My first glimpse of a Jackson Pollock painting hooked me into a realm I knew nothing about. Worse, my art teacher had a distressing habit of dismissing certain “schools” of painting which at the time (1968) were—beyond our small-town library’s fairly large selection of coffee-table books—unknown to me. Here was a virtual universe of art: vivid, mysterious, and incomprehensible to my 10-year-old mind. What I could not have known is that Pollock (and Miro, Dali, Braque, and others) worked from a place beyond logic and representation. Pollock was not interested in giving us flowers, figures, tranquil domestic scenarios, or even rain-blurred cityscapes. Years later, I saw that he had mastered those, and moved into action-oriented pieces that captured singular moments alive with chaos—windows into realms of dream and joy and despair, as though (like Picasso) consumed by a frenzy against the shiny promise of industrial progress. Children, of course, see only what attracts them—bright colors and squiggly lines, cartoons from a world outside rigid everydayness. Sadly, Pollock was a place even my art teacher couldn’t enter.
Much later in life, and coming to know painters who actually had fascinating insights into why they did what they did, I sought to learn about the lives behind my favorites. Museum visits (Cleveland, Columbus, San Francisco, New Orleans) proved informative and often telling about the range of what most people (at least those haunting art museums) considered “acceptable.” Abstracts, apparently, bothered many, but not all. “Is that a lemon?” I heard. “The color is right.” And always the whispered “I could do that myself! This guy got a million bucks for spattering paint all over…” What I came to grasp, in my clunky fashion, is that there’s a huge difference between, say, Mozart noodling around on the keyboard, and myself mimicking his notes. A Mozart is coming from a life of absorbing textures, ambient sound, discipline, emotional stabs from life. His patrons paid for this experience, heedless of their creator’s common human suffering, joy, and intent. Frankly, they didn’t need to know these things to appreciate the results. But I think it helps. After watching the Ed Harris-directed, and acted, Pollock (2000), I came away with a lingering sense of what can drive an artist to pursue an inner vision—no matter what—outside of logic, form, and intellect. A secret place, taunting and elusive, often tormenting, yet demanding expression. That there exists an authentic unknown “realm” (as Carl Jung suggested) in human consciousness seems inarguable. We go there in sleep, helpless artists all, to meet our hidden selves. Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th century symbolist poet, wrote that he desired to total the sum of the unknown. A lofty goal, but his prose poems (especially Illuminations , 1886) sear into heart and mind with unearthly power—a literary Vincent van Gogh. Rimbaud’s (like Pollock’s) cursed existence, so long ago, testifies that art meets mysticism—transcends it, when practiced by those open to the very idea, as they both were. A reminder that our over-regulated world can do much worse than nurture “irrational” art…antidote for the stress and confusion common to us all.