At MoMA, It’s Jackson Pollock vs. Rosie the Riveter

THE DAILY PIC: Pollock's 'feminine' style evokes postwar ideas on gender.


THE DAILY PIC (#1490): Jackson Pollock painted Shimmering Substance in 1946, as one of the first works in what became his signature Abstract Expressionist style. It’s in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where it’s now on view in a show of MoMA’s Pollocks. For some reason, that gathering of pictures pushed me to think of Pollock in a bunch of new ways, so the Daily Pic will be spending this entire week with him.

What struck me most forcefully about Shimmering Substance, and many of its mates at MoMA, was how very “feminine” it looks, especially in terms of postwar ideas about gender. Its pastel colors, its lacy lightness, its dancing line – all seem to point to what postwar women were expected to like and make. If this had been painted by a woman, I’m certain it would have been condemned as too ladylike.

I wonder if Pollock’s abstractions need to be understood in terms of the complex gender politics at play just after World War II, when Rosie the Riveter needed to be yanked from the factory and brought back home to her proper place in the bedroom, kitchen and parlor. I haven’t totally worked out how to parse today’s Pic in terms of that context, but I wonder if there isn’t a sense that Pollock is restoring some kind of balance by recasting a feminine look as masculine – giving substance to shimmer, that is. It’s of a piece with Pollock’s recasting of his own persona from long-haired fop to hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’ tough guy.

In the 1950s, when Andy Warhol was first looking for a way out of the impasse of Pollock’s AbEx, he made art with an explicitly gay and fey tone. It was as though he wanted to restore femininity to art made by men, recognizing and discarding the machismo Pollock had layered on top. (©2016 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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