In 1965, Michael Fried wrote an artitle titled “Jackson Pollock” for ArtForum, an international publication that specialises in contemporary art. The language in Fried’s article suggests that it was written for a broad readership, given that the magazine has content that ranges from in-depth articles and reviews of contemporary art and newly released books, columns on cinema and popular culture and numerous full-page advertisements from prominent galleries around the world.

Michael Fried

Fried began his article with a short text introducing exisiting critiques of Pollock, relating the art world’s almost complete failure to come to grips with his work. Fried notes how other writer such as Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Gess had commented on the action painter, naming Pollock as “as kind of natural existentialist who served to obscure the simple truth of what Pollock was, a painter whose concern was making the best paintings he was capable of.” This led to Fried’s of formal issues within Pollock’ body of work, in which the author described the general nature of the paintings and then attempted to illustrate Pollock’s self-contradictory style post-1945.
Jackson Pollock, White Cockatoo Number 24A, 1948, Oil on canvas

The article continues with an analysis of Pollock’s all-over drip paintings, turned out between 1947 and 1950 and bearing names like Number OneWhite CockatooThe Wooden HorseSummertime, Cut-Out and Out of the Web. Fried explores the visual effects of these works by comparing and contrasting and attempting to see what Pollock was precisely trying to accomplish with his erratic-seeming gestures:

For example, the painting The White Cockatoo (1948) was made by dripping black paint in a series of slow-moving loops and angular turns which come nowhere near covering the brown canvas; but instead of trying to create the kind of homogeneous visual fabric of paintings like Number One, Pollock chose to fill in some areas with gouts of  red, yellow, green, blue and white oil paint.

By focusing on the composition elements of each the all-drip paintings, especially colour, line and shape, Fried proves himself a formidable formalist. A dynamic shift in Pollock’s practice during this period can be observed in the works Fried singled out, and each painting has its own issues hashed out in turn.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1948, Oil on canvas

Such issues concern the ability of line, in modern painting, to be read as a bounding shape or figure, whether abstract or representational. He argues that if one follows this three-year trajectory of Pollock’s career, his images begin to contradict themselves. Pollock was using line in a way that defied being read in terms of figuration. The non-representational is very much part of the legacy Pollock left to the arts, somewhat ironically forming the painter’s un-readable iconic style that can be easily identified at a glance. A style that modernist critique would attempt to structurally analyse but continually fail to do so.

Sean Steadman

Sources: D’Alleva, Anne, How to Write Art History, London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2006

Fernie, Eric, Art History and Its Methods, London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1995

Fried, Michael, “Jackson Pollock”, Artforum 4 (1), p. 14-17, 1965

Mandarino, Grant, “Taking Stock of the ‘Griffin Years'” at Artforum, Artnet Magazine, Artnet.com

Pollock, Jackson and Pepe Karmel, Jackson Pollock, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999