This morning I began a two-part Q&A with Pepe Karmel about Jackson Pollock’s landmark masterpiece Mural (1943). Karmel teaches at New York University. He was the co-curator of the 1998 MoMA Pollock retrospective.
MAN: As we discussed in part one of our Q&A, Mural is enormous. So Pollock makes this massive painting in 1943 and then doesn’t approach this scale again until 1950. Why not?
Pepe Karmel: I think part of it may have been practicality. There was no reason to believe anyone would be interested in buying a humongous painting by Jackson Pollock. He had achieved some renown in the art world, but he was not a big superstar. Besides, people were not commissioning great big paintings, and if they were, they commissioned the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfredo Siqueiros, who all did major commissions in New York City and across the United States. Of course, those painters had been inspirations to Pollock and he had traveled to see their work.
Given that he was relatively unknown and poor in New York City, it would have been ridiculous chutzpah to think that anyone would want a big painting by him. I think what pushed him to do it again seven years later was, first, in the interim he had not only evolved but had achieved recognition. By 1949 he was very well known. He was known in the national media as a great young artist, but more importantly, he had developed his style and realized he could work make these paintings that were simultaneously very small scale and large scale. There was an implicit infinity to what he was doing.
Some people say his drip paintings are fractal. I don’t think so, but even if they aren’t they do have that fractal quality. They read powerfully at a distance and if you get close you see more. If you get closer, then that you see more. They keep paying off the closer you get, and they keep paying off the farther away you get.
In any case, part of what made Pollock a great genius was that the work scaled up. I think it was there for internal pressures, you know, ‘How big can I make this?’ From paintings that were 3-by-5 feet to 4-by-8 feet, and he kept pushing it bigger and bigger. Then in 1950 he went out and bought a roll of big canvas and did a series of big paintings by cutting off pieces from that roll. That reflects an internal process as well. [Image: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]
MAN: Did World War II have an impact on the possibility of painters ramping up their scale during the early 1940s? Were some materials hard to get or in shorter supply because of the war effort or anything similar?
PK: That’s a really good question and the honest answer is I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything suggesting it was a problem. If you were a sculptor, maybe David Smith would have had trouble getting bronze or whatever. But this was canvas, so it was used for sailboat sails or whatever you used canvas for. They didn’t use fancy paints. It’s an odd fact how little effect the war seems to have had on abstract expressionism. Now and then you get sight of hidden images that seem to deal with the war or death and terror, but it’s not the major theme.
PK: I’m going to guess it was widely accessible because Peggy Guggenheim herself was very active as a promoter of contemporary art, surrealists and the younger American artists. It wasn’t in her gallery, but it was in her home. Just as Pollock was invited there, probably other artists were too. Whether it was as much a center as the Steins’ house in Paris, I don’t know.
Also, I’m sure it was accessible, but I don’t think it had the kind of impact the later paintings had. It was a bit of a one-off, after which he went back to making smaller paintings. It probably didn’t make that much sense to people. They may have been impressed by it, but by itself it didn’t announce a new style. Aesthetically, looking back, we go, ‘Aha, this is it. This is when he gets there, even prematurely, and then goes away from it.’ I’m guessing other people, including artists, who saw it didn’t understand its implications for some time. By the time they did, Peggy Guggenheim had left, gone to Europe and had given it away.
MAN: Peggy Guggenheim sent paintings far and wide, to San Francisco, Iowa and so on. I know that you aren’t a ‘Peggy Guggenheim scholar,’ but I was wondering if in doing the Pollock show in 1998 you came across anything that unpacked that a bit.
PK: Yes, that’s true, she did. She sent another key Pollock, Galaxy (1947, above), out to Nebraska, to the Joslyn Art Museum.
I don’t know much about that. I think she really, truly believed in the United States, and in contrast to the kind of snobbery that art world people often have in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, who believe that everyone else is too provincial, she believed in America, that if you gave people real great, tough art to look at, it would speak to them. It might not speak to all of them – look at this state representative in Iowa – but it would work for some of them and set fire to people. That’s why it’s important for those things to be there.
Remember: Other countries, other than the United States, art was very centralized until recently. All the important art in France, for example, was in Paris. To some extent the rest of the country was a cultural wasteland, except for the chateaux and the stuff you couldn’t move. In the last 20-30 years, the French have been imitating us and have decided it’s good to be like us and to have art everywhere. I don’t want to go all Richard Florida, but it might be true that having rich collections in many places is a boon to American creativity.