The Fate of a Gesture

Carter Ratcliff’s book begins with an overview of the life and career of Thomas Hart Benton, a mentor of sorts for Jackson Pollock in art, alcoholism, and overbearing behavior. Although Pollock dominates the book, Andy Warhol is also a major figure. The book concentrates almost exclusively on the New York art scene. Other artists receiving coverage include Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis, Robert Longo, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella.

Without resorting to hyperbole or didacticism, Ratcliff conveys to the reader an understanding of Pollock’s great, iconoclastic achievement. Ratcliff summarizes the opinions of biographers and critics who have tried to explain the historical significance of Pollock’s rebellion against representation in his drip paintings, some of whom analyze it as an American declaration of independence that is more thorough than that of Benton. Others examine the paintings in psychological terms, seeing in them an angry and absolute insistence on subjective experience. Pollock’s grand achievement as an artist is, in terms of contrast, made grander by his legendary and documented failures as a human being. Ratcliff also confirms the incident in which a nude Pollock urinated into the fireplace in Peggy Guggenheim’s living room in front of a group of friends.

Warhol receives something rare in art criticism—a fair, evenhanded, and admiring treatment. He is neither overpraised nor vilified.

Anecdotal and scholarly, personal and intelligent, THE FATE OF A GESTURE: JACKSON POLLOCK AND POSTWAR AMERICAN ART is a readable and informative addition to the crowded field of books about postwar art in New York.