American painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was the leading figure in abstract expressionism, a style that evolved after World War II and radicalized the history of American painting and modern art in general.
Before World War II modern painting was dominated by European developments. Although American painters were aware of them, they generally did not participate in their origin or contribute significantly to their evolution. With the advent of World War II the mainstream of modern art shifted dramatically. The numerous European artists who sought refuge in the United States exerted a profound influence on younger American painters and sculptors. From this cultural collision emerged a style whose roots lay abroad—for the most part in cubism and surrealism—but whose look and meaning were without precedent. The style became known as abstract expressionism, or "action" painting, because it frequently resulted from a direct and unpremeditated relationship between an artist and his medium.
Among American artists, Jackson Pollock was probably the single most powerful figure in giving shape to this new direction. With his example, moreover, American painting assumed a position of leadership within the international scope of modern art.
Pollock was born on Jan. 28, 1912, in Cody, Wyo. His father was a surveyor, and Jackson spent most of his childhood in Arizona and northern California. In 1925 the family settled in southern California. Largely through the influence of his oldest brother, Jackson became interested in art. Between 1925 and 1929 he attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, involved first with sculpture and later with painting.
In 1929 Pollock moved to New York City to study with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. He stayed for 2 years. Between 1931 and 1935 he made several trips to California and then decided to settle in New York. He worked on the Federal Arts Project from 1938 to 1942, and in 1940 he enjoyed his first New York exhibition—a group show which also included works by Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner. Here Pollock met Lee Krasner, and they married in 1944.
Pollock's first one-man show took place in 1943 at the Art of This Century Gallery in New York. Owned by the celebrated collector Peggy Guggenheim, the gallery became famous during the 1940s as a showroom for unknown but gifted American artists and for the recent works of established European masters. By offering both European and American styles, the gallery played a primary role in the genesis of abstract expressionism. In 1946 Pollock and his wife moved to Easthampton, L.I., where they remained until his death.
Pollock's art during these years reveals his effort to come to grips with advanced European developments, particularly cubism and surrealism. He seems to have struggled desperately with both styles, as though they were foreign to his sensibility and could not accommodate his ambitions. An outstanding example of the struggle, Male and Female (1942) is dominated by two totemlike figures, symbols of man and woman, that stretch the full length of the canvas. Essentially, the figures are composed of the flat planes of synthetic cubism, with secondary planes linking them to one another and to their surrounding space. But while the figures are cubist in formal terms, their interpretation by the artist is inspired by surrealist thought. This is apparent in the mysterious symbols which are strewn across the canvas—arithmetic notations, suggestions of floating eyes, and so forth—and by the grotesque, nightmarish heads of the figures: the woman looks like a frightening cat, and the man, with gaping mouth, resembles a devouring demon. Such creatures arise from a world beyond conventional reason and visible reality.
That Pollock was struggling with his pictorial means, however, is apparent in the way Male and Female is painted. The paint is thickly and roughly applied. In some places the artist forced or scrubbed it onto the canvas, whereas in others he scribbled it into abstract configurations that seem determined to obscure the principal figures. As a whole the surface appears painfully executed, a torturous expression of Pollock's desire to break free from his inherited stylistic limits.
Between 1947 and 1950 Pollock's art matured with astonishing rapidity. He also began to receive national and international recognition. In 1948 Peggy Guggenheim included his work in an exhibition of her collection presented in Venice, Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich. In 1950 she organized his first European one-man exhibition, which was shown in Venice and Milan. In New York, Pollock showed twice at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949.
These shows clearly established Pollock as the leading figure of the new American painting. Along with the sheer quality of his work, however, his radical techniques also attracted widespread attention. About 1947 Pollock gave up conventional easel painting in favor of dripping his paint—from sticks, brushes, or syringes—onto lengths of unstretched canvas laid out on the floor of his studio. Instead of maintaining a fixed relationship to his canvas, he would work from all of its sides, frequently walking across it or through it during the creative act. This spontaneous method of working inspired the term "action" painting. Its intensely personal meaning is revealed in Pollock's statement in 1947: "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 fears about 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."
Although Pollock's radical techniques productively enabled his breakthrough to maturity, they also provoked considerable hostility among the general public. Not unexpectedly, Time led the assault, referring to the artist as "Jack the dripper." Pollock felt such hostility deeply. As Frank O'Hara wrote: " … Pollock was also sustaining frivolous and damaging criticism, aimed mostly at his methods, and he received them with bitterness. He was especially vulnerable because of the personal nature of his work. It is terrible to be great alone, and the public had not yet recognized with its scorn the greatness of his American contemporaries. Where Gorky had suffered from lack of attention, Pollock suffered from attention of the wrong kind."
Pollock's "drip" paintings constitute his masterpieces. Among others, these include Full Fathom Five (1947), Number 1 (1948), and Autumn Rhythm (1950). In these he transcends the tensions and anxieties that characterize his earlier efforts. On a formal level the flat planes of cubism give way to a pictorial space generated exclusively by line. But the quality of Pollock's line is unique: as it accelerates across the surface, changing color, twisting upon itself, and generating an intricate overall web, it is experienced as a purely optical phenomenon. That is, the line is freed from all functional associations, particularly from its traditional function of describing shapes or objects. Thus, Pollock's line is felt to be exclusively pictorial—to reveal the capacity of line within the realm of painting. As O'Hara said, "There has never been enough said about Pollock's draftsmanship, that amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it up by flooding, to elaborate that simplest of elements, the line—to change, reinvigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in the mass by drawing alone."
But the "drip" paintings also embody a new relationship to surrealist thought—that is, in terms of Pollock's freewheeling method of working. Where previously he had sought to tap his unconscious self by painting images of it—mythic creatures, fantasies, and so on—the "drip" technique allowed him simply to "let go, " to release spontaneously the psychic and bodily energies that surrealist theory had encouraged the artist to explore during the creative act. Thus, although the "drip" paintings do not look surrealist, their genesis owes much to that European style.
During the 1950s Pollock exhibited regularly at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. But while his reputation continued to grow, he began to suffer intense self-doubt and anxiety. The most pervasive artistic problem in these years concerned figuration: Pollock seems to have wanted to accommodate human or abstract figures within the dripped webs that characterize his masterpieces of 1947-1950. His effort to do so can be seen in the black-and-white paintings of 1951-1952 and in the richly colored Blue Poles (1952). Many of these works have extraordinary power, but they generally lack his earlier lyrical harmony. With their crowded surfaces, they frequently appear desperate, even tragic, in the way they bare their thwarted ambitions.
Pollock never emerged from this crisis. He died in an automobile accident on Aug. 11, 1956, in Southampton, N.Y. That year a memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art honored him.
Further Reading on Jackson Pollock
Excellent monographs on Pollock are Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock (1959), and Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock (1960). Also useful is the New York Museum of Modern Art publication Jackson Pollock by Sam Hunter (1956).
Additional Biography Sources
Cernuschi, Claude, Jackson Pollock: meaning and significance, New York, NY: IconEditions, 1992.
Frank, Elizabeth, Jackson Pollock, New York: Abbeville Press, 1983.
Friedman, B. H. (Bernard Harper), Jackson Pollock: energy made visible, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Naifeh, Steven W., Jackson Pollock: an American saga, New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Solomon, Deborah, Jackson Pollock: a biography, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
To a violent grave: an oral biography of Jackson Pollock, New York: G.P. Putnam, 1985.