Work ethic

Art byCharles Darwent

As with God, you either believe in Jackson Pollock or you don't. If you do, then it is most probably as a latter-day Michelangelo - a flawed genius whose life contained all the elements of alcoholism, wife abuse and early death vital to the genre. If you are rather more devout, you may worship Pollock as an art-historical figure, the co-inventor of action painting and thus an unwitting stepfather to abstract expressionism. You may even admire Pollock the painter, the creator of several dozen of the world's most celebrated postwar works of art (although even the most fervent of worshippers at the shrine of Pollock may not always be able to tell these apart with any degree of confidence).

For all three sets of believers, the Tate Gallery's major new show of Pollock's work, the first in Britain since 1961, will come as something of a revelation. As well as bringing together all the usual suspects - works such as Full Fathom Five, painted in 1947 at the beginning of Pollock's career as a dribbler of paint on canvas - the Tate's exhibition examines the artist's earlier flirtations with (among many other things) surrealism and regionalism, together with his later incarnation as a more or less post-painterly abstractionist.

The true interest of these side-shows, though, is as a way of explaining what we will probably come away from the Tate still thinking of as the real Jackson Pollocks: those canvases created between the moment in 1947 when the artist laid down his paintbrush in favour of "sticks, trowels and knives" and the one in 1953 when he picked it up again. Seeing these works in the context of Pollock's complete oeuvre suggests various useful answers to the question of where they fit into the history of 20th-century art.

It was the surrealists who invented automatism, a form of trance-induced painting that allegedly allowed the hidden truths of the Freudian subconscious to express themselves on canvas. Pollock defended his action painting in much the same terms, dismissing classical skills such as drawing as impositions of the conscious mind: "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them," sniffed the artist, rather spoiling the effect by later insisting that "I can control the flow of paint; there is no accident [in my work]".

Tracing Pollock's descent from the American regionalists - painters such as his first teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, for whom a sense of place was all - is another way of idling away a ruminative half-hour in the Tate. Viewed in a regionalist light, Pollock's work appears unexpectedly American. Like Arthur Miller's first plays, written during the same period, his canvases of 1947-53 suggest a deeply romantic view of blue-collar America as manly, noble and worthy of artistic portrayal. The commercial enamels and plastic resins of Pollock's action canvases (not to mention the sand, glass shards, thumb-tacks and cigarette butts solemnly listed next to each picture by the Tate's curators) evoke the floor of a workshop rather than of a studio. Famously, Pollock worked on a floor of his own, tacking vast lengths of canvas to it, hurling paint at them and only cutting them up into pictures when the fabric was entirely covered. His action paintings are, quite literally, works about work. The muscularity of their mark-making does not express Pollock's message: it is his message.

While all of this is interesting enough, though, what the Tate's show does not do is address the fundamental question of whether Pollock's reputation as a great artist is deserved. The nub of this is whether the psychic intensity claimed for his work really does exist. Paintings such as Full Fathom Five or Tiger (1949) are so vivid because the marks Pollock makes on his canvas recall the violence of the action that made them: the same might be said of skid marks on a road.

But if we did not know what had made those marks, or where they had led, would we find them inherently interesting? Is it possible to see Pollock's work in purely formal terms, to separate his media celebrity - the endless photographs of works-in-progress, the Time magazine covers, the convertible wrecked by the Long Island roadside - from the celebrity of his art? The Tate's show does not attempt to decide, an omission that leaves us, at the end of it, better informed without necessarily being any the wiser.

"Jackson Pollock" continues at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000), until 6 June

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet