1949: Pollock/Bowles

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The abstractness of modern art has to do with how much an enlightened mind rejects of the social order.1

Robert Motherwell

Everything now depended on him. He could make the right gesture, or the wrong one, but he could not know beforehand which was which.2

Paul Bowles

Among the most well-known stories of the immediate postwar moment in American culture is the discovery of painterly abstraction by a cohort of New York artists and intellectuals. As that story is usually told, a network of European and American painters (Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and, above all, Jackson Pollock) developed, over the course of the 1940s, a new artistic idiom that would eventually be labeled Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting or simply American-Style Painting: vast canvases that pushed the exercise of painterly self-reflexivity credited to Cubism to its logical extreme by largely eschewing representational content and thus emphasizing the surface of the canvas and the medium of painting itself. In the prevailing accounts of that history, the painters of the emerging New York School were driven by artistic vanguardism, even as their work was appropriated for the purposes of political ideology. The case has been made, most influentially by Serge Guilbaut, that the artists who created the defining styles of postwar American painting, and the critics who celebrated them, aimed, by working through and surpassing the history of the European avant-garde, to define a new and distinctively American style of formalist abstraction that would transcend all political affiliations and parochial limitations while broadcasting values of freedom, expressivity and power. It was through this process, as Guilbaut famously put it, that "New York stole the idea of modern art" and in doing so created an artistic language uniquely suited both to the American ideology of the Cold War and to the demands of postwar consumer culture.3

So familiar has that account of the history of Abstract Expressionism become, however, that it can sometimes obscure rather than clarify issues that lay at the heart of the postwar fascination with abstract art. This essay aims to recover some of those complexities by studying the work of Jackson Pollock and Paul Bowles, two artists who, although they are rarely considered in relation to each other, both came to prominence as they turned toward abstraction in the late 1940s. Unlike the coterie of artists and critics who came to define the New York School, Pollock and Bowles do not appear to have known each other or to have seen themselves as part of a common movement. Still further, how they each came to abstraction, as well as the implications of its use in their work, differs, not least because of the medium-specificity that distinguishes their art objects. But in a number of ways, Pollock and Bowles followed overlapping careers. Both spent their apprentice years in New York avant-garde circles of the 1930s and early 1940s. Both benefited from the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim and were affiliated with Guggenheim's seminal Art of This Century gallery. Most importantly perhaps, like many of their contemporaries, both were deeply influenced by Surrealism, whose prominence as the face of the European avant-garde was virtually unrivaled in New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As they moved beyond Surrealism and toward abstraction, their work continued to foreground questions of agency and freedom that characterized postwar American art and culture. By juxtaposing their work, we can recover some of the core problems, namely the stress on control and contingency, that Bowles and Pollock discovered in the production of abstract art.

 

What do you represent?

Abstraction is, by definition, a super-category within which concrete particulars are subordinated.  This definition grants it the conceptual range to represent aesthetic, economic, and social conditions. Despite, or perhaps because of, this flexibility, abstraction has become a powerful tool to describe the prevailing effects of late capitalism and to contest them in the postwar period. This essay's first epigraph comes from Pollock's friend and fellow painter Robert Motherwell, who suggests that the contemporary artist must use abstraction to protest an impoverished social order. But for abstract art to critique the status quo, it must avoid the rigidity and symbolic authority of the social order. During the period when Motherwell was producing his own abstract paintings, social relations in postwar America were growing increasingly abstract as individual consumers became absorbed within the economic and bureaucratic totality of late capitalism. As Motherwell later wrote in an essay on Kafka, "[I]n the 1940s, with the Second World War, the atomic bomb, and the beginnings of the electronic era now exploding, only a monumental ambiguity would do...When we were sardonically asked in those days, 'What does that represent?' we learned to reply, 'What do you represent?'"4 The painters' countermand forced critics to consider how their own identities and value systems had dissolved into an abstract social order that was masked by the reassurance of traditional forms of representation. Abstract art, on the other hand, revitalized the principle of representation by showing abstraction itself to be the most accurate depiction of contemporary reality.

In his well-known midcentury polemic "Masscult and Midcult," Dwight Macdonald argues that the public has become "a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing." Made up of individuals "at the moment when they are nothing," moreover, "a public is a kind of gigantic something, an abstract and deserted void which is everything and nothing."5 Originally published in 1961, Macdonald's critique reflects on how America "progressed" in the immediate postwar era and produced the contradictory effects that concealed the growing atomization of everyday life. In the period's abstract paintings, which might also be described as "a kind of gigantic something, an abstract and deserted void," we encounter a reflection of and challenge to the scale of this cultural dissolution. Unlike the social abstraction Macdonald bemoans, however, abstraction in art imagines freedom from the administrative rationality governing contemporary life. But in order to avoid what they viewed as the humanist nostalgia of social realism, postwar abstract artists effaced the very individual or figure for whom freedom mattered. Theodor Adorno writes that, "freedom is manifested only ideologically as talk about freedom, in stereotyped declamations, not in humanly commensurable actions," and so gets at abstract art's central paradox and problem: to avoid stereotype and to access freedom through humanly commensurable actions, art must both enact and relinquish control of its subject.6

This tension between power and contingency characterizes the midcentury work of both Pollock and Bowles. Pollock's paintings and Bowles's novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) experiment with abstraction and show how it might represent freedom. We think of abstract art as being free of things: free of figuration, free of plot, free of structures or symbols that might produce conventional forms. And yet what we learn from Pollock and Bowles is that the perception of freedom produced by abstraction requires the will of design, which raises questions about the relationships among abstract art, freedom, and power. Can the abstract artist critique power without participating in forms of agency and control that effectively reproduce it? Is it possible to escape ruling symbolic regimes by pursuing abstraction in painting and literature? And finally, can the choice-maker who produces abstraction effectively erase the trace of the figure that is, after all, his own trace?

In the ways they dramatize these problems, Pollock's drip paintings offer a possible rubric for discerning how narrative abstraction operates in Bowles's The Sheltering Sky. To that end, this essay is less interested in offering a balanced assessment of Pollock and Bowles, and more focused on how the drip paintings produce certain effects that help to highlight what is most radical in The Sheltering Sky. The body of work Pollock produced around 1949 and the art-historical conversations prompted by it offer a productive rubric for reading Bowles's novel. While this interdisciplinary effort honors the formal distinctions of painting and literature, it also reveals the historical correspondence between two artists whose works represent anxieties about freedom at a time when this value was becoming central to American self-definition. During the Cold War, intellectuals and the larger public alike used freedom to distinguish American society from the political culture of the Soviet Union.7 In his influential 1949 book The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. suggests that postwar American anxiety is caused by the relative freedom offered in a democracy, a degree of agency that, while fraught, is preferable to the totalitarianism of Communist control that "necessarily squeezes out freedom."8

While Schlesinger's claim helps to reveal the degree to which freedom manifests as a central value at midcentury, I argue that Jackson Pollock and Paul Bowles conceptualize freedom not in Schlesinger's mode as power, but as renunciation. In attempting to represent the abdication of power, orientation, and control, their works imagine freedom as a freedom from rather than freedom for. Put differently, they understand freedom as contingency rather than as a precondition for agency. Giorgio Agamben has defined contingency as the "possibility to be or not to be": in other words, an utter freedom of choice, indeed freedom from choice, that distinguishes it both from the absolute control of totalitarian society and the more comfortable but ultimately imprisoning sphere of late capitalism.9 To pursue contingency, as Pollock and Bowles do in their works, is finally to acknowledge what radical freedom might look like, and to admit that it must always be a matter of life or death for the subject: "to be or not to be." In order to present this picture or narrative of contingency, then, these works stage the erasure of the figure, and along with it the metaphors and sign systems that are used to buttress social or individual identity.

