As the title implies, this is the second of two paintings with the same title. Totem lesson 1 (collection Mr and Mrs Harry W. Anderson, Atherton, California) was finished in October 1944.1Totem lesson 2 was finished in the first few months of 1945, one of only four paintings dated 1945 by the artist. Both paintings were exhibited in Pollock's second solo exhibition which opened at the Art of This Century Gallery on 19 March 1945.
The subject and title of these paintings is typical of Pollock's semi-figurative paintings of the years 1942-46. Indeed, the paintings of this period have been collectively referred to as 'totemic' because of the recurrence in them of archetypal figures.2 More particularly, the title evokes the contemporary enthusiasm for American Indian art (although the import of 'lesson' remains unexplained) and it has been suggested that in Totem lesson 2, 'The large, dark zoomorph in the centre, with upraised arm and white pictographic writing on its body, is probably a painterly variation of the hard-edge Sky Father image in a Navajo sand painting illustrated in "Indian Art of the United States", the catalogue of the exhibition staged at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1941.3
Such an image may well have been in the back of Pollock's mind when he painted Totem lesson 2. However, the specific points of comparison mentioned in this case are not compelling, even allowing for 'painterly variation', a rather glib description of the involved process through which Pollock arrived at the central figure by transforming an earlier image, even less like the Navajo Sky Father.4 This is not to discount the possible influence of American Indian art, but to suggest that such influences were likely to be loose and associational, given Pollock's method by this time of visibly improvising the image as he worked. 'Some people find references to American Indian art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures', he said in 1944, 'that wasn't intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasms'.5
In the same statement, published in Arts and Architecture in February 1944, Pollock went on to identify his current enthusiasms:
I accept the fact that the important painting of the last hundred years was done in France … Thus the fact that good European modems are now here is very important, for they bring with them an understanding of the problems of modern painting. I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious. This idea interests me more than these specific painters do, for the two artists I admire most, Picasso and Miró, are still abroad.6
The influence of European art has been traced in Totem lesson 1. William Rubin has argued convincingly that this painting was directly inspired by André Masson's Meditation on an oak leaf 1942 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York).7 Totem lesson 2 may also register the impact of Surrealism, although perhaps in this case with a work by Pollock's self-appointed European master, Joan Miró (1893-1983). Miró's painting Seated woman 1932, which was shown in the exhibition of Miró's work organised by James Johnson Sweeney at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941 (which Pollock visited), reproduced in the catalogue (a copy of which Pollock owned), and subsequently purchased for his own collection by J.J. Sweeney who was also Pollock's strongest advocate at the time, makes an interesting comparison with Totem lesson 2. The similarities in the two paintings are evident, not only in details such as the thin upraised arm touching the head which is skull-like in both cases-but also in the violent, expressionistic mood shared by the two paintings.8 Through two consecutive exhibitions at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in the first few months of 1945 Miró was very much the artist of the moment in New York, while Pollock was working on Totem lesson 2.9
In the final analysis, however, the comparison with Miró, like the comparison with the Sky Father image of Navajo sand painting, accentuates the distinctiveness of Pollock's improvisational mode of painting in Totem lesson 2, a method contrary to the idea of consciously followed prototypes, though it may admit their memory. At first Totem lesson 2comprised a large central image occupying most of the picture space. The composition was closer to Totem lesson 1and like Totem lesson 1 it was painted in oil. Before the oil paint was dry Pollock began editing the composition using ordinary grey house paint, paring away the central figure to a hovering spectre surrounded by swirling splinters of the original design; the sharp-edged dagger shape on the left, for instance, was fragmented from within the contours of the original figure; the white spot that hovers just to the right of the head of the figure was originally the top of a cruciform. The normal ground-figure relationship is reversed-the image is literally disclosed in the process of painting.10 Finally, returning to oil paint, Pollock animated the composition with abstract, expressive notations such as the wriggling yellow line applied directly with the tube in the upper right, or the twitching white contour that skirts the form in the lower right. Contrary to the procedure of Surrealists like Miró, who frequently employed the spontaneous 'automatic' gesture and contrived 'accident' as a point of departure from which to refine an image through association, Pollock intensified the sense of spontaneous improvisation as the painting progressed; the execution begins to rival the image as the main vehicle of expression.
'The mode is abstract or nearly so', wrote Manny Farber in New Republic in June 1945:
one that stems from Miró and Picasso but is a step farther in abstraction. The style is very personal and, unlike that of many painters of this period, the individuality is in the way the medium is used rather than in the peculiarities of subject matter The dominant effects in Pollock's work arise from the expressionistic painting of emotion and from the uninhibited two-dimensional composing of the surface, in which the artist seems to have started at one point with a color and continued over the painting without stopping, until it has been composed with that colon In the process, great sections of the previous design may be painted out, or the design changed completely The painting is laced with relaxed, graceful, swirling lines or violent ones, until the surface is patterned in whirling movement … The paint is jabbed on, splattered, painted in lava-like thicknesses and textures, scrabbled, made to look like smoke, bleeding, fire, and painted in great sweeping continuous fines.11
Not all the reviews of Pollock's second solo exhibition at Art of This Century Gallery — which included both Totem lesson paintings — were so enthusiastic. Howard Devree, writing in the New York Times on 25 March 1945, likened Pollock's paintings to an 'explosion in a shingle mill' (reviving a notorious metaphor that had been invented to satirise Marcel Duchamp's Nude descending a staircase in the Armory Show of 1913) and Parker Tyler thought that some of the paintings resembled 'baked-macaroni'12 (a term that would also serve later derision of the 'drip' paintings). Clement Greenberg, however, writing in Nation, clearly emerged as Pollock's champion, making extraordinary claims for the 32-year-old artist, and specifically singling out the Totem lesson paintings.
Jackson Pollock's second one-man show at Art of This Century … establishes him, in my opinion, as the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miró. The only optimism in his smoky turbulent painting comes from his own manifest faith in the efficacy for him personally of art. There has been a certain amount of self-deception in School of Paris art since the exit of cubism. In Pollock there is absolutely none, and he is not afraid to look ugly — all profoundly original art looks ugly at first. Those who find his oils overpowering are advised to approach him through his gouaches, which in trying less to wring every possible ounce of intensity from every square inch of surface achieve greater clarity and are less suffocatingly packed than the oils. Among the latter however, are two —both called Totem lessons — for which I cannot find strong enough words of praise.13
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.230.