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A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art

11:00 PM, Nov 22, 1998 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Yellow is the cruelest color. Seemingly extroverted and gay, it expects to be treated like a prima donna, or it will go to pieces. It is too easily corrupted. The barest touch of black or graphite turns it dirty, grudging green. The eye can distinguish a million bright reds, greens, and purples, but only a narrow band of clear yellows. And if you juxtapose any one of them with the wrong neighbors, it will shrivel and shriek. Painting with yellow is like planning a dinner party around a schizophrenic -- or around a man like Jackson Pollock, half charmer, half drunken lout.

Pollock reaches for yellow repeatedly, but usually -- as in the monumental, magnificent Blue Poles (1952) -- his yellow comes out grim and soiled, subtracting and not adding serenity and brightness, reminding us of corruption. Reminding us that Pollock's is a grim story: His best paintings are tragedies that leave a person shaken.

The Pollock retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through February 2, is one of this decade's important shows. Pollock's well-known life story insinuates itself into every corner of the exhibit. You can't forget as you look at this work that the artist died in 1956 at age forty-four, thrown from a heavy car that had jumped the road and was hurtling end-over-end. He was drunk; two girls were aboard, and one was killed along with him. The big car end-over-ending is a macabre precis of his whole career: His life's work was the tracing of crazy lines with reckless force, in order to prove something unprovable to his women and himself. The wreck also summarizes the artist without his wife. Pollock had been relentlessly unfaithful to Lee Krasner, who had added discipline and purpose just sufficient to make his life cohere. Once she was gone, he was through.

Pollock is famous for his drip paintings, which date from 1947 through 1950 with a few encores afterward. Instead of touching a brush to stretched canvas, the artist pours, spatters, flings, and drips paint onto canvas unrolled on his studio floor. Lavender Mist (1950) is neither lavender nor mist, but is one of the greatest of this series. Lacy lines whip around in a tangle of white and black and silver and pink; the whole large painting (roughly seven feet by ten) is full of restless motion, but there is nothing frantic about it: It is all murmurs and whispers -- the rose arbor alive with hidden bees, turned to silver; an image of great delicacy and restraint. (I overheard a lady at the exhibition tell her friend that it was "exquisite." Pollock's response would have been obscene. Nonetheless, it is exquisite.)

The pink in this painting is a pale peach-gray, nowhere near lavender. Clement Greenberg, critic and Pollock booster, came up with the name -- presumably because the pink plus silver plus traces of blue in the black lines and gray-teal splotches yield a lavender feeling (sort of) when you look from the distance. "Mist" suggests transparency, but Pollock's color is -- here, as nearly always -- opaque. Where different colors intersect, the result is marbling sometimes, but one color almost never tints or glazes another.

Lavender Mist is arresting and lovely, and poses the key Pollock question. He once asked his wife, referring to one of the drip pictures, "Is this a painting?" She took this as wondrous and remarkable, for her husband was obviously creating not merely paintings but great and revolutionary ones. Yet the question is serious. Looking at Lavender Mist, you wonder whether it is a painting or rather a kind of vamping on canvas -- a prologue that forces attention toward an absent, unavailable climax, an interesting (even mesmerizing) figure that the band plays repeatedly while you wait for the song to start. The question is not whether, as a few hostile critics said at the time, Pollock was a mere fabric designer, or a maker of chic backgrounds for fashion shoots. There is no question of Lavender Mist's being merely decorative and trivial. There is a question of its being incomplete -- pointing to an artistic destination instead of being one, posting a question and refusing to answer.

But what is the answer? If Lavender Mist is the background, where is the foreground? Blue Poles, the delayed culmination of the drip series, answers at last. There is nothing murmurous or elegant in this picture. It is a hot, hissing mass of live wires, broken and writhing -- vermilion and silver and black, dirty yellow, dirty white. But the painting has a foreground also: eight staggering, drunken slashes, the "blue poles" of the title. They emerge thrashing and dripping from the background.