People always say this, but a Jackson Pollock in person is different than in photographs. Obviously, it's much larger, but more, it vibrates.
"Convergence," visiting the Denver Art Museum as part of its new show Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons From the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, is worth the cost of admission alone. Coming around the corner, you feel as if you're entering its realm. Spanning 8 feet tall and 13 feet across, it's commanding enough, but the pattern (or lack thereof) of drips is more rhythmic than you'd expect. Your eye flits about, and soon the colors dolloped throughout become brighter and more lively.
Dean Sobel of the Clyfford Still Museum, who curated this show at the DAM, says that your eye searches the painting for a place to land, and there is no such place. So you keep cycling through the quagmire, "actively participating in the act of looking," Sobel says, caught up in what feels like a "microcosm of a larger universe."
"Convergence" is considered one of Pollock's best pieces, and comes alongside other masterworks from the Albright-Knox exhibit. There's Paul Gauguin's fever-dreamy "Spirit of the Dead Watching"; Picasso's Classical, ultra-pleasant "La Toilette" from his Rose Period, showing a woman combing her hair while a maid holds a mirror; and even a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, this one with a pet monkey. Kahlos, like Pollocks, are rare birds that don't often travel.
Which speaks to the significance of the Albright-Knox of Buffalo, N.Y. What began as an art academy later flourished as a museum thanks to local donors and money from when industry built Buffalo. Sobel explains how forward-looking its curators were, buying works from, say, Andy Warhol straight from his studio a year before he even formally showed in New York City. Willem de Kooning's "Gotham News" was purchased the year it was made, 1955. DAM director Christoph Heinrich ranks Albright-Knox with the Whitney Museum or even the Museum of Modern Art.
Albright-Knox offered these works up for travel, which Sobel then coordinated into a semi-chronological order. It begins about where the DAM's last show, Passport to Paris left off, with a Camille Pissarro and post-Impressionists like Van Gogh and Rousseau. From there it moves to the next generation of European artists who explored Cubism, like Gris and Braque. That's followed by the Surrealists, the Abstract-Expressionists from the U.S., and then ends with Minimalism and Pop Art.
What you get is a kind of art historian's overview of greatest hits. But for those less versed in the field, the works here may at first seem intimidating. The old "This is supposed to be amazing and important, but I don't get it" saw comes to mind. Give yourself a break — I'll admit, I just can't get excited about Agnes Martin — and do just this much: Stand there and look at them.
See for yourself what's with all the fuss about Giacometti or Gorky. Look for the tiny, charming creatures hiding about in the lovely Miró. With Dalí and Tanguy, observe each man's liquid brushstrokes, so smooth and silky.
Sometimes a work is about recontextualizing what's ordinary — see Warhol and Lichtenstein — and sometimes it's about the emotions formed from color and composition. In that vein, witness Clyfford Still's masterpiece "1957-D, No. 1," a behemoth in yellow and black. (If you want more, your ticket also gets you into the Clyfford Still Museum next door and its companion retrospective, 1959.)
In addition to the artwork, Modern Masters includes photographs of the creators themselves — after all, these are 20th-century people. Some are still alive, which is kind of hard to wrap your head around, given the way their names have gone household. There's one photo of Kahlo painting "The Wounded Table," a would-be masterpiece that tragically disappeared. There's another of Claes Oldenburg hauling a giant (toothpaste?) tube down the street, its size absurd.
And then, there is a paint-spattered can and a bundle of stirring sticks Pollock used. Next to those are his wife Lee Krasner's paint-splattered shoes — the real things! — standing alongside "Convergence," solidly grounding what feels like some kind of transmission out of the chaos from a grander being.
All the weirdness, the dreaminess, is inspiring. The world feels more abstract than before, with the intangible visualized. As Picasso is supposed to have said, "Everything you can imagine is real."