Carvings, castings, and other sculptural objects created by Jackson Pollock are turning up in New York galleries—raising intriguing questions about how they relate to his paintings, and why they’ve been under the radar for so long
From some angles they look like sun-bleached flotsam and jetsam. From others, they evoke bodies, or bones, or, as the catalogue at Matthew Marks Gallery suggests, ancient dolmens, or tombs. Imbued with gauze and plaster and held together with wire, they were cast in a sand pit at Tony Smith’s New Jersey home in July 1956.
These two gritty constructions are the last works of Jackson Pollock. They are virtually unknown and have barely been seen. For most of their existence, they were in storage at the Smith family house and then the New York apartment of Tony’s widow, Jane. The larger one was exhibited once, in 2000, at the Nassau County Museum of Art. The other is on view for the first time ever.
The two works are part of an intimate show at Marks’s smaller West 22nd Street space commemorating the centennial of the birth of both artists. Staged to coincide with the exhibition of Smith’s massive Source at Marks’s flagship gallery down the block, it also includes three works by Smith—a concrete piece he cast in an egg carton that weekend, along with one in wood and another in wire and canvas. These are among the first sculptures by Smith, who originally wanted to be a painter.
Pollock was the one who aspired to sculpture. As Eileen Costello recounts in her catalogue essay, the artist arrived in New York thinking he would become a modern-day Michelangelo. He sought out Thomas Hart Benton not because of his reputation as a painter, but because of his facility with clay. He apprenticed with a master carver, Ahron Ben-Shmuel, in the early ’30s and enrolled in Robert Laurent’s clay-modeling class at the Art Students League. When Pollock was under treatment for alcoholism in 1938, he sculpted copper bowls.
Even as he claimed his place in modernism by by pushing the boundaries of painting, Pollock continued to sculpt. Over the course of his career he made objects by carving stone, hammering copper, modeling papier-mâché, dipping wire in plaster, casting in sand, throwing and hand-molding clay, and whittling a cow bone, among other methods. Yet his diverse output of objects hasn’t attracted much of a following. Though Pollock’s action painting has been scrutinized, analyzed, dramatized, and even plasticized on limited-edition Crocs, his sculptures tend to be considered–if they are considered at all–as novelty items.
The lowly status of Pollock’s object-making has its roots in the artist’s own day, when painting was considered the pinnacle of Abstract Expressionism—and sculpture, as Ad Reinhardt famously put it, was “something you back into when you look at a painting.” It didn’t help that Pollock’s sculptures hardly resemble his drip classics. The humble objects don’t scream “Pollock,” or action, never mind painting. Most of his extant sculptures, under a dozen, don’t even resemble each other. And their hands-on quality—hammered copper, hand-built clay—contradicts the popular image of Pollock conjuring his abstractions in a rhythmic ritual dance.
That’s the concept of Pollock that continues to dominate our consciousness. “Insofar as we still buy into Clement Greenberg’s ideas, we think of Pollock as a painter whose achievement was specifically ‘optical,’ ‘allover,’ etc.—qualities opposed to those of sculpture,” says art historian Pepe Karmel, who included two of Pollock’s objects in the 1998 retrospective he curated with Kirk Varnedoe at MoMA—a totemic-looking bone (ca. 1943), and a hammered copper disk from 1938 evoking Benton and the Mexican muralists.
The MoMA show was a rare museum appearance for Pollock’s sculptures. “They don’t usually fit comfortably into the exhibition format because they’re outliers,” says Helen A. Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, who uses the term “creative play” to describe Pollock’s experiments in media such as papier-mâché and sand-casting. But she also detects his sculptural impulse in his efforts to animate the surfaces of his paintings-—attaching found objects, embedding cigarette butts, leaving dead bees to become part of the composition.
“It made sense for an artist like Pollock to see what he could do with it,” says art historian Irving Sandler of Pollock’s sculptural forays, recounting how he watched a similar sensibility in action at the Cedar Tavern. “I was sitting next to him when he smashed a glass and began making a sculpture with it. He began to sort of mold it. He used ashes from the ashtrays, and cigarette butts, and poured beer on it.”
Though Pollock showed the sculptures at various galleries during his lifetime, including Peridot and Betty Parsons, they had been absent from the scene in recent years. That is beginning to change. A basalt head Pollock made in 1930-33 (later cast in a bronze edition by Reuben Kadish) was in a few exhibitions at Jason McCoy and is now being offered for sale by Leila Heller. Joan Washburn recently showed and sold a writhing painted ceramic form dated 1949-50. And in November, for another Pollock centennial commemoration, McCoy (the artist’s nephew) plans to borrow one or both of the sculptures he sold to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts–the carved cow bone, as well as a plaster-dipped wire Pollock made around 1949 as a model for the unrealized “Ideal Museum” conceived by architect Peter Blake.
McCoy believes that the sculptures do follow the course of the artist’s career, in a thematic way. The basalt head, designed to be cradled in the hand, is intended to inspire an “examination of self,” like Yorick’s skull in Hamlet. The bone, from the ’40s, relates to She-Wolf and other paintings of the era in which Pollock explored the primordial unconscious. And the wire pieces from the late ’40s are “energy made visible.”
Seen in the light of Pollock’s biography, the 1956 sculptures are the most poignant of all. At the time of that New Jersey weekend, as he struggled with depression and alcoholism, he had virtually stopped making anything. The session was evidently intended by Smith as a kind of art therapy, to help get his friend back on track. A few weeks later, Pollock died in a car crash.
John Elderfield, who curated MoMA’s de Kooning retrospective, has been traveling in Europe, so he had not seen the works at Matthew Marks. But he suggested in an email that as traditional Ab Ex orthodoxies dissolve, it could be time for a rethinking of Pollock’s three-dimensional work.
Paintings by David Smith, considered the greatest Ab Ex sculptor, have been rising in the estimation of curators. That’s also the case with the sculptures of de Kooning and Pousette-Dart, who are much better known as painters. So the current show, Elderfield wrote in an e-mail, “is important for raising the same question with respect to the status of Pollock’s sculptures.”
Of course the emergence of these forgotten works raises the enticing possibility that there are more Pollock sculptures out there–objects that could help to finally overwhelm the Jack-the-Dripper cliché with a more nuanced image of Jack-the-carver-molder-caster-and-maybe-even-nascent-earth artist. Harrison notes that a pile of glacial boulders behind the house Pollock shared with Lee Krasner on eastern Long Island could also be considered a sculpture. Toward the end of his life, the artist had reportedly had them excavated, and announced he was going to carve them. “One of these days,” he told Krasner, “I’ll get back to sculpture.”
One of these days, maybe the rest of us will get back to Pollock’s sculpture, too.