By opening with a group of Pollock’s earlier drip paintings, the show captures the artistic and commercial risk that Pollock was taking with the pourings and the rupture they implied. Unlike the spidery filaments of Number 3, 1949, Tiger (1949), dripped from paint cans or from sticks and stiff brushes, the heavy, calligraphic lines and pooling of paint in a work like Yellow Islands (1952) were made with the help of a turkey baster. Figurative elements creep in. Number 5, 1952 (1952) shows a seated female nude with deranged eyes hemmed in between two ropelike columns. Looking at this work, one understands why Pollock said he was “very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.” If his work was, from the beginning, a running dialectic between abstraction and figuration, this was a moment when the latter took the upper hand.
The show’s many strands come together in Portrait and a Dream (1953), in which a Picassoesque face cohabitates the canvas with an abstract tangle of lines and curves. It looks like a duel between study and spontaneity, which Pollock—who died in a car crash three years later—did not live long enough to resolve.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 92.