 

Abstract Figures

Paul Bowles's first novel The Sheltering Sky was published in 1949, the same year as Schlesinger's The Vital Center, after Bowles had left New York City, where he had enjoyed a successful career as a music composer. Also in 1949, Jackson Pollock debuted two groundbreaking solo exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery and was featured in the now famous Life magazine article, "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?"10

Notably, both The Sheltering Sky and Pollock's drip paintings were critical and commercial successes. Bowles's novel went through three printings in two months and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. And as Rosalind Krauss documents, Pollock's 1949 show had record sales; he earned $5800 from the 1949-1950 gallery season, "at a time when the average white-collar worker took home $3500 a year."11 By 1950, Alfred Barr had purchased Pollock's Number 1, 1948 for the Museum of Modern Art. We might account for the popularity of these works by considering the collective fantasy of freedom they seem to fulfill, especially with regard to prevailing notions of "man" emergent in midcentury American culture. Mark Greif writes, "Man became at midcentury the figure everyone insisted must be addressed, recognized, helped, rescued, made the center, the measure, the "root," and released for 'what was in' him."12

How then, do we account for artwork that not only decenters but in fact disavows the figure, and emphasizes instead the flatness of surfaces? What do we do with artwork that dispenses with notions of what might be "in" Man at all? I argue that the success of Bowles and Pollock in 1949 had to do with the fact that they acknowledged the anxiety latent in "Crisis of Man" discourse, but also offered a formal picture for how to escape it. At midcentury, artists and intellectuals sought solutions for the paradox of democracy that promised freedom but, in its growing consumerism and bureaucracy, actually stifled human expression and creativity. Social critics like Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and David Riesman, along with Schlesinger and other prominent intellectuals, developed theories for how to enhance individual agency, just as some Abstract Expressionists used gestural painting or the sublime to assert the primacy of the expressive self and transcend the banality of commercialism in postwar America.

In the eyes of many of their contemporaries, Bowles and Pollockthe expatriate living in Tangiers and the cowboy artist painting in a barneach seemed to exemplify the visions of personal freedom celebrated by postwar American cultural discourse. In a 1987 documentary about Pollock, Elaine de Kooning says, "He captured the public imagination by appearing reckless and abandoned that's what people wanted and fantasized about."13 This artist persona offered the cliché that image culture increasingly trained audiences to desire. But, in fact, the artwork produced by Bowles and Pollock counters this celebration of the heroic individual, so that the popularity of these paintings and this novel might suggest that audiences sought freedom from the very image culture that intoxicated them. Although the myth of the artist figure as embodied by Pollock and Bowles supplied a familiar image of "Man" as one who, in Greif's account, must be "helped, rescued, made the center," their abstract artwork seems to forego such intense self-consciousness.14 By breaking traditional rules of narrative and painting in favor of a radical embrace of contingency, Pollock and Bowles provided audiences with an intriguing alternative to the era's humanist discourse, not to mention to the growing administration of everyday life in postwar America.

However, this is not just a story of critical and commercial success, but also one of theoretical failure. While The Sheltering Sky and Pollock's drip paintings appear to represent forms of freedom via abstraction, they in fact reveal this freedom to be unachievable. In a small but illustrative moment in The Sheltering Sky, protagonist Port Moresby interprets a blind dancer's "strangely detached and somnambulistic expression" as art's renunciation of ego: "It was as if she were saying: 'A dance is being done. I do not dance because I am not here. But it is my dance'" (131). Just so, Bowles's and Pollock's works perform self-erasure, even as they reveal a decisive ego that admits, "It is my dance." Their enactment of contingency promises freedom from the control of social dogma and authority but requires the effort of a willed ego, the very ego these authors must surrender in their drive toward radical renunciation. To avoid turning freedom into a fetish and thus affirming American propaganda, these works abstract from both the social and the individual, both the ruling symbolic regime and the ego itself. Thus, in their effort to contest the ideology of individualism at the center of both Cold War ideology and postwar consumerism, these artists come to represent both freedom and its impossibility. Significantly, the negation that informs Bowles and Pollock's works relies upon an individual ego or source of power to make the choices needed to produce abstraction. As a result, both Bowles and Pollock suggest a tragic vision in two respects. Each implies that to destroy the self and the social has become the only means left for artists seeking freedom from power, and, still further, that such freedom proves ultimately unattainable. The double bind these works highlight is that so long as the ego pursues its own renunciation, it can never fully disappear.

I find it useful to read Bowles's novel alongside Pollock's work because the drip paintings actively (i.e. visually) exhibit the contradiction of will and submission that drives the narrative of The Sheltering Sky. A novel about three Americans travelling through northern Africa, The Sheltering Sky systematically sheds the formal anchors that orient readers to plotcharacters, dialogue, setting, the foundation for conflictsand that might offer narrative coherence. In an act of contractual renunciation that reflects the novel's formal principles, Doubleday demanded that Bowles repay his advance when they read the book, saying simply, "We asked for a novel."15 At first, The Sheltering Sky appears to meet this request.  It begins conventionally enough, with the American expatriates arriving in North Africa to embark on their tour. But soon it starts to reduce traditional devices into non-existence, or renders them so effete as to be meaningless. Contingency takes over as the dominant feature of the narrative, so that any apparent motivation of the characters towards purpose or resolution gets sacrificed for its achievement. Bowles's characters are not, for example, motivated by feeling or desire. In narrative theory, emotions are used as a primary category to explain why characters behave as they do. In The Sheltering Sky, however, emotional states rarely advance beyond apathy; when they do, they appear as neurotic episodes of hysteria rather than as the meaningful expressions of an intentional subject. Dialogue too is ultimately abandoned, as is the communicative sociality it might promote. Setting eventually loses the defined contours of inside/outside space and becomes pure landscape. And finally, conflict and its possible resolution are flattened by the seemingly random decisions made by primary characters who are themselves abstractions. In a response to Hilton Kramer that Bowles drafted but never mailed, he distinguished himself from Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams by saying that they were "essentially interested in people, whereas for me people are shadows, abstractions. If it were possible I should write without using people at all."16 Notably, Bowles crossed out those lines in his unmailed letter, an uncanny double retraction of a view informed by the negation of central narrative effects.

