Art Theory: Jackson Pollack, Jack Kirby, American Art and Line Quality

Mark Staff Brandl 2 Jacks
The Two Jacks by Mark Staff Brandl, 1998,
black colored pencil on rag paper, 5 ft. x 3 ft.

I'm going to use several “verbotene” terms here — form and quality — so be prepared. Additionally, I will be handling conceptual art, painting, and comic art, as if they were potentially of equal interest and all equally capable of achieving excellence or not, depending on the creator. I will also be treating artists as if “the author existed” — as if they were largely in control of their tools or at least trying to be. Oh, piling heresy upon heresy!

The relationship between the comic art world and that of the “fine” art has been a strained one. Yet both are important forms of creativity and are of equal importance to many people, including some fine artists (including me). Traditionally, “high” artists have been condescending to comic art, seeing it as, at best, a kind of accidental success, and, at worst, as corporate hackwork. Even the adjectives one must use to name the fields reflect this. Comic fans, similarly, view fine art as too elitist, assuming that the often difficult works of experimental artists are publicity ploys. Impartially judged, both camps are wrong — and yet, unfortunately, sometimes right.

Accept my terminology here as simply indicative of the times, not judgmental. Fine artists are those who create in the context of galleries, selling to collectors. Comic means artists of the sequential who create in the context of publishing and sell to a “mass” audience. (This is now in transition; probably niche audiences are replacing a mass public, but that's a subject for another time.)

Jackson Pollack 1950
Jackson Pollock 1950

The Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein were the first to begin breaking down this barrier from the “fine” side. His work began as “slumming,” yet he gained respect for comic art as he developed. Many fine artists today grew up with comics as their first art source, thus referring to them without cynicism. This is not always well understood by the two opposing camps. My paintings and installations, for instance, have featured images conceptually derived in processes reminiscent of John Cage or Marcel Duchamp. I have great respect for these two, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, as well as for Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, and Al Williamson. It is time to end the silly separation of “high” and “low”. Yet this must be done in a way that emphasizes the high points of quality in each, not by (supposedly) leveling the field to some imagined lowest common denominator. Both ends should concentrate on being against mediocrity and cliché — the greater enemies of all art.

Jackson Pollock Poles Detail
Detail of Blue Poles: Number 11 by Jackson Pollock, 1952, enamel and aluminum paint on glass on canvas, 6 7/8 ft. x 16 ft. (This image is solely being used for illustration purposes in this article. Detail shows his stroking better.)

This conviction surfaced repeatedly in works based on the artistic heroes of my childhood — comic book artists of the 1960s. For instance, I have made several handmade books, some very large installations, and, a number of years ago, one large drawing, called The Two Jacks — that is, Jack Kirby and Jackson Pollock. I used my standard “study” technique to create the images to use as inspiration, thus it helps to understand this activity. As two critics (Ammann and Schuenze) described it:

[Brandl] enlarges lines, figures, strokes, or aspects of an image important to him in numerous steps and with a profusion of technologies, e.g. photographing, copying, faxing, computer print-out, etc, etc. Interference, ‘noise’, mistakes or irregularities come to the fore through this ‘microscopying’ technique. What are perceived as perfect contours in the source image prove to be far more complex in fractal magnification, dissolving and simultaneously resolving themselves. Broken-down details in zoom allow new structures to originate. The images resulting from this process are then painted.

Specifically, at that time I used these enlargements as study aids in order to concentrate on line quality and scale. I am often concerned with achieving a feeling of expanding “power” much in the way that the centralized iconic imagery of Pop and Minimalism did or the expansiveness of Action Painting did, yet within my own terms. I sense that the Chicago painter Wesley Kimler is struggling with much the same challenge, although coming to this from a far different path — one probing Minimalism, de Kooning, “media” and the painterly tradition.

Jack Kirby Captain America Drawing
Captain America by Jack Kirby, 1967, pencil on paper, c. 43 in. x 38 in.
(This image is solely being used for illustration purposes in this article.)

While altering Kirby's drawings in this process, it struck me that they reminded me of Pollock. The images of both these artists are huge in spirit. When I visually remember most comic art, it appears in my thoughts at ordinary comic book panel scale. Likewise much fine art is unintentionally the small scale of an art history book reproduction. However, think of Kirby's work, if you know it. Don't the drawings come into your mind's eye as huge, mural-like explosions? His images are small in reality but immense in scale. Pollock's paintings, in a similar fashion, can only be understood live, and then appear larger than they are. Reproductions lose all layering and violence. I realized the power lay to the largest extent in Kirby's marks themselves — as well as in what they represent, yet more so. This is proven by the fact that no matter how wonderful the inker, his pencils are always light-years better.

Jack Kirby Captain America Comic
Captain America Comics #1, Timely Comics, March 1941.
The debut of Captain America. Art by Jack Kirby [and Joe Simon].
(This image is solely being used for illustration purposes in this article.)

Using the process outlined above I transformed the strokes making up the knees of Captain America in Kirby's drawing for Jim Steranko's first History of Comics. Undreamed of abstract power was the result — that's Jack! It was a heady delight to feel as if I were collaborating with him and celebrating him, while uniting important disparities in art : comic / fine, conceptual / sensual, and abstract / representational. However arranged, the resultant strokes worked well and suggested the great Pollock painting Blue Poles. I drew these marks in black colored pencil on paper, layers upon layers over one another, each polished with a stump. They are painstakingly drawn not “splashed” as it might first appear; one can see the numerous small strokes inside each larger, represented stroke. Recently, I have expanded this into more representational directions, in order to develop that potential as well, yet the core fact remains. He had his unique superhero, violent ballet of action in his form itself, belying the misunderstanding so many “feeble painters” or “bad drawing” artists have of popular or vernacular sources as always acutely inept. Their understanding is in fact what is inept. While such power and artistry have generally been more of an exception than the rule in comic art, I propose that in most of contemporary fine art that also rings true.

The implications are many. Questions enjoyable to consider arise. Is there an effect of Kirby, or other masters of comic art such as my personal “master” Gene Colan, on the fine arts, in addition to their clear and imposing positions in comics? Is the effect Zeitgeist, or are these Jacks the two true, antipodal kings of American art as my title suggests and as I now believe? Much is discussed about Kirby's imagery, themes, narratives, and characters, but what of his development of an overwhelming, powerful plastic mark-making? That too is a wondrous “ballet of violence.” It is formal mastery far beyond Formalism or anti-Formalism. Is the absence of such quality of line or stroke one reason why much recent comic art seems so flaccid and rococo and fine art so feeble and meager? In the future will we see works by Pollock, Kirby and (I would hope) Brandl and Kimler in the same room, more similar than dissimilar to those future eyes? Can the antagonistic, celebratory and metaphoric use of form be (re)discovered in new ways and used to revitalize several ailing arts?

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