He was called “the most important artist of his generation” and the most important artist in the most important movement of the 20th century in American painting, abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock, by his innovative technique and style, helped make the United States and New York City the center of the art world in the 1940s and 1950s. He came out of the far west with influences as home-grown as Native American art, a Mexican muralist, and a teacher from the Midwest, Thomas Hart Benton. He would, along with painters like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Hans Hoffman, create for 20th-century painting a distinctively American genre and become the source and starting point for the artists who followed. As de Kooning said, Pollock “broke the ice.” Color Field painters, minimalists, sculptors, performance artists, and more would cite him as an influence and inspiration.
To this point, the center of the painting world had been indisputably Europe, well into the century. American painters lived in the shadow of the Europeans. Painting styles were evolving in Europe, proliferating in a diversity of movements and forms spawned in the 19th century’s upheaval when the invention of photography threatened painters. They were spurred to invent their own style, one that photographs could not reproduce. Impressionism, on the scene by 1860 less than 30 years after Frenchman Louis Daguerre produced his first photograph, was the painters’ counterattack. The camera could not capture the same transient effects of light and color that Claude Monet, painting out of doors in his little studio boat, could produce, using short broken brushstrokes of unmixed color to create luminous landscapes.
Other French painters, Cezanne and van Gogh and Gauguin, began moving beyond Impressionism, searching for new structures and forms. As the 20th century dawned, artists began going beyond the conventional, breaking the rules and changing the tradition. Picasso and Braque produced a new style, cubism, which explored new relationships and form. Expressionism, a movement arising in Germany, tried to evoke responses in the viewer with color and forms that became more and more nonrepresentational. Fauvism, with its distortions and intense coloring, took painting into a more aesthetic realm, with Henri Matisse leading the way. What was happening in art with all this ferment was something called modernism, the search for pure forms, innovative techniques, and experimental styles.
Yet the art scene remained firmly in Europe. American painters lived “in what might be called a colonial situation,” critic John Russell commented, dominated “by the art of other times and older places.” Even though American literature flourished in new and unique forms, American art lagged behind. The New York Armory Show of 1913 had introduced Americans to the newest European art, but there was no American School as such. There were individual painters like Edward Hopper, who captured something of the American sensibility in lonely urban scenes and stark landscapes.
The art world made a major shift in the 1940s as innovative American painters began to concentrate in and around New York City, gaining critical mass. Artists like de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Clyford Still, Stuart Davis, and Barnett Newman, not all of them born in the United States, were beginning to work in New York, and as World War II broke out on European soil, many artists, including Piet Mondrian, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, and others, fled to the United States. The Germans marched into Paris and the American critic Harold Rosenberg lamented, “The laboratory of the 20th century has been shut down.”
The ferment of artistic innovation had moved to other shores. The center of the art world was suddenly the United States, and New York City in particular. There was talk of a New York School. It did not hurt that a Museum of Modern Art had been opened in the city to exhibit the newest modernist painting and sculpture. A painter out of Wyoming and California, Jackson Pollock, now living in New York City and doing public works art projects for the Federal Works Progress Administration, would soon offer up a fresh version of American art and painting style. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called him “the avant-garde’s cowboy existentialist,” a “brawling action painter.” Pollock was going to take painting off the easel and put it on the floor, expand it in enormous wall-sized canvases, and use a technique of gesture and body movement with paint of a new liquidity, taking art into abstraction and beyond.
There had never been anything like it. His style was a breakthrough in both technique and subject matter; essentially, Pollock was painting about painting. What he was creating, in monumental dimensions, was a new heroic form, boldly drawing on styles as disparate as surrealism, cubism, and expressionism that came to be labeled in the 1950s as abstract expressionism. Nonrepresentational yet full of reference to the rhythmic gestures that created it, a Pollock painting offered up a visual dynamic of feeling in a single, undifferentiated, and enormous image. In effect, he had succeeded in liberating the line from any vestige of representation. Indeed, Pollock so wanted to preserve the abstract quality of his work that he gave up using titles for his paintings and just used numbers to identify them.