In his dreamlike representation and eventual disintegration of primary characters, Bowles echoes a key feature of Pollock's drip paintings: the dissolution of figure into ground. At one point, Port says to his wife Kit, "We've never managed, either one of us, to get all the way into life. We're hanging on to the outside for all we're worth, convinced we're going to fall off at the next bump" (94). And fall they do, both eventually destroyed by death or mental illness. But the novel's implication, professed here by Port, is that they never really made their way into the frame in the first place. In an interview, when asked why so many of his characters seem asocial, Bowles countered, "Are they? Or are they merely outside and perhaps wishing they were inside?"17 The language of inside/outside gestures to the frame as a way to conceptualize social alienation, the boundary that lets people in or keeps them out. Bowles's comment also reveals the passivity of characters who may in fact wish for something like social belonging, but fail to act in any way that could achieve it. Rather than reading this lack of agency as a sign of fear, I believe it represents the refusal to participate in the forms of domination or conformity that sociality demands of contemporary subjects.

Through its main characters' submission to contingency and thus dissolution, the novel gradually subsumes figure into ground, allowing the novel's characters to disappear into its desert landscape, somewhat as abstract painting encouraged the disappearance of the figure in the space of the canvas. When his passport is stolen, Port observes, "It's strange . . . how, ever since I discovered that my passport was gone, I've felt only half alive. But it's a very depressing thing in a place like this to have no proof of who you are, you know" (154). A "place like this" is, of course, the desert, a landscape that is itself without boundaries or distinctions. Bowles represents the desert less as a natural landscape, and more as a kind of hallucinatory abstraction that mirrors the ambiguity of his characters. At this point in the novel, Port is literally only half-alive, dying from a disease he has yet to diagnose. Thus the material loss of the passport registers as an existential crisis that in turn foreshadows Port's actual, physical demise. One night after his passport is stolen, Port wakes up sobbing, as if experiencing a loss of which he has yet to become conscious. This uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion reveals that he exists but anticipates his passing into non-existence. He is, in a sense, mourning his own death. As he slowly abstracts from his environment, Port's stolen passport seems to function as a souvenir of selfhood that no longer carries any value.

Unlike its protagonists Port and Kit Moresby, the novel's minor characters exhibit definite contours, purposeful behavior, and clear values. Bowles needs these characters to be concrete, even if they play very small roles in the narrative, in order to set into relief the Moresbys' effacement. The latter's negation of personhood is made visible only through contrast. Thus we see how the device of character is used to render abstraction when, as narrative, it cannot literally be abstract in the way a poem, or painting, or piece of music might be. Morris Dickstein also recognizes the strategic play of opposition in the novel's characters: "The Dickensian solidity of these sharply drawn characters contrasts very effectively with the growing metaphysical vagueness of the Moresbys."18

Most notably, Tunner, the third American travelling with Port and Kit, operates with the kind of power and substantiality that the novel rebukes. Tunner embodies American hegemony and serves as a counterpoint to the sense of futility that is the Moresbys' governing principle. Indeed it is their very passivity that invites Tunner's presence in the narrative; only too late do they realize that he represents what they had hoped to escape in America. Finally, the Moresbys dodge his company and soon after spiral into physical and psychic disintegration. Tunner's authority and well-being function structurally as the positive charge that allows the novel's drive toward negation to be registered. Using a painterly vocabulary, we might say that Tunner is all figure dominating ground. Described as handsome in a "late Paramount way" (105), Tunner hates filth and is "blatantly normal" (58). Unlike Port, who "never gave orders...[but] hung back, hoping to discover what [Kit] really wanted," Tunner is "accustomed to imposing his will without meeting opposition" (59). Bowles represents Tunner, with his movie star looks and superficiality, as the product of an image culture which commodifies personality into "types," as we have already seen in its fetishization of Bowles and Pollock as rebel artists.

Perhaps even more than his charismatic authority, it is the cheerful competence with which Tunner orients himself in any given situation that distinguishes him from the Moresbys. Port and Kit frequently submit to and even pursue forms of disorientation: dreamlike episodes, drunkenness, extreme fatigue, lapses in consciousness, rhythmic walks that lead nowhere, and periods when calendar time fails to order experience. To be oriented is, in a sense, to be able to organize experience, to control one's environment as opposed to being lost within it.

Alternatively, in Bowles's novel, much as in Pollock's paintings, abstraction thwarts efforts to organize and thus master space. In Pollock's "all over" paintings of the late 1940s, as Michael Fried explains in a well known description,

line does not give rise to positive and negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure... against another part of the canvas read as ground. There is no inside or outside to Pollock's line or to the space through which it moves...19

Without figure, there is no need to orient the painting according to stable spatial categories like up and down, inside and outside, positive and negative. Rather, the painting expresses equality among its compositional elements, an equality that emphasizes surface over depth and disrupts any anthropomorphizing centrality that might orient the viewer. For Fried, this intensity produces a purely optical space characterized by what he calls the "facingness" of paintings that both demand constant visual work from the beholder and refuse final conclusions of meaning. As delineations of form are reduced, so too are the interpretations of value we might assign to them. Pollock's drip paintings are indecipherable because they fail to offer viewers the kind of formal particularities we need to name and interpret what we see. T.J. Clark has argued that "the drip paintings are all involved in an effort to dismantle or jam metaphor," and we see this in the way they refuse direct references to the world even when their titles tempt us to produce allegorical readings.20 As such, the paintings represent the disorientation that occurs when reading sensory phenomena without a legible system for meaning-making.

In The Sheltering Sky, we encounter a similar resistance to meaning-making. Kit, for example, having relinquished her capacity for imaginative or independent decision-making before the novel even begins, looks to omens for guidance on how to act. She operates within an elaborate and ultimately baffling sign system that stymies her efforts to know what to do in any given moment. "Her ability to go through the motions of everyday existence was reduced to a minimum. It was as if she had been stricken by a strange paralysis. She had no reactions at all; her entire personality withdrew from sight; she had a haunted look" (36). As a figure, Kit then becomes abstract in two ways: first by ceding agency to the external signs she encounters, and then in her inability to determine their meaning, and thus produce a rubric for action. Consequently, she seems to exist in a constant state of low-level bewilderment. Bowles constructs a novel in which neither figure nor sign system, two primary registers that offer a foundation for orientation, retains validity.

