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Pollock, Humphries exhibits make splash by stressing paint

WILLIAMSTOWN -- In 1952, Williams College and Bennington College staged ``A Retrospective Show of the Paintings of Jackson Pollock." It was early for a retrospective; Pollock turned 40 that year. But his breakout style of dripping and flinging paint onto unstretched canvases laid on the floor had hit its stride between 1947 and 1950.

Two of the paintings in that show, ``Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950" and `` Number 2, 1949," have returned to the Williams College Museum of Art for ``Jackson Pollock at Williams College," an intimate examination of a handful of the artist's canvases made at the height of Pollock's splashiest and most maverick period. It's a rare treat to see such large Pollocks exhibited together in Massachusetts.

A second show at the museum, Jacqueline Humphries's ``Seven Sisters," features the work of a contemporary artist who might well see Pollock as a forefather. For both, it's all about the paint.

Until Pollock, even the most abstract painters seem to have had something else in mind. Picasso painted mythic scenes, portraits, bulls, and still lifes. Rothko painted color. De Kooning painted women. But Pollock painted paint. The skeins, the splatters, the drips and splashes -- the medium's viscosity and absorbency concerned him, not the pictures or moods he could draw with them.

``Jackson Pollock at Williams College" transpired when ``Number 2, 1949" was sent to the college for conservation by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in Utica, N.Y. It's displayed on a freestanding plinth to reveal the underbelly of this 16-foot painting. This is the first time a Pollock painting has been exhibited so revealingly . On the back, we see how the paint soaked and settled ; drips and splotches have haloes. There are dog hairs and splinters of wood from the painter's studio floor. It has a quiet, haunting beauty.

The front, in contrast, is bright, hypnotic, and rhythmic, a vision of musical improvisation: The bass-line black pulses as white pirouettes around it like a saxophone solo. Red and gray make a counterpoint, and yellow flashes through, percussive as cymbals.

Pollock painted ``Number 2, 1949" on commercially dyed red sailcloth, which shows off his bold colors vibrantly. The fabric might reflect the painter's interest in Native American sand paintings. The museum borrowed the exhibit's third painting, ``Number 13A, 1948: Arabesque," executed on the same material, for comparison purposes. Back in 1959, a well-meaning conservator varnished ``Number 2, 1949." It altered the tone and gave the surface an unintended sheen, which Williams conservators Tom Branchik and Jason Vrooman have corrected.

All three paintings race with muscular gestures, like those of a dancer. Of course it wasn't just the paint dancing -- it was Pollock himself, leaning and swooping and gesticulating, giving his whole body over to the process in a way perhaps no other painter had before. You can see why it was called action painting . When the minimalists came along in the 1960s, with their cool precision, it was, to a large extent, his wild expressiveness they reacted against.

Humphries's seven splendid silver canvases hang in a circle in a sunlit gallery, catching and tossing shadows and light. The silver pigment, which she mixed herself, is magic. It can appear white or black; it can mask other colors within each painting or highlight them. Most important, it makes the paintings come alive, as changeable as the weather.

These works resonate with Pollock's. Humphries poured, dripped, and applied her paint in several other ways -- like Pollock, improvisationally. In an interview with curator Hannah Blumenthal , Humphries calls this ``painting blind." Pollock utilized an unconventional material: house paint. Humphries uses silver.

But Humphries interrupts fluid gestures with hard geometry, bars of color that seem to splinter through the mutable surface. It's an icy minimalist interruption to the gooey expressive gestures, restraint in the midst of emoting.

Each painting is bold but sweetly nuanced. In addition to the dynamic silver, each work has one or more hues that rise up like blushes, a kind of vulnerability that runs beneath the silver's swagger. In the splendid ``Mercury's Mother," that second tone is a quiet charcoal gray. A horizontal band and a vertical one in soft dark gray reveal what happened before the monsoon of silver paint was applied. More gray on the right, wispy but mountainous, recalls Chinese landscape painting.

All the textures and tones, and the shifting light, invite long contemplation. These are as dense as Pollock's works in the other room, but less raucous and more seductive. It's gratifying to see an artist of today deploying some of Pollock's techniques to make paintings that are smart, rigorous , and thoroughly contemporary.

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