The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
November, 1998 -February 2,1999, a review by Sparrow

{mosgoogle}Some people say this is the most important painting of the century," a 67-year old woman told her friend as they stood before "Mural," which Jackson Pollock painted in 1943. "Mural" was then his largest painting, utterly abstract, resembling a huge colorful handwriting exercise. "But I don't like it," the woman contin­ued. "It's too ferocious."

Yes, Jackson Pollock was ferocious. His great early painting, "The She-Wolf," was perhaps a self-portrait. Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, and descended on New York like a she-wolf to devour its art. While studying with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League, his notebooks (shown last year at the Metropolitan Museum) document his struggle with socialist realism, Cubism, surrealism, Picasso

Mostly Pollock fought Picasso. At that time, fighting Picasso was like fighting gravity. ("The She-Wolf," for example, looks like a Picasso painting, only fuzzier.) Picasso had invented a system of colors and shapes that ex­pressed every human mystery—love, war, death. All artists used his vocabu­lary, the way each poet works in the shadow of Shakespeare.

Then in 1945 Jackson Pollock found an area Picasso had not painted: sound. He and his wife, Lee Krasner, moved to The Springs, in East Hampton, Long Island. There they lived with no hot water and only a coal stove as heat. At night Jackson heard sounds, which he began to paint. "The Sounds In The Grass" series had no discern­ible figures. "The She-Wolf's" fuzziness was growing fuzzier.

Jackson pursued the sounds insect noises and distant car horns—which led him to the radi­cal wealth of jazz. He wanted the syncopation and fervor Lester Young played on saxophone. Pollock began to spill paint, in a muscular dance, on canvases in his barn.

Then he broke through. "One: No.31, 1950" is a vast panorama of jazz-inflected sounds. It looks like a Picasso painting blown to pieces. Also, it's beautiful.

What do Pollock's paintings mean to us now? No one paints his way anymore, except as a hip academic joke. Even he stopped paint­ing his way, after "Blue Poles: No. 11, 1952." His last works had figures, and resembled his paintings of 1941.

Yet thousands of Ameri­cans throng to this show, as if it were a new Star Wars movie. (I waited 35 minutes just to get in the museum, on a line that stretched halfway along St. Thomas' Church, next door.) And Pollock's story is a kind of Star Wars movie. His masterworks are the size and shape of movie screens, and his conflict with Picasso parallels Luke Skywalker's duels with Darth Vader. The most crowded room of the show was a video of him painting "Autumn Rhythm: No.30, 1950"— the movie within the movie.

Only Pollock's unhappy ending—a descent into depression, alcohol and early death in a car—deviate from the Star Wars plot. But Americans seek a tragic hero now—the she-wolf who ram-pages from the mountains, rips apart the bonds of art, and returns to the mountain to wail and die.

In 1999, we are tired of happy endings.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Volume 9, No. 1, issue 27