 

American Trash 

In one interview, Bowles said that he found Kit's neurotic behavior to be the norm among "Occidentals," much as Adolf Gottlieb, expressing a sentiment widely shared among the painters who would ultimately be defined as the New York School, suggests that midcentury painting reflects the real anxiety of contemporary experience:

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of the image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean, and pictographic images are an expression of the neurosis that is our reality. To my mind, certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary it is the realism of our time.21 

If abstraction is the realism of midcentury America, then its rejection of social signs, discernible figures, and objects suggests their lost value even as late capitalism delivers its postwar boom. In The Sheltering Sky, Bowles references material culture to show how the "scaffolding" of civilization falters in the face of violence, terror or abandonment. The Moresbys cross the Atlantic "with a great deal of luggage and the intention of keeping as far as possible from the places that had been touched by war" (6). Like their companion Tunner, this baggage tethers them to the reified existence in America they sought to flee. Along with his authoritative competence, Tunner readily produces things like champagne, flannel bathrobes, and aspirin when they are most needed to stanch the contingencies of foreign travel. In one scene, Kit unpacks all of her luggage so that her room resembles a bazaar; she needs to "look at [her] things" because, she admits, "After all, I'm still an American, you know" (155).

Gradually, however, these symbols of Western culture cease to provide the nourishment they should. Toward the end of the novel, Kit opens her traveling bag and stares at its contents:

small white handkerchiefs, shiny nail scissors, a pair of tan silk pajamas, little jars of face cream. Then she handled them absently; they were like the fascinating and mysterious objects left by a vanished civilization. She felt each one was a symbol of something forgotten. It did not even sadden her when she knew she could not remember what the things meant. (285)

These tools of cultivation and self-care become meaningless when Kit's capacity to function as a character has been destroyed. Something similar to this effacement of symbols is what Clark claims Pollock aimed to achieve in his painting of the late Forties: "That it be abstract: that every trace of likeness be harried out of it: that it put itself at odds with the world we inhabit, and discover kinds of pleasure and agony that would put the very notion "world' in doubt."22 Abstraction in Pollock and Bowles roots out the figure as well as the things that figures use in the world; the contemporary artist pushes past the necessity for these things, just as for Kit the illegibility of signs eventually extends to the everyday material culture that at one time anchored her in reality.

It matters that Pollock and Bowles were Americans setting upon this venture of negation. As the emergent cultural and economic superpower after World War Two, the United States dominated the waning colonial empires of France and England. Bowles represents this transition in The Sheltering Sky, where the Americans' passports, money, and commodities distinguish them from the native culture as well as from the crumbling colonial hotels with their bad service and rotten food, desperately corrupt British travelers, and paranoid French colonial officers. Expressing what Bowles calls "the sadness inherent in all deracinated things," these remnants of colonial power thus also resemble what Clement Greenberg considered the "sadistic and scatological" elements of Pollock's paintings.23 Bowles could be said to treat his characters sadistically in a way that resembles the sadism Greenberg sees in Pollock: without medical treatment, Port succumbs to a painful death from typhoid fever, while Kit is raped, beaten, and poisoned, and (unsurprisingly) suffers a mental breakdown. By dismissing the willful agency exemplified by Tunner and choosing instead to surrend to contingency, these characters render themselves open to the abuses and indifferent cruelty of the world they occupy. Both Port and Kit have opportunities to be "saved" by the ever-resourceful Tunner but consistently evade the security he has to offer.

In a moment, I will turn to this strategic renunciation of care as an effect of the Moresbys' commitment to contingency, but first we should examine the decay that remains after sign systems and figures are reduced in abstraction. Both Bowles and Pollock seem interested in what gets left over after solid forms like symbols and figures of objective reality disappear. Clark helpfully develops an account of what he calls the "vestigial" in Pollock's paintings, as what is "unusable, marginal, uncanny in the limiting sense of the word but that at least the parent culture leaves alone. It is the kind of experience modern painting has often been forced back on: the only kind, so it believes, not colonized and banalized by the ruling symbolic regimes."24 Most notably, we see the discarded or leftover detritus of the West in a painting like Full Fathom Five, which, with its relatively smaller scale and layered density, offers a kind of tactile clottedness, a worldly materiality far from the sublimity we encounter in Newman or Rothko. Frank O'Hara provides an inventory of what can be found on this canvas: "a number of extraneous objects imbedded in the surface, like souvenirs of accident: a cigarette, half its paper torn off to expose the tobacco, two keys, nails, a cluster of tacks, and paint-tube tops making like blind eyes here and there."25 O'Hara cannot resist making metaphor of the paint-tube tops' "blind eyes," but their scattered presence "here and there" on the canvas ultimately refuses this semblance by disordering it. Along with the sticks, knives, sand, broken glass, and other foreign matter Pollock himself catalogued as his elemental tools for painting, these items represent a kind of accidental abandon, the unstable and marginal stuff that no longer signifies and enjoys a certain sensuous freedom as a result of its extant use.

Jackson Pollock, "Full Fathom Five," 1947.

Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five, 1947.

 

This "heterogeneity of trash," to use Rosalind Krauss's formulation, also reflects the scatological presence of filth and detritus that composes the landscape in The Sheltering Sky.26 In the tent where Port sleeps with a prostitute and possibly contracts typhoid fever, there are "objects scattered everywhere in utter disorder, an alarm clock, a sardine can, an ancient greasy pair of overalls" (27). When Kit ventures into a fourth class train car, she encounters one man holding a sheep's head and another wearing cast-off European clothes with a burlap bag on his head. Later, when the couple arrive along with their friend Tunner at the supremely ill-named Grand Hotel, they encounter "a small mountain of reeking garbage, reclining on its sides were three screaming, naked infants, their soft, formless bodies troubled with bursting sores...two pink dogs who had lost all their hair...the odor of the latrine...shrill women in dispute" (106). In disgust, Tunner leaves the hotel immediately, but the Moresbys submit to its catastrophic decay. Seeming neither pleased by nor resistant to the deteriorated conditions of the hotel, they merely accept it as their new environment. The vestigial materiality of this space seems to lack purpose or function, except insofar as it constitutes the abject ground of the novel.

But if elements of trash and scatology appear in both Bowles and Pollock as one consequence of abstraction, both artists discover a way beyond abjection, where the force of negation that reduces the explicitly symbolic to the vestigial begins to approach the total purity of renunciation.27 The allover beauty of the Pollock drip paintings and the immaculate completion of the desert in Bowles's novel are, in a sense, the culmination of their work with abstraction. In Frank O'Hara's essay on Pollock, he immediately follows his discussion of the "souvenirs of accident" found in Full Fathom Five and other drip paintings, with the claim that the work of 1947-1950 represents the "classical" period of the painter's oeuvre:

This is the classical period of Pollock, classical in all its comprehensive, masterful and pristine use of his own passions, classical in its ultimate beauty, classical in that it is "characterized especially by attention to form with the general effect of regularity, simplicity, balance, proportion, and controlled emotion," to quote the dictionary.28

This pairing of the accidental with the classical is at once contradictory and suggestive. Its paradox helps to address a fundamental tension the reader encounters in The Sheltering Sky. As objects that once carried meaning are discarded or forgotten, characters seem cleansed by their distance from concrete experience. As the narrative moves from greater decay to dissolution, it begins to achieve a kind of calm inevitability that distinguishes a large allover painting like One: Number 31, 1950 from the thickly residual canvas of Full Fathom Five.

