned to the consistency of ink and dripped onto the surface of the canvas in rhythmic movements yielding an allover pattern of whip lashings and dribbles.
The effect is a web-like reconstruction of the dance movements employed by the artist; a map, if you will, of the rhythmic movements Pollock took to produce his action drip painting. There's exuberance and lightness of heart (as well as delicacy of hand) expressed in the lashing thicknesses and thinness of the drippings.
Though expressly non-figurative, the painting evokes a romp through a brambly park on a brisk autumnal day. There is kinetic energy implied there. The movement is the form of the painting, reminiscent of photographs, taken at night, of traffic, where the individual cars disappear in a flux of streaming colored lights.
Like a Rorschach test, wherein a subject interprets inkblot designs in terms that reveal intellectual and emotional factors, we can easily project figures in a park amid the wind-gusted leaves; I believe Pollock intended us to interpret his painting along these lines, by giving us such a suggestive title as a guide.
Amazing to think that this vision (the uncovering of the basic structure of flux, of the unconscious as the basic source of painting) was unveiled in 1950 and is still fresh and provocative even today. Another comment overheard: "Rubbish, just plain rubbish!"
I stand up and approach the canvas, scrutinizing the wide field, noticing such incidentals as clumps of paint and heel prints on its splattered surface. The transparency of the process -- to throw paint on the canvas, allowing the picture to paint itself - gives the drip painting an extraordinary immediacy, completely engulfing the viewer.
I imagine that Pollock's detractors are not galled by the picture so much as by the claim that it is fine art. Though possible to carp at such painting, not from any lack of taste or sensitivity, but from a love for naturalistic tableau renderings, it is the confrontation with the apparently aimless chaos and the concomitant demand upon the viewer to surrender intellectual control, in order to freely empathize with the energetic color and movement, that are at the heart of the problem.
The public is willing to surrender their change and suspend their disbelief to ogle their favorite movie heroes in yet another sequel, but they are still unwilling to allow themselves a quiet moment of introspection, a tuning in to the awe inspiring emotions which this consummate Abstract Expressionist painter recorded in his paintings. The reward is in the very act of direct examination of this spontaneous product of introspective exploration.
Report from Rockport, 1940, by Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964), oil on canvas; H.24, W. 30 in.
-- "I was a cubist, until someone threw me a curve."
"Report from Rockport" is considered among Davis's most important canvases from the 1940s. It is a pivotal work, the first in which he utilizes his newly articulated "color-space" theory. Davis postulates that color can be used to indicate spatial relationships through its positioning next to other colors. Some colors advance, while others recede, which suggests the illusion of a multi-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.
In this painting the profusion of colors, lines, shapes, and decorative patterns almost obscures identification of the scene — the town center at Rockport, Massachusetts, filled with gas pumps, trees, and storefronts. A yellow road leads the viewer's eye back to the garage, situated in the middle distance, perhaps past a musician at the docks and two dogs, one relieving himself on the pole (or is it the outline of a car or bike being gassed up while parked by a tree?). In addition to these seemingly recognizable elements, the surface is covered with words, letters, and random lines that create an allover feeling of movement and speed. The disjunction of so many elements and colors successfully conveys the vitality of modern American life.
Brightly colored shapes and signs, echoes of the North Shore and New York City, inform and animate his work throughout his long career; at virtually all periods of Davis's art, it appears that the typical New England coastal town, its harbor, and its environs were, in many ways, as crucial to the evolution of his home–grown variety of Cubism as all of his accumulated observations of New York City urban life.
Davis's paintings are far from literal. What is most striking are their saturated hues. He kept faith with the Ashcan School's preference for the grittier side of life by painting crowded townscapes of backyards, sheds, and outhouses, or streetscapes of garages, gas pumps, and cars, instead of painting sailboats riding prettily at anchor or slipping past with sails nicely filled. Davis treats space as freely as he does color. Everything tips and tilts; space seems mutable, unstable; nothing stays put. If there is one thing that unites Davis's paintings, disparate as they are, it is their spatial adventurousness, an angular freedom.
Davis combines seemingly unprepossessing motifs — a boatyard, a graveyard, and a town view — to accumulations of overlapping flat planes. As elsewhere along the coast of Cape Ann, intricately folded coves and necks create views in which hills frame flat, contained planes of water; space is compressed. Roofs, walls, and fences spill down, displaying geometric shapes in stacks and layers — ready–made Cubism.
His fascination with the accoutrements of the docks may have something to do with their being essentially graphic images composed of lines, ready to be transposed into a configuration, which is both an end in itself and the starting point of any composition, the sturdy framework upon which a painting is built, like the body's skeleton.
Color creates spatial dynamics, which can vary; a configuration is immutable evidence of the artist's response to the stimulating variety of the world around him. A good configuration, moreover, is not exhausted by a single use, but can become the basis of many pictures, just as a recognizable tune can become the basis for infinite improvisations for Davis's much–loved jazz musicians.
The lineage of Report from Rockport, 1940, for example, can be traced first to Town Square, 1925-26, and ultimately to several paintings of a garage, stylized trees, and gas pumps from about 1917. The potency of Davis's art has less to do with its relation to subject matter than with his astonishing ability to invent expressive shapes and to orchestrate razzle–dazzle color. [As Davis put it more succinctly in a notebook entry of 1956,
"Art is ARTificial so quit crapping around about Nature."]
Now, as far as comparing the two artists, allow me to say that both are overtly experimental: Pollock defines his gesture through a limited pallette; Davis uses all exuberance of color, of course with a push/pull agenda (his color theory). Abstraction does not enter into the discussion, simply because Art is Artificial at base; it's all about capturing the simultaneity of the here and now, the artist's perception of what's real. Movement and energy, dynamic, is shared by both, in different ways. Linear drippings in Pollock are echoed in Davis' precise highly colored forms.