Rick Brettell rbrettell@dallasnews.com

Art Critic

Published: 21 November 2015

Updated: 21 November 2015

In the 27 years I have lived in Dallas, I have seen scores of memorable art museum exhibitions and hundreds of very good ones. Yet, I can safely say that I have never seen an exhibition at any museum in North Texas as important and ambitious as the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots.” My mind stretches back to the Kimbell Art Museum’s 1988 investigation of French baroque master Nicolas Poussin for an exhibition at a similar rarefied level.

Curated by the museum’s curator of contemporary art, Gavin Delahunty, it focuses on a short, intensely productive period in the career of America’s first painter of truly international stature.

Before Pollock (1912-56), there were hundreds of major American artists, but none who could claim so important a position in the larger history of world art. Pollock changed all of that in the second half of the 1940s. After that, we’ve been taught, he lost his way, descending into alcoholism and pictorial carelessness before his death in a car wreck in 1956. The last great retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997-98 downplayed his 1950s output.

All of that is turned on its head in this exhibition. Delahunty has tracked down 70 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints produced by Pollock between 1950 and 1953 — though two sculptures date to the year of his death — in museums and private collections to make a serious case for this neglected period, hence the “Blind Spots” subtitle. The exhibition in reduced form showed at the Tate Liverpool earlier this year.

Delahunty has worked with the museum’s exhibition designer to immerse us in the visual world of the New York gallery scene of the early ’50s. The gray carpet, floor moldings, wall colors, furniture and proportions of the Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries are re-created in the DMA so that we see the works in the relatively small spaces for which they were made.

The result is a nine-room tour, beginning with a short introduction of his canonical paintings from the late ’40s, focusing on the DMA’s own Cathedral of 1947, which was among the earliest Pollock drip paintings to enter an American museum in 1950 when Stanley Marcus urged his New York friend Bernard J. Reis to donate it.

The works in this room are multilayered compositions of controlled drips of enamel paint poured directly from the can — often guided, midair, by a brush or other implement — in incredibly thin lines all across the surface of an unprimed canvas placed on the floor of the painter’s studio. Hence, all the niceties of painting with brushes on easels were thrown out the window by Pollock. He made paintings about skeins of painted lines that refuse to be the edges of forms and, instead, function as abstract pictorial elements in a rhythmic pictorial dance akin to jazz.

One enters the next room realizing that, although Pollock continued to work on the floor and to pour his paint, he began to limit himself to black enamel and allowed it to pool and to form recognizable shapes around voids of unprimed canvas. They must have looked retrogressive to advanced critics of the time, but, as the exhibition and its catalog make clear, they were a departure for Pollock.

The exhibition gathers 31 of the so-called black paintings from those years and places them in a powerful visual sequence with almost 40 of his works on paper and sculptures, as well as with the works before and after them in which Pollock used color.

The paintings themselves have an almost volcanic energy. The broad lines of paint gather, overlap and puddle in interaction with the unprimed white canvas to produce white forms suggestive of bodies, animals, still-life elements and even landscapes without ever tipping the balance to illusionism or representation.

Their compositions veer between the curvilinear baroque energy of the Barberini ceiling in Rome and the delicate calligraphy of Asian art. Many of the works on paper are so airy and subtle that they seem more like haiku than epic.

This sense of aesthetic immersion is one of the hallmarks of the exhibition.

Even the beautifully produced and modestly scaled catalog is packed with important commissioned essays by major art historians and museum professionals. It looks very much like the canonical publications of MoMA from the ’50s and ’60s.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has mounted a major exhibition on Pollock’s friend and competitor, the master colorist Mark Rothko, drawn from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The DMA’s show stands in good relief: carefully — and expensively — cherry-picked from so many sources.

Rick Brettell is the founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former director of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Plan your life
“Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” continues through March 20 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays. $16; discounts apply. 214-922-1200. dma.org.

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