One: Number 31, Jackson Pollock, 1950.

Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950.

 

Because of its smooth lines and perfectly balanced effect, paint in One seems almost to hover off the surface of the canvas, more otherworldly than material, both in its immobility and its surpassing scale. The effect is similar to the quasi-spiritual experience of the desert that Bowles describes in his essay "The Baptism of Solitude," in which he refers to solitude in Africa as an encounter with the "absolute."29  Similarly, when in The Sheltering Sky the Moresbys arrive in the remote town where Port will eventually die, Kit observes that at last there is no "visible sign of European influence, so that the scene had a purity which had been lacking in the other towns, an unexpected quality of being complete which dissipated the feeling of chaos" (181). The sense of the absolute evoked by this setting predicts the protagonist's fate. Upon arrival, Port's disease becomes irreversible; he will never regain agency, and he notes bitterly, "The first decent place and I have to feel like this" (182). Indeed, the novel seems to arrive at a moment of classical symmetry as space, character, and movement attain a kind of profound immobility. Much as O'Hara understands Pollock to arrive at a "classical" phase after having moved beyond the "souveneirs of accident," Bowles describes the absolute purity of the desert succeeding the vestigial trash of colonialism. In the same process, Bowles's narrative itself becomes greatly reduced, simplified, and stripped of appurtenances like character, dialogue, setting, and emotion.

And so we arrive at how these paintings and this novel achieve a productive tension between unity and dissonance, purity and decay. O'Hara's emphasis on how Pollock masters emotions and determines form enables my theory about the will to renunciation we encounter in these works. The novel and paintings in question aim for radical contingency and thus create the formal effects of abstraction that inevitably signal an ego at work, so that the fantasy of freedom, which abstraction is meant to signify, can never be fully realized. Both ego and world persist in the forms of order (ego) and decay (world). Bowles's absolute solitude, or the purity the Moresbys encounter in the desert outpost, has in fact been achieved by design, not contingency. Had the Moresbys' outcome been produced by contingency, it would and could have happened to someone like Tunner or any number of Americans who would never actually arrange to find themselves dying in the desert. By refusing to be immunized, ditching Tunner, and venturing further into the Sahara, Port consistently makes choices that all but guarantee his demise."30 Similarly, Greenberg observed, gestural painting did not "rely on ungoverned spontaneity and haphazard effects...[but was] subject to a discipline as strict as any that art obeyed in the past."31

 

The Rules of Freedom

So far, I have shown how Bowles's and Pollock's works achieve abstraction through the renunciation of formal devices like figure, conflict, dialogue, and setting, or contour in painting, but now we must study how these refusals produce new rules for the game of art-making and thus determine their effect of contingency. Ultimately, the discipline of abstraction negates the freedom it is meant to represent, a fundamental problem for Bowles and Pollock and one that is a central focus of their work.

In a well-known interview from 1950, William Wright asked Jackson Pollock about the "advantage" of painting with a stick versus a brush. At first, Pollock answers, as we might expect, by referring to the greater freedom and ease the stick allows in the drip technique. Wright then inquires about the relative difficulty of controlling the outcome of painting with a stick, whereas with a brush, he says, "You know exactly what it's going to look like." To this, Pollock responds, "with experience it seems to be possible to control the flow of the paint, to a great extent...and I don't use the accident cause I deny the accident."32 Pollock's control of the stick and his denial of accident reveal how his allover paintings achieve their image of contingency only through careful design. It is this very design, in fact, that renders Pollock's paintings of the late Forties, in O'Hara's phrase, "classical," for despite their "allover" texture, the formal balance of these canvases nevertheless gives them a unified structure that reflects the painter's adherence to however radically new rules devised in advance of painting. The rectangular canvas tacked to the floor, the use of the stick, the rhythmic gestures of flicking and dripping determine the allover painting with such consistency that one could say of his work from this period: "you know exactly what it's going to look like."33 This is not to say that the paintings don't exhibit particularity which they do or that they lack singular merits and discoveries that they have but that they express a collective harmony that belies the apparent absence of control that characterizes the drip paintings.

Matthew Rampley has suggested that Pollock didn't intend for this "essential sameness" to occur in his work of the period; he adds, however, that "the fact that his works produce this effect suggests a singular failure to judge in advance the consequences of absolute spontaneity, absolute non-identity."34 While Pollock may not have anticipated the sameness or unity his paintings would produce, I disagree with Rampley that the method of their production was based on "absolute spontaneity, absolute non-identity." Pollock made purposefully consistent choices to produce the effects that he did, and while the drip paintings could not be preconceived, they all emerged from the same system of production he had established for himself. What these paintings show, in fact, is that neither absolute spontaneity nor absolute unity is possible in abstract art. Variation of colors, the relative scale of the paintings, or the detritus dropped on some of the canvases distinguishes them from one another, even as their recognizable sameness makes any claim of spontaneity fundamentally incomplete.

In order to examine how Bowles, like Pollock, heightens the paradox of contingency and control, I will focus on three formal categories that characterize their work with abstraction: flatness, line, and the refusal of metaphor. I should say at the outset that I understand these terms signify different effects in literature and painting, and I hope that readers will apply them according to the medium-specificity of each art object. My aim is not to collapse the formal definition of, say, line in painting with that in literature, but rather to see them as concepts that can shift productively from one medium to another in order to produce a larger philosophical argument about abstraction.

Flatness as a formal feature, which dominates both Pollock's paintings and The Sheltering Sky, carries a long art-historical narrative that informs how we think about Abstract Expressionism specifically and the tradition of modernist painting generally. Clement Greenberg, who was especially central to this conversation, claimed that flatness was the essential component of modern painting; he argued that what was strongest in "post-Cubist" paintings, by which he meant American abstraction, was their "tautness of feeling."35 Despite their layered skeins of thrown paint, Pollock's allover paintings strike us doubly because of their flatness, first because of surface effects they intend, and secondly because of our knowledge that Pollock produced them on the ground. Viewed on a horizontal or vertical plane, flatness is one way these paintings refuse conventional pictorial space. And though Greenberg would vehemently resist my translation of flatness in painting to another medium, especially literature, I believe that doing so will help us to identify the tonal flatness we hear in The Sheltering Sky at two registers: affective and perceptual. First, the reader encounters the flat affect of the characters' voices and their seemingly apathetic responses to events that would usually elicit reaction, and then a kind of perceptual one-dimensionality that overtakes the narrative as its characters become disoriented because of mental illness or disease.

