Jackson Pollock’s Sculpture: Was “Jack the Dripper” Also “Jack the Chipper”?

Is there any more famous footage of an artist at work than Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock? More than half a century after Pollock’s death, the “Jack the Dripper” label still sticks in the public’s imagination. But according to a recent piece by Robin Cembalest in Art News, greater attention is finally being paid to Pollock’s attempts at sculpture. What this reevaluation of the poster boy for Abstract Expressionism might mean remains to be seen, but is it possible that “Jack the Dripper” might also be “Jack the Chipper”?

Cembalest centers the piece on an exhibition at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery titled Jackson Pollock & Tony Smith: Sculpture, which runs through October 27, 2012. Pollock and Smith, both born in 1912 and celebrating their centennials this year, spent a weekend together in July 1956 making sculpture. The exhibition features just five sculptures—three by Smith and two by Pollock. Smith and Pollock became friends in the 1940s and found common ground in sculpture. Smith the architect really wanted to paint, but found sculpture more suited to his talents. Pollock the world-famous painter enjoyed working on sculpture as a pressure-free medium. Just weeks before Pollock’s death in a car crash, the friends made these sculptures in wire, gauze, and plaster using sand casting to add texture.

Unfortunately, Pollock’s two sculptures really don’t look like anything. If you found them in the rubble of a demolished building, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the debris. Still stuck on the drip technique of his painting, but somehow hoping to translate it into solid, three-dimensional form, Pollock twisted wire to mimic the delicate swirls and twirls of his drip paintings. Looking at these pieces I appreciate even more how Pollock felt trapped by his drip style. The same style that won Pollock fame and fortune confined him to the medium of paint when what he really wanted to do was explore other media. Perhaps he should have sculpted under an assumed name.

Before Abstract Expressionism, Pollock attempted a more psychological, symbolic kind of expressionism in his paintings. A sculpted basalt head Pollock made sometime in the early 1930s (shown above) is currently for sale from Leila Heller Gallery. It’s Pollock before he became “Pollock.” On the bright side, the transition to sculpture seems smoother for this period for Pollock. On the dark side, critics usually view this period of Pollock’s career as a probing prelude to the AbEx years.

In this Pollock birth centennial year, as in any big round number anniversary of a major artist, critics are going to look for previously unturned stones to overturn in search of new perspectives. Artists such as Matisse, Picasso, and Degas all grew in critical estimations in light of their sculpture, but all of those artists were able to complement their painting with sculpture and vice versa. Even a mind-bending style such as Cubism could be adapted from painting to sculpture in a fruitful way. As Cembalest mentions, critics now see the sculpture of Pollock’s contemporary (and rival) Willem de Kooning as another dimension of his work worth studying, so it’s not necessarily Abstract Expressionism that poses a problem, but rather Pollock’s take on it.

Will we ever think of Pollock as “Jack the Chipper,” a sculptor trapped in a painter’s career? I doubt it. Cembalest repeats the story of how Pollock had glacial boulders behind the Long Island home he shared with wife and fellow painter Lee Krasner excavated with an eye towards one day carving them. “One of these days,” Pollock told his wife, “I’ll get back to sculpture.” Getting “back to sculpture” sounds suspiciously like getting “back to nature,” the force that Pollock identified with so powerfully that he barked “I am nature!” once to an interviewer. “I am sculpture!” Pollock might be saying as he stared at the boulders he never carved, knowing that neither statement was true. Being a great, groundbreaking painter, however, is a pretty good consolation prize.

[Image: Jackson Pollock. Untitled, 1930-33. Basalt. Private collection. Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery.]

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