“Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again,” Willem de Kooning once said of his fellow AbEx painter, Jackson Pollock. Unfortunately, Pollock’s comments on his contemporary—rumored to have been spoken after many drinks at one of de Kooning’s exhibition after-parties—were lacking the same reverence. “Bill, you betrayed it,” Pollock said. “You’re doing the figure, you’re still doing the same goddamn thing.” [Pollock vs. de Kooning] I guess we can all agree Pollock was being a dick, and probably was a bit envious as well, since he would return to “doing the same goddamn thing” before his death.
In the early 19th Century painting was stuck in a rut. Photography had changed the game and the institutional Salon was producing nothing but stultifying and conservative Beaux-Arts dreck. Ambitious painters had to rethink the game. So they began developing new techniques and visions using a less “respected” subject matter – the landscape. Nearly all the great movements throughout the Modern era emerge out of the “landscape.” Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky and Mondrian, even Surrealists like Miro, Dali and de Chirico, developed and definined new visions and new painterly processes primarily through this genre. The figure seems to always came after.
AbEx was no different. American-type painting used the spatial tropes of landscape painting to create new forms, processes and images. This also allowed painters to keep things non-figurative, non-objective – purely abstract and therefore Modern. Most of the ambitious painters of the time understood that this is where painting needed to be. But de Kooning was a problem. He was a natural figurative painter, and would not relinquish his need to paint it. So, he caught hell from Clem -and from Pollock as well – even as they both acknowledged his gifts. When Bill finally “busted the idea of a picture all to hell” he pushed the scale of the figures and expanded them into landscapes destroying all the old Cubist structures. It was a clever solution to The Gordian knot. For me the best work came last – de Kooning’s wonderful Late Works make the landscape and the figure indistinguishable – both one and the same.
When Pollock died in 1956 at the age of 44 he was just beginning to understand how his radical landscapes might produce a figure. It wasn’t so much his innovative techniques that were creating a problem, rather he was unsure of how he might resolve the figure within his landscape. I always liked the fact that you could find Jackson’s footprints and handprints in many of his beautiful and delicate “drip” paintings – almost like he was trying to climb into the picture. He was the absent figure. But as wonderful as those paintings are Pollock knew that his “destruction of painting” was incomplete. He would have to face the “goddamn thing.” And like so many other painters before him the question became – How does one use this new painterly vision for other subjects and in other genres – particularly the figure?