Bowles enacts the affective flatness of his characters by positioning them in what might at first seem to be conventional situations or settings and then negating any of the expressive content we might reasonably expect from them. At one point, Port and Kit Moresby go to have tea with a new Arab acquaintance. The scene has all the necessary props to make it a realistic moment from a conventional novelistic narrative: characters, music, tea, and most importantly, the opportunity for plot development. But nothing happens. Conversation quickly falters and then fails, the social effort is aborted, and the Moresbys seem bored. When Kit later refers to the encounter as superficial, Port compares it to a "frieze" (123), which aestheticizes the banality of a situation that had promised newness and difference. Their experience feels flat because it cannot overcome the social anomie they experience as Americans.

Later, with a more drastic departure from conventional narrative, Bowles extends the trope of flatness to perception. Because of their rapid deterioration, Kit and Port begin to hallucinate and experience the world as almost dimensionless. Port's perceptions as he dies could be used to describe a Pollock painting:

Slowly, pitilessly, the number of dimensions was lessening. There were fewer directions in which to move. It was not a clear process, there was nothing definite about it so that he could say: "Now up is gone." Yet he had witnessed occasions when two different dimensions had deliberately, spitefully, merged their identities, as if to say to him: "Try and tell which is which." . . . It was an existence of exile from the world. He never saw a human face or figure, nor even an animal; there were no familiar objects along the way, there was no ground below, nor sky above, yet space was full of things. (216)

In this scene from The Sheltering Sky, the collapse of dimensionality produces a flatness where movement, figuration, and recognizable signs disappear. In what might be seen as the ultimate dissolution of figure into ground, Port finally achieves the "exile from the world" he has been pursuing since the start of the novel. This total renunciation of ego expressed as non-dimensionality occurs, however, only in death.

Meanwhile, Kit waits outside, knowing that Port's death will precipitate her own radical transformation. Her perceptions at this moment seem to mirror Port's sense of exile. Kit too loses contact with dimensional space:

Whichever way she looked, the night's landscape suggested only one thing to her: negation of movement, suspension of continuity. But as she stood there, momentarily a part of the void she had created, little by little a doubt slipped into her mind, the sensation came to her, first faint, then sure, that some part of this landscape was moving even as she looked at it. . . . The whole, monstrous, star-filled sky was turning sideways before her eyes. It looked still as death, yet it moved. (210)


A landscape rendered at once static and dynamic, star-filled and sliding into verticality, offers a textual counterpart to Pollock's work, especially paintings like Phosphorescence (1947), Sea Change (1947), or Number I, 1949 (1949). About such paintings, Michael Leja observes that their titles "position the viewer in a disorienting relation to the picture plane. In looking into the paintings one imagines looking up or down; in the ordinary perception of sky and sea, the viewer's own body would usually be aligned with the axis of recession rather than perpendicular to it."36 Moving the perceptual field from the horizontal plane of the ground to its vertical hanging on the wall, Pollock turns the world sideways and tests the ultimate axes of flatness. Like Port's visions before dying, the ground of these paintings is void of any recognizable figures or objects; space is "full of things," but they are not the things we can name and interpret. This all-over sense of plenitude manifests paradoxically as a void, just as the meridian of freedom enjoyed by Port and Kit occurs as they pass from life to death, or from sanity to breakdown.

0Pollock_Phosphorescence_1947

Jackson Pollock, Phosphorescence, 1947

 

Namuth_-_Pollock

Jackson Pollock painting, photo by Hans Namuth

 

Passages like the ones from Bowles's novel quoted above tempt the reader to think of nature the sky or the desert as a suitable metaphor for abstraction in the novel. Just so, the titles and look of Pollock's early drip paintings have led critics to link his abstract work to nature. Critics have also made the case for the influence of the primitive on Pollock and Bowles, but this category is at best a placeholder, a way to conceptualize both artists' commitment to the non-social, their flight from civilization and, in particular, the ruling symbolic regimes of the West. Bowles and Pollock reach beyond nature or the primitive for something even more abstract, something that we might call the universal or, following Bowles, the absolute. Just as they work to dissolve the figure, they deny nature's particularity so that ground is completely abstracted from world. They are invested in something pre-natural, the representation of a world before its birth or after its destruction, which might come to define abstraction as pure freedom from the sensuous particularity that would require us to name things and assign meaning to them.

 

800px-Tarantula_Nebula_TRAPPIST

The Tarantula Nebula, photo by European Southern Observatory (ESO), 8 June 2010

 

Consider T. J. Clark's reading of Pollock's painting Lucifer:

Its throws reach out toward weightlessness: they are lacy, nebulous, blown by a horizontal current of air...The background of grays and red-browns has an unapologetic emptiness, like a glimpse into deep space, with the black foreground silhouetted against it. The canvas has been primed, meticulously, with a wash of pale limestone cream. The green and aluminum are cold as ice...A terrible, strictly performative beauty takes place on this side Night. And to the shape of the Air, the pull of the empty horizontal, bends everything (gently) to its will.37

The weightlessness and emptiness Clark recognizes in this painting distinguish its effect from the kind of particularity we encounter when art references nature. Similarly, in The Sheltering Sky, Port's death from typhoid fever, which should directly tie the body to nature, gets represented as an out-of-body experience. Physical details of his illness are seldom described and the closest Bowles comes to rendering his pain is to say that he feels cold. The novel thus treats the body as an abstraction.

pollock-lucifer

Jackson Pollock, Lucifer, 1947

 

Linking abstraction to purposeful design rather than nature complicates its presumption of contingency and explains why Clark emphasizes the "performative" in his description of Lucifer: to remind us that this is manmade abstraction, a "canvas meticulously primed," painting performed to look a certain way. We would be right to call it artifice, or artificial. So while the paintings resist an anthropomorphic logic by eradicating spatial orientation and any trace of the figure, they nevertheless call attention to process and thus to the presence of a choice-maker.

For instance, few art critics have talked about the effect of white or aluminum paint in several of Pollock's drip paintings from this period; the tinny look of this tone most effectively reveals the denatured character of these canvases. Next to Pollock's use of green (which flirts with metaphors of nature but is too weirdly jade to be plant-like), white, the all-color and thus non-color, expresses the paintings' artifice and detachment; it is the mark of totality, purity, and finally, repercussion, by which I mean it reflects back at us, reverberating off the canvas. Not only does the white paint stand out most vividly against the morass of darker hues that form skeins and webs, but in doing so, it punctuates surface, flatness, and the decisively performative gesture. It is, more than any other thrown line, the one that most evokes the line-thrower, the choice-maker, and thus the figure who has been effaced.

