‘Men of Fire’ exhibit shows off works by Orozco, Pollock
By Ashley Ulrich, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 16, 2012
The Hood Museum of Art’s newest exhibit “Men of Fire: Jose Clemente Orozco and Jackson Pollock” powerfully demonstrates the influence that Orozco’s “Epic of American Civilization” mural — located in the basement of Baker Library — had on Pollock’s early work, affecting his choice of subject matter, imagery and formal design for years to follow.
The exhibit was planned to commemorate the centenary of Pollock’s birth and highlights a number of recent acquisitions by the Hood Museum, including Pollock’s early works and Orozco’s drafts for the mural, according to visiting curator for the show Sarah Powers.
“I hope that viewers come away seeing a new side of both of the artists, especially an interesting side of Pollock they might be unaware of,” Powers said.
While scholars have long been in agreement that Mexican muralists like Orozco heavily influenced Pollock when he was in his 20s and 30s, they recently found evidence confirming that Pollock traveled to Dartmouth in 1936 to see Orozco’s mural, Powers said. Pollock first saw Orozco’s work when he visited the Prometheus mural at Pomona College in 1925, a mural Pollock called “the greatest painting in modern times” and of which he kept a reproduction in his gallery for the rest of his life.
Pollock was 24 years old when he visited Dartmouth, and although he had studied the formal elements of painting under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League of New York, he had not yet found his own niche as an artist, according to Hood Director Michael Taylor.
“Orozco was at the height of his fame, and he had just finished his Dartmouth commission between 1932 and 1934,” Taylor said. “Pollock developed his technical skills under Benton, but he hadn’t found his own vision.”
Orozco’s mural influenced stylistic elements of Pollock’s early paintings like his color palette and harshly outlined angular human forms. Orozco’s work also influenced Pollock’s thematic elements, which explored myth and ritual, power imbalances and the creative and destructive elements of fire, Powers said. “Men of Fire” is arranged in three sections to highlight these Orozco-Pollock thematic connections and includes a fourth section that catalogues the influence of psychoanalysis on Pollock’s work, she said.
Pollock never attempted to copy Orozco’s work, Taylor said, but he found ways to integrate elements of Orozco’s mural into his work as a means by which to “exorcise his own demons.”
Powers supports this point with evidence that Pollock’s work did not show influence from Orozco’s mural directly after his visit to campus, but instead two years later in 1938, during a time when he was recovering from a prolonged stay in a mental institution and receiving outpatient psychoanalytical therapy.
“Pollock’s wife specifically called this the ‘slow burn’ effect,” Powers said. “The influence came after a process of ruminating over these images for a long time.”
Besides Orozco, Pollock’s early works demonstrate influences from Pablo Picasso and cubism — specifically his “Guernica” mural, painted for the 1937 World Fair — as well as surrealism and its focus on the subconscious, Powers said.
The strong connection between Orozco and Pollock is evident in the artwork at the center of the exhibit, “Naked Man with Knife,” which is a stunningly dynamic and violent image that shows one powerful figure attempting to stab a submissive, crouched figure below. Pollock outlines his figures — who are acting out the Biblical scene of Cain stabbing Abel, according to Powers — with aggressive, dark brushstrokes, showing a direct influence from Orozco’s painting style. The power dynamic in the scene is one also shown in many of the panels of Orozco’s mural.
Other works by Pollock in the show, such as “The Flame” and “Composition with Flames,” are more gestural and expressionistic than Orozco. A partially obscured burning skeleton in the first painting and an image of a standing figure with a crucifix in the latter, however, call to mind scenes of sacrifice and Cortez’s conquering of the indigenous Mexicans that are depicted in Orozco’s mural. Although Pollock’s “Composition with Ritual Scene” is painted in a more cubist style, its subject remains focused on ritual and sacrifice.
Art history professor and Orozco expert Mary Coffey praised Powers for “broadening the purview of scholarship on the Orozco-Pollock connection.” Although she was not directly involved in organizing the exhibit, Coffey contributed an essay to the show’s catalogue, she said.
“Influence is a slippery thing,” Coffey said. “This exhibit gives us a richer sense of how that influence worked.”
Of the three most famous Mexican muralists working in the early 20th century — Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros — art history scholars have not fully appreciated Orozco’s work and its influence on post-World War II abstract expressionism, Coffey said.
“Orozco was enigmatic,” Coffey said. “His images are more ambiguous and ambivalent. He also didn’t like to say much about his work.”
Unlike the direct iconography and storytelling in Rivera’s murals, expressionism and abstraction proved to be the way forward for art following World War II, Coffey said. Artists were struggling to find a way to discuss modern man’s confusion in a rapidly changing postwar society, and they fought against having a subject in their artwork, which they associated with political propaganda, she said.
“In Pollock, we see this push and pull of figuration and subject matter against formal representation that is so abstracted it is no longer legible as an image,” Coffey said. “The acceptance of formal means as being expressive within itself became a hallmark of high modernist art.”
One struggle in planning the exhibit was finding a way to bring Orozco’s mural into the Hood gallery because the mural physically could not be moved from the panels of the Baker Library basement. To accomplish this, the Hood designed an iPad application that provides viewers a 360-degree, high-definition view of the mural. These high-definition views of the panels are available on large flat screen televisions in the gallery, and within a few weeks, iPads with the application will be available for walking tours through the Baker Library basement, Powers said.
Planning for the exhibit began after the Hood Museum purchased Pollock’s “Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton)” in 2006, a painting directly inspired by the “Gods of the Modern World” panel in the Orozco mural, Powers said. After this purchase, Director of the Pollock-Krasner House Helen Harrison approached the Hood Museum with the idea for an exhibition that explored Orozco’s influence on Pollock’s early works.
“Men of Fire” opened on April 7 and will run through June 17, after which the materials from the show will travel to the Pollock-Krasner House in East Hampton, N.Y., Powers said. In addition to the Hood’s own works, the exhibit borrows works by Pollock from the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and others, she said.
To supplement the exhibition, the Hood has planned a number of related events, including a screening of “Quetzalcoatl” (1962) — a newly restored film on Orozco’s mural created by Robert Canton ’58 — on April 25, a screening of “Pollock” (2000) on May 4 and a number of tours and lectures given by visiting scholars.