1st May - 28th May 2008
Opening: 1st May 2008
A Career Survey
Fred Pollock: A Career Survey
Whaur Extremes Meet
Seeing as Painting/Painting as Looking
An essay by Bill Hare
“Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way, and Modernism’s success in doing so is a success of self-criticism.” Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting (1961)
“I cannot therefore entertain the hope of being intelligible to those who have not, by pains and practice, acquired the habit of distinguishing the appearance of objects to the eye, from the judgment which they form by sight of their colour, distance, magnitude and figure. The only profession in life wherein it is necessary to make this distinction is that of painting. The painter hath occasion for an abstraction, with regard to visible objects, somewhat similar to that which we here require; and this is the most difficult part of his art.” Thomas Reid The Craft of Painting (1764.)
“It’s ‘the look of the thing’ that counts” was the clear and concise statement of priority and intent that opened the first exhibition, Poussin=Abstract which Poussin Gallery mounted back in 2005. Furthermore their declared connection with the great 17th century French Classical painter revealed that Poussin Gallery was deadly serious in their belief that the “look” in visual art is anything but “superficiality”. If such is the case - and I am the last to argue with such an observation - then I would contend the work of Fred Pollock, conscientiously and rigorously developed on the principle of the “look” over a long and sustained career, is in complete and harmonious accord with the optical being at the heart of quality abstract art.
With such proclaimed artistic and aesthetic attitudes it is not surprising the presence (as opposed to the ghost) of Clement Greenberg is keenly sensed here. Pollock in fact, came into direct contact with the Grand Master of Modernism when Greenberg curated an exhibition, Four Abstract Artists, at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 1977. Interestingly, all of those four painters who were involved - Abercrombie, Gouk, McLean as well as Pollock - are now closely connected with Poussin Gallery. At the end of his catalogue essay to that Edinburgh exhibition Greenberg wrote,
“These young artists may take their directions from North American influences, but they don’t submit to these. They’re not defined by them. They are their own. And being on their own, they’ll have their up and downs. That’s when their character will show.”
That was written over thirty years ago, yet this latest exhibition of Pollock’s painting demonstrates again that, despite necessary shifts in mode and technique, his underlying “character” and approach to his artistic practice has remained consistently focussed on the visual power of colour to create pure and unmediated sensations of form and space. Refuting the accusation of formalism, as with all true Modernist artists, Pollock never operates in his studio to a prescribed formula of intention, but openly approaches each work with as receptive a response as possible - one mark linking with the next, one chromatic chord responding to another, one composition formulating into a picture which leads to its pictorial heir and then its successors… Thus the modern artist or poet, in the ringing words of the great Hugh MacDiarmid, who provides the title for this essay, must “dodge the curst conceit o’ being right/that damns the vast majority o’ men.” The only thing that requires to be “right” of course is the look of painting itself, or to use another of Greenberg’s critical colloquialisms - “it has to sit right”.
Greenberg, of course, after his early flirtation with Marxism, always traced his aesthetic philosophy and analytical method back to the 18th century Enlightenment and was unashamedly Kantian in his disinterested approach to critical judgement. He also held that, despite appearances, there was never “a break with the past” in the history of art. Presumably the same could be said of the history of philosophy and, if that is so, then it might be appropriate to follow Greenberg’s Kantian attitudes and ideas a little further back to the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Thomas Reid and David Hume, who is reported to have “awakened Kant from his philosophical slumbers.” Significantly both of these Scots philosophers had a keen passion for the visual arts and were also on personal acquaintance with the two most eminent painters of their day, Allan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn, and had their portraits painted by them.
Yet despite their shared interest in visual culture Hume and Reid’s analytical writings on tactile, aural and visual experience were fundamentally at odds. In a very small nutshell, Hume came out of the Idealist/ Nominalist School of Cartesian thinkers which was deeply sceptical that we could rely on our senses to verify the external world. For Hume, our belief in the world’s existence is in fact, ultimately due to the internal ideas which we formulate through experience and memory in the human mind and imagination. On the other hand, as a modern Realist Reid strenuously challenged this notion. In Reid’s Common Sense view, if we are fully aware, there is no need of mediating ideas for us to have direct contact with the experience of external reality through the agency of our senses; and it is gratifying from our point of view that Reid chose to use the unique optical skills of the painter to demonstrate his contentions.
Anticipating many of the now accepted concepts of contemporary post-structuralist theory, Reid lamented the nature of our socially conditioned, quotidian attitude to the visual world as being like a veil of conceptually constructed signs - “to us it is a language perfectly familiar; and, therefore, we take no notice of the signs, but attend only to the thing signified by them.” Thus, to our great loss, we don’t really see the world; rather we immediately fall into our habitual reading of it- “We pass from the sign to the signified, with ease, and by natural impulse; but to go backward from the thing signified to the sign, is a work of labour and difficulty”. Such an arduous task is the chosen lot of painters in general, but acutely so for pure abstract artists like Fred Pollock.
