I’ve been working on a definition (here’s the Rhino file) analyzing Jackson’ Pollock’s 1947 painting, Cathedral:

The clip below depicts a series of contours drawn through  a height field generated by an image sampler. I like the sense of forward movement in the animation, and I think it’s interesting that, though the sequence of contours in the first half of the animation seem arbitrary, the contours in the second half of the animation all seem to be working together.

In the next clip, I’ve extruded the contours, and sent them running along through a sort of cloud generated by the brightness values measured across the original painting. The first half of the clip, a front view of the animation, reminds me of a city appearing in the distance (through a sandstorm?). The second half of the clip, showing the animation from the side, starts to resemble a changing series of chapels or cathedrals appearing in the landscape. It seems…easily inhabitable.

What was striking to me in working on this definition was that, however voluminous an arrangement seemed in one Rhino viewport, it inevitably looked flat and boring when seen from a different angle. Here’s a series of “chapels” seen from the side:

and in plan:

This is a group of perpendicular contours from the side:

In perspective view:

And from the top:

This is distressing, especially in a world where sections so often become plans, and vice versa. How can something so expansive simultaneously seem so flat? For an answer, let’s revisit mid-century art criticism:

In his essay, “The American Action Painters,” Harold Rosenberg wrote, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” For Rosenberg, Pollock’s work was an heroic act which existed in three-dimensional space and unfolded over time. Arguably, Rosenberg’s understanding of Pollock’s work was influenced by Hans Namuth’s paintings of Pollock, painting:

Clement Greenberg, on the other hand, was appalled that Rosenberg would look at anything other than the painting itself when making a critical judgment. In Greenberg’s eyes, Pollock’s work is important because it reached the height (oops, look at that pun) of flatness. Pollock’s paintings were impenetrable, with no reference to three-dimensional space, whatsoever. In “American-Type Painting,”  Greenberg wrote that Pollock “had literally pulverized value contrasts in a vaporous dust of interfused lights and darks in which every suggestion of a sculptural effect was obliterated.”

In the late 1970’s, Namuth’s photographs are published as a book, and Rosalind Krauss’s accompanying essay teases a bit more out of the Greenberg v. Rosenberg debate. Krauss discusses an article by Jean Clay in which he argues that the Namuth photographs should be read as critical documents in and of themselves (as opposed to being understood as neutral journalistic photographs). Clay suggests, and Krauss agrees, that the composition of the photographs, and in particular the placement of Pollock within the images, supports an understanding of Pollock’s work as about the relationship of the human figure to an impenetrable field. Krauss writes, “The photographs, then, recreate the space of all-over pattern in which the human figure can barely exist, or in which its relationship to gravity, to a solid foundation, is made equivocal at best.”

[Incidentally, Clay brings Vuillard into the mix when describing how pattern can be used to flatten space. Krauss doesn’t buy Vuillard as an appropriate precedent for Namuth’s photographs, but that won’t stop me from using this as an excuse to post my favorite Vuillard here.]

Krauss situates Namuth’s photographs within the tradition of aerial photography, and sets up the difference between one’s experience on the ground and the view from above as an analogue to the difference between Pollock’s working practices (painting while standing over a canvas laid flat on the floor) and the work as presented in a gallery (hung vertically on a wall). The act of mediation between the two spatial situations of the painting is what gives rise to much of the tension in Pollock’s work.

I would be happy to write about this for weeks, but in the interest of time I’ll end this post with a few thoughts about what this all might mean for my work in grasshopper.

  • How can a very simple structural system be used to support a complex (voluminous) screen or wall system? Can this begin to create some interesting gradations of space, or become an excuse to explore the joints between two systems?
  • Can the scale of Pollock in relation to his paintings, as depicted in Namuth’s photographs, inform the scale(s) at which I design an installation?
  • In the Pollock Racing video, the gh work reads as a thickened ground. The later images become much more object-like. How interested am I in having a figure play across a ground? Should I stick to fields? Can I have a figure emerge out of a field?

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