In his chapter on Pollock in Farewell to an Idea, Clark shares an anecdote about Mondrian, who said to his partner at a dance club, "Let's sit down. I hear melody." Clark goes on to suggest, "This is the dream and disappointment of abstraction in a nutshell. The idea of an art made in outright opposition to the Natural an art without melody, that is, is a great notion, and a hopeless one. The band will always pick up the tune. Let's sit down. I see a figure."38 This problem for abstraction is most directly expressed in Pollock's paintings by line, the formal element that produces their no figure/all ground aesthetic but, also, inevitably signals the figure beyond the frame who did the dripping or, in Bowles's words, is "hanging on to the outside for all [he's] worth." In The Sheltering Sky as in literature generally linearity also forces our awareness of the human reading and the one who wrote. While in literature, we think of line as a poetic unit, the line imposes visual and thus cognitive conditions on the reader of prose as well. Line, or linearity, compels us to follow its path despite all efforts of a writer like Bowles to evoke a meaningless, figure-less, dimension-less landscape of pure space or spirit. Abstract experiences like death or madness are fundamentally impossible to represent in language without following its linear structure. Despite the "vertiginous clarity" Port experiences before dying, which he thinks of as "a painting of pure design," our only way of accessing his vision is to abide by linearity, to read the line from left to right, following the logic of the language even as the novel works toward its renunciation through the effacement of signs, symbols, speech, and meaning.

Just as, in abstract painting, line simultaneously effaces and recalls the figure, so in The Sheltering Sky, the effort at self-renunciation signals a viable ego working towards this goal. When Kit loses herself in the desert after Port's death, she essentially stops speaking, and surrenders to what Alexa Weik von Messner calls "a loss of cultural knowledge that is meaningless or even harmful...an existence which is (at least temporarily) without memories, without language, perhaps even without consciousness."39 The renunciation of language, and thus of metaphor and sign systems, reveals because of its temporariness the impossibility of achieving total freedom from the ego or civilization. When Kit escapes from the people and language of the West, she simply gets absorbed into another cultural system, such that she exchanges one marriage, language and set of material symbols for another. Though the telegram she sends says, "Cannot Get Back," it turns out she can: "In another minute life would be painful. The words were coming back, and inside the wrappings of the words there would be thoughts lying there" (296). Eventually she is re-worlded, with a passport and stiff ill-fitting Western clothes, and placed on a flight back to Tangiers and eventually America. Her dangerous journey into the desert gets co-opted by cultural stereotype when a French lieutenant describes her as "a typical high-spirited American girl" who went disappearing into the desert (244). This cinematic cliché brutally circumscribes Kit within American image culture precisely at the moment of her most radical departure from social conventions.

Even after death, Port fails to elude Western symbolic regimes. Upon the orders of the French military officer who operates the outpost where he died, Port is given a proper Catholic burial, despite Tunner's protest that his friend would have preferred to be buried anonymously in the desert. Early on in the novel, Port delivers an invective about humanity: "What rot! You're never humanity, you're only your own poor hopelessly isolated self...I'm here! I'm in the world! But my world's not humanity's world. It's the world as I see it" (88). In fact, as the narrative continues, we discover that American capitalism, French Catholicism, and African or Arabic tribal cultures are but some of the systems that contain the Moresbys. Von Messner points out that "Port seems to consider himself separate from the world around him, an assumption that . . . is quite common in the United States . . . Bowles's novel repeatedly demonstrates that its protagonists' bodies are in fact radically open to their surroundings, be it through their intake of food and water, their engagement in sexual practices, or simply their perceptions."40 In their efforts to distance themselves from American hegemony, Port and Kit submit to utter contingency and surrender all power; as a result they become subsumed within the governing cultural system of their immediate context. Bowles thus shows that freedom, despite its popular use for American propaganda, is not a dirty word, but an impossible one.

 

Lost in the Milky Way

In conclusion, I want to turn briefly to David Riesman who, along with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, wrote The Lonely Crowd (1950). Like the midcentury work of Bowles and Pollock, Riesman's book was a huge success, a bestseller that in 1954 made him the first social theorist to be featured in Time magazine. The Lonely Crowd identifies a change in the social character of middle- and upper-class Americans in the immediate postwar period. Specifically, Riesman notes that people have shifted from being inner-directed, guided by what he calls the steady "gyroscope" of values inherited from previous generations, to outer-directed, submitting to the expectations of their immediate social context. Hopelessly influenced by the contingent and shifting social forces outside of her, the outer-directed character suffers anxiety while remaining dependent upon a world not of her making. Using a spatial metaphor that corresponds to our earlier aesthetic discussion of Pollock and Bowles, Riesman writes, "the outer-directed person moves in a veritable Milky Way of almost but not quite distinguishable contemporaries . . . the Milky Way is not an easy way, though its hardships differ from those of an earlier era."41 Just as discretely bounded figures gradually disappear in midcentury abstract painting, so too, Riesman notes, do individuals in postwar society start fading into an equivalent mass. In order to anticipate and abide by the contingent expectations posed by their "not quite distinguishable contemporaries," the individual forgoes control and agency. Bowles seemed to intuit this trend when he noted in his Paris Review interview that in America, "there's no convention for maintaining apartness."42

Despite their radical rejection of the West, the Moresbys, like Riesman's outer-directed character, almost always act under the influence of others. Even when they avoid the blatant authority of a figure like Tunner, they succumb to more circumspect forms of control and remain enmeshed in one another. Bowles himself acknowledged in an interview, "My characters don't attain any kind of freedom as far as I'm aware." 43 Riesman shows that the freedom to act autonomously proves difficult for midcentury Americans to access, despite (or because of) American democracy:

As Erich Fromm has insisted in Escape from Freedom, the diffuse and anonymous authority of the modern democracies is less favorable to autonomy than one might assume. One reason, perhaps the chief reason, is that the other-directed person is trained to respond not so much to overt authority as to subtle but nonetheless constricting interpersonal expectations.44

Riesman, Bowles and Pollock, using different media and forms, are keen to address the anxiety of postwar Americans who wanted freedom but felt that they had to surrender the contours of selfhood in order to achieve it. By offering representations of how this descent into contingency actually results in social entrapment, these writers and artist complicate simple formulations of freedom.

In his conclusion, Riesman writes optimistically, "In the upper-income strata in America, many of the pressures which individuals feel spring from their shared interpretations of what is necessary to get along. As soon as one or two in a group emancipate themselves from these interpretations, without their work or their world coming to an end, others too, may find the courage to do so."45 Here Riesman expresses the desire that motivates the discovery of abstraction in the work Pollock and Bowles create from 1947-1949. In their efforts to challenge conventional realism, Pollock and Bowles produce forms of abstraction that offer glimpses of freedom accessed by radical contingency. However, as we have seen, they must enact will and thus ego in order to achieve this emancipation. Total freedom through renunciation is only possible if, contra Riesman, their work and their world do come to an end. So while Pollock and Bowles appear to supply their audience with a fantasy of freedom, both show its limitations and thus avoid consecrating a value that had become a cornerstone of American propaganda.

