SOMETIMES THE SMALLEST things create the most arresting aesthetic experiences—an observation resoundingly reconfirmed for me at “No Limits, Just Edges,” the Jackson Pollock works-on-paper exhibition recently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (and before that at the Guggenheim Foundation’s outposts in Berlin and Venice). As I walked through the show’s expansive last room, my eyes gravitated, almost magnetically, to the lower right-hand corner of an untitled 1951 drawing, where, beneath the slashing arrows and scrawled numerals soaked into the fibers of the absorbent Japanese paper Pollock favored that year, lay one of the artist’s most remarkable, if diminutive, passages: the letters P-o-l-l-o-c-k fashioned out of his trademark drips. I have long had a special interest in post-1950 Pollock, and although I was familiar with this particular work, the crystal-clear logic with which the artist applied his signature style to his signature itself remained striking. Indeed, the dripped signature, strangely, seemed less the result of an artist’s simply working within his own given mode than an act of self-conscious appropriation. That is, the way Pollock used his painterly mark to play on the technique he made famous looked almost like one artist parodying another’s style. Here, at the crucial juncture of his career, when he was moving beyond the dripped abstractions so indelibly associated with his name, Pollock seemed to step outside himself, to begin to address issues of artistic authorship and individual style with an amazing acuity and critical distance. This sly gesture, which is, in fact, typical of Pollock in these years and yet very much at odds with the popularly accepted image of him as an unintellectual, intuitive shaman, reminded me again of how unexplored the artist’s late works are, even now, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
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