A major figure in the Abstract Expressionist Movement, Jackson Pollock was one of the most famous American Painters of the 20th century. Famous and notorious, Pollock’s works were considered to be “..the best paintings of the day, a culmination of the Western Tradition..” (Clement Greenberg).
He developed one of the most radical abstract styles in the history of modern art, finding novel means to depict pictorial space. His contributions redefined the spirit of American Art and Expressionist Culture, with his works exhibited in a number of renowned art galleries across the United States and in the Western World.
Born in 1912 in Wyoming, to a farmer, later a land surveyor to the government, Jackson Pollock was the youngest of five sons; he grew up in Arizona and later in Chico, California. While still a boy, Pollock went on surveying trips with his father, experiencing Native American Culture and Expressions during an early age. His paintings at a later time were thought to have been influenced by his early memories and enthusiasm, to which Pollock did concede.
In 1929, he studied at the Art Students’ League in New York, under regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, first working in the regionalist style in the early 1930s. Strongly influenced by the notions of Surrealism, followed by the works of Pablo Picasso, Pollock was able to recognize the expressive power of European Modernism. Other facets that influenced him were the Mexican Revolutionary Muralists, the likes of Digo Rivera.
He began his works with a new style of Semi-abstract Totemic Compositions, refined through obsessive reworking. Over the years that followed, Pollock drew the attention of the Western Art World for the first time to America, with a highly personalized style and a rather fresh ethos of modernist expression.
Philosophy, Medium, Style
Having acquainted himself with the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, at an experimental workshop, Pollock was introduced to using liquid household painting for his works. He took this forward, using paint pouring as a technique in his early works in the 1940s, like the Male and Female and Composition with Pouring I. He continued the same, painting with his canvases laid out on the studio floor, developing what was later called his drip technique.
This medium of expression was fuelled by the emergence of a new artistic movement, particularly in New York, in the aftermath of World War II. This Abstract Expressionism flourished in the works of Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries, who portrayed the concerns that revolve around the zeals and exigencies of modern life.
He says, “My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”
He worked for the WPA Federal Art Project between 1938 and 1942, part of the American New Deal. Undergoing therapy simultaneously to deal with alcoholism, with Dr. Joseph Henderson, he was encouraged by his therapist to engage with his issue through art and drawing.
Later on, he received one of his earliest commissions to create a piece for Peggy Guggenheim’s new townhouse, in 1943, later signing a gallery contract. The piece, titled Mural was quite huge, 2.4 m by 6.1 m. His talent was later described to be volcanic, unpredictable, undisciplined, spilling out of itself in a mineral prodigality.
His most famous paintings were made during the “drip period”, between 1947 and 1950, becoming famous after a 4-page spread in Life magazine which asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”. Most of his works were exhibited together for the first time in the Studio Paul Facchetti between 1948 and 1951, in Paris and other European cities.
Sadly, Pollock abandoned his famous drip technique at the peak of his fame, to create works of darker colors, painted in black, which earned him very little fame. Soon after, he returned to using color and continued with figurative elements, attracting the attention of commercial galleries like the Sidney Janis Gallery, by which time the demand for his work from collectors was very high.
In response to this pressure, his alcoholism only deepened. By 1955, Pollock painted his last two works, Scent and Search; he spent 1956 making sculptures with Tony Smith, a visual artist, and architectural designer. Raging with alcoholism, Jackson Pollock died in a single-car crash, while driving under the influence of liquor, in August 1956.
Recognition after Death
Pollock was survived by his wife Lee Krasner, an artist, whose influence on his works was highly reassessed during the 1960s. A trained artist with extensive knowledge in modern art, Krasner helped Pollock be up to date as to what contemporary art should be.
A memorial, retrospective exhibition was given to his works, in 1956, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with a larger and more comprehensive exhibition held there in 1967. Further large-scale, retrospective exhibitions at the MoMA, New York, and The Tate, London honored his works in 1998 and 1999.
He said about his work, My Painting, in 1956, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”
Pollock was one of the earliest artists to emphasize the process of creation; he has influenced many contemporary artists, like Helen Frankenthaler, Allan Kaprow, Morris Louis, etc., by his approach to process, rather than the look of his works. His work, One: Number 31, 1950 was ranked the eighth-most influential piece of modern art in a poll of 500 artists, curators, dealers, and the like.
Undoubtedly, Jackson Pollock has been one of the most influential artists of the 20th century; although his life was not as long, he has surely left a profound mark in contemporary expressionist art and culture. A style detached from traditions and norms, with a workflow that is strikingly modern, Pollock’s works and legacy will stand fresh, original, and anew for years to come.
- Von Weigand, Ellen – Recording The Unconscious In Jackson Pollock’s Work (May 2017)
- Jackson Pollock and his paintings – https://www.jackson-pollock.org/
- Jackson Pollock – Wikipedia