Pollock developed his signature technique after he had moved with his new bride, artist Lee Krasner, to the end of Long Island in 1945 into a house for which the famous art patroness Peggy Guggenheim gave them the down payment. She had already given him his first one-man show in 1943 in New York at her Art of This Century Gallery and sold one of his paintings, The She Wolf, to the Museum of Modern Art. In the art colony of Springs just outside East Hampton, Pollock set up his studio in a shed on the property where he could lay his canvases right down on the floor. He painted with hardened brushes or sticks or even basters, using fluid alkyd enamels that were, essentially, house paint. Dripping, pouring, and even flinging the paint, Pollock worked in a kind of frenzy. Time magazine nicknamed him “Jack the Dripper.” He painted from different sides of the canvas as he had seen Native American sand painters do. “On the floor I am more at ease, I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around in it, work from the four sides and be literally ‘in’ the painting,” Pollock commented in 1947. His method gave rise to what is called action painting, which tends to emphasize the struggle to create the work more than the result. In this sense, critic Rosenberg, who invented the term, said the canvas becomes “an arena in which to act.” Such paintings also seem to reflect subconscious elements in the artist, and Pollock, with an interest in surrealism, was beginning to tackle the unconscious, letting it take over in the process as in surrealistic automatism. The paintings were bigger than anything the Europeans were doing. Large and capacious, they seemed to speak of a uniquely American genre, overflowing, excessive, free spirited.
One of his most famous paintings is Lavender Mist, painted in 1950 during his “drip period” between 1947 and 1950. It is more than 7 feet high and almost 10 feet wide, with all-over drips, swirls, and pools of color, some thick, some slender, most in pale lavender. He was not really painting an image; instead it was a record of movement and gesture. In the upper right-hand corner, Pollock put his hands into the paint and left his handprint (a gesture reminiscent of what prehistoric cave painters did). The painting takes up a whole wall in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Pollock was deeply influenced in his technique and approach by the work of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros who introduced him to liquid paint during a workshop in 1936 in New York City when he had also been studying with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students’ League. Pollock was in addition intrigued by Native American Indian sand painting, which was made by using thin lines of colored sand on a flat surface. It did not hurt Pollock’s reputation and influence that Life magazine had done a four-page feature on his work in 1949, asking, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
His hard-drinking, tough guy image had already made him a cult figure to the Beat crowd of artists and Beat poets, and when he lived in New York City, he hung out along with fellow artists Rothko and de Kooning and Beat poets like Gregory Corso and Frank O’Hara at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, which has been called an incubator of abstract expressionism. It was a rebellious group of iconoclasts like him. But Pollock’s personal life was a troubled one. An alcoholic, he was unable to control his drinking or the rages and high jinks that it seemed to foster. In the hope of understanding and finding a solution to his alcoholism, Pollock spent three years, from 1938 to 1941, in Jungian analysis. He seemed already to be in touch with his unconscious in his spontaneous mode of painting, and Jungian psychology with its emphasis on archetypal patterns and the collective unconscious may have offered insight into the process. Perhaps today Pollock might have been diagnosed as bipolar. His relationship with his wife, Lee Krasner, an artist of stature in her own right, was a difficult one, yet she was a devoted mentor of his talent. Pollock took mistresses. He had been drinking the night he died, August 11, 1956, slamming into a tree in his Oldsmobile convertible with one of his mistresses, Ruth Kligman, and another passenger. He and the passenger were killed. Pollock was just 44 years old.
Paul Jackson Pollock was born on January 28, 1912, in Cody, Wyoming, a town named after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. His parents were LeRoy Pollock, a farmer and land surveyor, and Stella May McClure. He was the youngest of five brothers, three of whom became painters. His father moved the family around in his search for work, first to Arizona, then around California. Jackson Pollock attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles where he had his first formal training in art, but he left without graduating and went to New York to join his brother Charles and pursue a career in art. Like his brother, he studied at the Art Students League with Benton. From 1938 to 1942, he worked at $100 a month for the WPA on Federal Art Projects, meanwhile also producing his own canvases and exhibiting them. His technique and his major art were developed and produced in a three-year period after he had married and moved to Springs on Long Island, from 1947 to 1950. By the mid-1950s, however, Pollock had stopped painting entirely.
The critical reception of Pollock’s work has been mixed, but critic Clement Greenberg gave him important support and viewed his art as a purifying element in the Western tradition from Cezanne and cubism on. Controversy has swirled over the value of Pollock’s drip paintings and about abstract expressionism. One critic, Robert Coates, called Pollock’s work “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.” A movie produced in 2000, Pollock, recounted the artist’s life and received several Academy Award nominations and one award. In 2006, Pollock’s painting, No. 5, 1948, was sold for $140,000,000, the most expensive painting in the world at the time.
The Pollock–Krasner house and studio in Springs are now National Landmarks and under the supervision of a Stony Brook University foundation. Pollock and his wife are buried nearby in Green River Cemetery with stones left from an ancient glacier marking their graves.
Kakutani, Michiko. “An Artistic Father for Half a Century.” The New York Times, December 17, 1996. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/17/books/an-artistic-father-for-half-a-century.html .
Landau, Ellen G. Jackson Pollock. New York: Abrams, 2001.
Solomon, Deborah. Jackson Pollock: A Biography. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001.
Varnedoe, Kirk with Pepe Karmel. Jackson Pollock. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998.