The Broken Center
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)
“The human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive,” wrote D. H. Lawrence.1 Here we have stated the central problem of our age, evidenced in the art of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). It is the problem of self-loss, willingly undertaken, in order that the deeper spirit of man may come into manifestation. It is not merely a case of play-acting, of pretending to die to oneself. Dying is a radical experience. Our process of disintegration is to explore the furthest limits of human existence; to know the utmost depths and heights, the sorrows and joys available to the human soul. How can we know these if we live in a box? We must be free, and we can be free only if we are willing to risk all! As Janice Joplin sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” To be free requires letting go of ourselves, our world, our crutches, our gods. It means plunging into the abyss. The journey of transformation begins then with the experience of the abyss. But how can the abyss be represented in a work of art?
The answer lies in the art of Jackson Pollock--the most dramatic painter of the American Abstract Expressionism movement. Pollock came to be known as an action painter. The “drip technique” of his mature style resulted in works of a highly sensitive arabesque design. Pollock approached his canvases, usually stretched out on the floor or tacked to a wall, with a trowel, sticks, brushes, or hands dripping with paint. Immersing himself bodily into the work at hand, he swirled paint with intense speed and force, forming a veritable network of lines, which, were it not for his near-classical sense of balance, might well have passed off the canvas into infinity. Viewing the athletic Pollock at work, one is reminded of Picasso’s statement that every time he began a painting he felt as though he were throwing himself into a void.
The frenzied, Dionysian passion of Number 1, 1948 provides a prime example of Pollock’s particular creative genius. The work employs an all-over style of painting derived from Impressionism and Cubism. Its distribution of lines and color “prevented any climactic emphasis on one point . . . of his essentially light-dark structured canvases.” No one area of the canvas is more important than any other, and the arabesque design is allowed to float freely upon the canvas as though in an empty void, anchored only by the bottom edge of the canvas. The electric speed of Pollock’s marvelously sensitive, swirling light and dark lines and the ice-blue terror of the infinite strike a certain terror in the heart. Only the dark, blood-stained handprints reaching outward toward the edges of the canvas reveal the full extent of the agony and tragic suffering that must have overwhelmed the artist while creating this work.
In Pollock’s Number 1, 1948 we are confronted with a modern, abstract form of Gothic expressionism--a kind of “spiritual orgy.” The center, the organizing principle in classical art, has all but vanished in this piece. At the horizontal midpoint, two-fifths of the way from the bottom of the painting, a nearly imperceptible “point” appears, giving the work a faint visual center. Its weakness, however, testifies to the difficulty Pollock had in keeping “the center” from vanishing altogether from his work. Oft times it did! Pollock struggled heroically to keep a center, often hand-painting it in at the conclusion of a work. In 1960 I began to refer to Pollock’s art as “an art of the broken center.” Pollock’s Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 is another example of “the broken center,” in which we find eight “poles” inclining at various angles--all at various stages of disintegration or absorption by the wildly dancing light-dark drips.
The center is the organizing principle in any form or space. But what else, what symbolism gives the center the supreme importance assigned to it in all cultures, both primitive and highly evolved? The symbolism of the center concerns the journey inward, where unity, infinity, transcendence, and the Absolute reside. It is the “abode” of the supreme principle of the universe, the One Reality. Contemplation of the center unites one with the deathless essence of the manifest cosmos. “The most ancient and at the same time the most complete of all symbols given by the Wise Ones for the edification of man is the circle with a dot at its center.” Loss of the center means a severance of contact with all that the center symbolizes. Art of “the broken center” is art of alienation, of finitude, of existence in exile--truly existential art. With the vanishing of the center in Pollock’s art we encounter the first stage of transformation--the dismemberment motif.
God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.