One final note on form, which bears mentioning because it offers another turn of the screw: while these works negate much of what we expect paintings or novels to do, they produce a strange and affecting beauty. This unexpected positivity emerges from the labor of renunciation, except that abstraction seems to allow for a certain sensuousness of language or paint, and perhaps even to intensify its effect when freed from the traditional terms of representation that would categorize or tame it. After Bowles has stripped his novel of setting, characters, dialogue, and conflict, his language becomes exceptionally lyrical, almost poetic, once given the opportunity to be abstract and free of meaning-making. Similarly, O'Hara describes Pollock's paintings of the late Forties as "painfully beautiful celebrations of what will disappear, or has disappeared already from his world, of what may be destroyed at any moment."46 Here O'Hara gets at the exquisite pathos expressed by Pollock's paintings. This pathos occurs as these paintings' effort to achieve something like transcendence is deflected by unavoidably disciplined reminders that such freedom is impossible. The complex temporality O'Hara identifies here acknowledges both the contemporaneity and the ephemerality of the beauty Pollock produces. While his paintings in their unity are "classical," they are neither sentimental nor nostalgic. They are glimpses of possibility at the moment of transition, an effort toward value that relies upon skepticism, reduction, and contingency to enact itself. In that regard, Pollock's paintings and Bowles's novel ultimately overcome their own drive towards self-renunciation. Plenitude, beauty, and sensuousness oppose self-destruction, or maybe more precisely, demonstrate that art's push toward radical abstraction supplies the world with new forms of particularity to replace what has become banal and impoverished.

Monika Gehlawat is Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at University of Southern Mississippi. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Talk to Me: Literary Voice in Postwar New York, which studies the writing of James Baldwin, Frank O'Hara, Grace Paley and Andy Warhol.

 

  1. Robert Motherwell, "A Personal Expression," in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 61. []
  2. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 124. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. []
  3. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). []
  4. Robert Motherwell, "Kafka's Visual Recoil: A Note," Partisan Review (Fall 1984), 753. []
  5. Dwight Macdonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. ed. John Summers, intro. Louis Menand (New York: NYRB, 2011), 70-71. []
  6. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2000), 145. []
  7. See Guilbaut, Idea of Modern Art. []
  8. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949), 3. []
  9. Giorgio Agamben, "Bartleby, or On Contingency," Potentialities, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 264. []
  10. "Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" Life Magazine, Aug 8, 1949. []
  11. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 253. []
  12. Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 8. []
  13. Jackson Pollock, directed by Kim Evans (1987; United Kingdom: Image Entertainment), DVD. []
  14. Greif, 8. []
  15. Jay McInerney, "Paul Bowles in Exile," in Conversations with Paul Bowles, ed. Gena Dagel Caponi (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993), 188. []
  16. This reference is documented by Wayne Pounds in "The Subject of Paul Bowles," Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 32, no. 3/4, Paul Bowles Issue (Autumn-Winter 1986), 307. []
  17. Paul Bowles, interview by Daniel Halpern, from TriQuarterly (Spring 1975), collected in Conversations with Paul Bowles, ed. Gena Dagel Caponi (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993), 92-93. []
  18. Morris Dickstein, Leopards in the Temple: the Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 77. []
  19. Michael Fried, "Three American Painters," in Art and Objecthood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 222. []
  20. T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 356. I am aware of the well-known conflict between the accounts offered by Michael Fried and T. J. Clark about modernism generally, and Pollock specifically. That said, I hope that my analysis will show how Fried's recognition of the unity or totality in these paintings needn't be mutually exclusive with Clark's emphasis on negation. My aim in this essay is not to resolve, much less collapse, the debate between Fried and Clark, but rather to show why both may have something to offer to my account, and how the artwork produced by Pollock and Bowles could, in a sense, prove both critics right. []
  21. Adolf Gottlieb, "Statement," Tiger's Eye 1, no. 2, December 1947, 43. []
  22. Clark, Farewell, 343. []
  23. Clement Greenberg, "L'Art américain au XXe siècle," Les Temps modernes, 2, nos.11-12 (August-September 1946), 350. []
  24. Clark, Farewell, 335. []
  25. Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock (New York: George Braziller, 1959), 23. []
  26. Krauss, Optical Unconscious, 293. []
  27. This movement from the symbolic to the vestigial and finally to total renunciation demonstrates how it is possible to rely on Clark's reading of contingency and negation in Pollock's work as well as Fried's view of its unified totality. Negation, in my view, ultimately produces what I call here "the total purity of renunciation." []
  28. O'Hara, Jackson Pollock, 24. []
  29. Paul Bowles, "The Baptism of Solitude," Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue: Scenes from a Non-Christian World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 78-94. []
  30. Steven Belletto's account of the importance of contingency to the American ideology of the Cold War is helpful here. Belleto writes, "[T]he Cold War encouraged Americans and those sympathetic to American democratic norms to mobilize the concept of chance in order to underscore the naturalness of American democratic freedom as opposed to Soviet-style totalitarianism." Thus, in spite of themselves, the Moresbys subscribe to American values just as much as their irritating friend Tunner. While the latter exhibits his "Americanness" through overtly hegemonic behavior, the Moresbys' permission of contingency demonstrates their allegiance to the fundamental value of freedom. Still further, Belletto defines "absolute chance" as, "the absence of planning or intention," a condition that the Moresbys fail to meet. Rather, their free-fall into contingency, and thus self-destruction, has been carefully choreographed, and reveals that the fantasy of an unplanned, unconditioned life is ultimately impossible to achieve. Steven Belletto, No Accident, Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narratives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 14. []
  31. Clement Greenberg, "American Type Painting," in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 210. []
  32. Jackson Pollock, "Interview with William Wright," Art in Theory 1900-2000, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 585. []
  33. In this essay, I focus only on the allover drip paintings of Pollock's most canonical phase. Critics like T. J. Clark and Michael Leja, among others, have offered valuable insights about paintings from this period that do permit figuration and thus produce intensely different problems and pictures. Leja rightly notes that the allover paintings actually constitute a minority of Pollock's total oeuvre, and I should clarify that my reading of his paintings is not intended to be comprehensive. []
  34. Matthew Rampley, "Identity and Difference: Jackson Pollock and the Ideology of the Drip," Oxford Art Journal 19, no. 2 (1996): 88. []
  35. Clement Greenberg, "Feeling is All," in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. J. O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993), 3:102. Also see Greenberg's 1948 essay, "The Crisis of the Easel Picture," in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. J. O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993), 2:221-224 and his 1960 essay "Modernist Painting" in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. J. O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993): 4:85-93. []
  36. Michael Leja, Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 308. []
  37. Clark, Farewell, 337-8. []
  38. Ibid., 365. []
  39. Alexa Weik von Mossner, "Encountering the Sahara: Embodiment, Emotion, and Material Agency in Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky," Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 20, no. 2 (2013): 233-4. []
  40. Ibid., 229. []
  41. David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 138-9. []
  42. Paul Bowles in The Paris Review, interviewed by Jeffrey Bailey, "The Art of Fiction No. 67," Issue 81 (Fall 1981). []
  43. Bowles, interview by Daniel Halpern, 94. []
  44. Riesman et al., The Lonely Crowd, 251. []
  45. Ibid., 241. []
  46. O'Hara, Jackson Pollock, 22. []