In the work of Pollock the central role of seeing/looking is of fundamental and crucial importance. Reid draws our attention to the fact that seeing/looking is not only an experienced act on our part, but also a medium by which we engage with the visual world, and, like the Modernist artist, we all need to be readily aware of its specific characteristics. With great dedication Pollock, through his essential painterly practice, successfully manages to attend to both the sensual and the artistic qualities of his specific medium of expression. On the heavily worked surface of his pictures the intuitive action of seeing and the conceptual process of painting meet and interconnect in the most direct and free encounter. It is only through years of intense observation and painterly experimentation that Pollock has managed “to go backward from the thing signified to the sign.” In these richly sensuous paintings of Pollock’s, not only is colour revealed to us as the most fundamental feature of our visual world, but the very experience of seeing is re-constructed for us, not in light as with nature, but through the highly articulated artifice of colour placement and arrangement. Thus in a Fred Pollock exhibition we have a very unusual situation. Normally with the presentation of pictures in a painting show we, as viewers, move immediately and unconsciously from our involuntary action of seeing to the conventionally rehearsed act of looking at something that holds our attention for aesthetic and cultural reasons. In marked contrast however, Pollock’s intently optical paintings manage to turn the tables on us by making us intensely aware of the physiological process of seeing through the aegis of the constructivist medium of pure painting in tactile colour. Of course, even with Pollock’s painting, we will go on to the self-conscious act of looking and recognition, but the original impact of the initial experience of spontaneous seeing should also remain with us.
What might seem to be implied here - a return to a sort of Ruskinian “innocent eye” - would certainly be anathema to everything that is being preached by contemporary theories on post-structuralism. This seeming lapse into essentialist romantic yearning for our mythical original and uncontaminated being is definitely not the case on my part. Not for a moment I am denying that painting, including Pollock’s, is a language of semantic communication. Even abstraction is a distinct part of that system and Fred Pollock’s pictures should never be regarded as spontaneous outbursts of raw instinctive expression. On the contrary they are carefully considered and constructed entities; thus they are as much conceptual as perceptual in their nature and in their making. These paintings are there not only to be seen and looked at, but also to stimulate an enriching dialogue as well.
As with all sophisticated communication systems the language of painting is multi-layered. Firstly, there is what might be termed the subliminal level of visual language - that which Lacan for instance calls the “real” and Kristeva the “semiotic”. This is an innate and pre-symbolic mode of expression and the early abstractionists staked their faith on the transcendental power of this language to inspire spiritual enlightenment. The Formalists also believed that abstract art, operating at this fundamental level of visual communication, could have infinitely greater universal significance than mimetic art, for example. Secondly, although abstract art does appear to operate to a greater degree at a subliminal level than other kinds of painting, it has also developed its own particular conventional systems of communication through its distinctive internal historical progress. Thirdly, the mode of expression that painters develop is also dependant on the artistic company they keep and the influences they fall under in the development of their art. Thus painters are drawn towards particular languages of painting through the traditions they inherit, the influences they seek and the community of fellow practitioners with whom they keep company. Fourthly, the final level is the most particular and subtle to discern. This is the artist’s own recognisable manner of visual communication. This is what might be termed the personal rhetorical style of display and delivery which allows us to distinguish and appreciate the crucial differences in means of expression and technique between one painter - in this instance, Fred Pollock - and another. Needless to say the multi-layered structure of painterly language is closely interlinked and any crude attempt at separation through heavy-handed analysis of specific examples can have a detrimental effect on the over-all aesthetic effect - at our own peril “we murder to dissect”, as Alexander Pope succinctly put it in his Essay on Criticism.
The ever-perceptive Reid realised much more than most that perceptual seeing and the conceptual language involved in the act of looking were always closely interconnected. They could however, with proper practice, as found in the attentive focus and technical skill of the dedicated painter, remain distinct from each other. Pollock’s paintings reveal and exemplify this amazing achievement. They are immediately wondrous, but also go on to encourage and sustain absorbing aesthetic meditation. This is because their unmediated openness operates at the multi-level of visual communication as discussed above. Consequently this causes at least a dual reaction in the attentive and absorbed viewer. Through the initial optical contact with Pollock’s pictures we intuitively see their polychromatic brilliance and instantly bask in their sensual delights. The first encounter operates at the subliminal level of visual communication where seeing and painting are at one with each other. Following the involuntary impulse of our initial attraction we then move from the original action of seeing the painting into the act of looking at it. Now our awareness and experience of the different levels of painterly language comes into action. Simple seeing is now taken over by sophisticated looking and informed recognition, but hopefully however, and this must be the case with the totally self-revealing painting of Pollock, never subsumed or eradicated by it. These tangibly real and visually vibrant pictures simultaneously inspire us to realise that seeing is the innate existential pleasure of simply being alive; while, at the same time, they also offer us the freedom to look and critically read the distinctive signs of painting and contemplate their aesthetic significance.
One of Fred Pollock’s long-term admirers - the master of English Modernist sculpture, Sir Anthony Caro - got it precisely and concisely right when he commented on the work of this outstanding Scottish Modernist painter - “these paintings don’t only look good at first acquaintance; they stay good.” They still do, because as Greenberg observed back in 1977, Pollock’s paintings not only stay “good”, they stay their “own”.
Bill Hare 2008