Jackson Pollock - Biography and Legacy
East Hampton, New York
Biography of Jackson Pollock
Paul Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the fifth and youngest son of a family of Irish-Scottish extraction. Pollock was only ten months old when the family moved to San Diego. His father's work as a surveyor would force them to move repeatedly around the Southwest in subsequent years, until, when Pollock was aged nine, his father abandoned the family, only to return when Jackson himself had left home. Although Pollock had a tough upbringing, but he grew to love nature - animals and the expanse of the land - and while living in Phoenix in 1923 he discovered Native American art.
Pollock attended the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he befriended Philip Guston, and where he was also introduced to theosophical ideas which prepared him for his later interests in Surrealism and psychoanalysis. Two of Pollock's older brothers, Charles and Sanford, also pursued careers as artists, and it was their encouragement which lured him to New York in 1930, where he studied under Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.
In New York Pollock was attracted to Old Masters and began to study mural painting. He posed for Benton's 1930-31 murals at the New School for Social Research, and he met the prominent Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. He later spent a summer observing Diego Rivera paint murals at the New Workers School, and in 1936 he joined the Experimental Workshop of another muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, where he learned to employ unorthodox painting techniques. Pollock's own canvas, Going West (1934-35), blends many of these influences and is typical of his style at this time. In 1937, he was assigned to the Easel Division of Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project.
During much of the 1930s Pollock lived with his brothers in Greenwich Village, and was at times so poor that he had to work as a janitor and steal food to survive. In 1932, however, he was invited to participate in the 8th Exhibition of Watercolors, Pastels and Drawings by American and French Artists at the Brooklyn Museum, his first exhibition.
In 1936, Pollock briefly met Lenore ("Lee") Krasner. In time, their relationship would bring some of the few spells of calm and happiness that Pollock ever knew. But the two did not meet again until 1941, after which they became romantically involved and married in 1945. Meanwhile, Pollock's alcoholism - which had been a problem since his adolescence - drove him into treatment as early as 1938, and by 1939 he was receiving Jungian psychoanalysis. His analyst encouraged him to produce drawings to aid his recovery, and the methods and motifs in these drawings - albeit shaped by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Jose Clemente Orozco and the theories of John Graham - soon found their way into works such as Guardians of the Secret(1943).
Despite his personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art. Krasner was impressed when she saw his work in the early 1940s and introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann. Hofmann was similarly enthusiastic, and the meeting blossomed into an enduring friendship between the two men. Hofmann is said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock famously replied, "I don't paint nature, I am nature."
The WPA came to an end in 1943 and Pollock was forced to find work on his own. Along with various odd-jobs he became a custodian at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum), and it was there that he met Peggy Guggenheim, who invited him to submit work to her new gallery, The Art of This Century. Eventually, Guggenheim put Pollock on a contract, and in 1943 she gave him his first solo exhibition, which was well received. The critic Clement Greenberg noted with approval that Pollock had absorbed and transcended Mexican mural painting, Picasso and Miró. The pictures still carried much figuration, although the references remained concealed - as Pollock said, "I choose to veil the imagery."
At the same time, Peggy Guggenheim also commissioned a painting for the entry hall of her New York apartment. The resulting work was Mural (1943), which would prove important in Pollock's transition from a style shaped by murals, Native American art and European modernism towards his mature drip technique. And it was Guggenheim who again helped Pollock when he needed a down-payment to secure an old farmhouse in the town of The Springs on Long Island. He and Krasner bought the farmhouse in the fall of 1945 and married in October. Krasner hoped that distance from the struggles and temptations of the city would offer a great opportunity for both of them to pursue their painting in seclusion and peace.
Exactly how Pollock came upon his drip technique has been a matter of long and inconclusive scholarly argument, but his work was already taking steps towards it in the mid-1940s. He began to lose the symbolic imagery of his earlier pictures and looked for more abstract means of expression. His experience of painting Mural for Guggenheim's apartment was also important in spurring him on, and in 1945 he painted There Were Seven in Eight, a picture in which recognizable imagery was thoroughly suppressed and the surface was knitted together by a vivid tangle of lines. In the following years his style became more boldly abstract still, and he produced works like Shimmering Substance (1946). The following year he finally hit on the idea of flinging and pouring paint, and thus found the means to create the light, airy and apparently endless webs of color that he was reaching towards. Masterpieces such as Full Fathom Five (1947) were the result. Pollock had carried out another stylistic somersault and arrived at a method that synthesized Impressionism, Surrealism and Cubism.
Shimmering Substance led on to works like Number 1A (1948), a larger canvas than Pollock was familiar with, and dense with a dazzling web of color. He found he was best able to approach works such as this by positioning the canvas flat on the floor, moving around it and applying the paint from all sides. By dipping a small stick, house brush or trowel into the paint and then rapidly moving his wrist, arm and body, he allowed it to drip and fall in weaving rhythms over the surface. The technique - the epitome of what critic Harold Rosenberg would call Action Painting - rarely permitted the brush to directly touch the canvas. "On the floor I am more at ease," he said. "I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting." Pollock's work thus became as much about process as they were about product. They became a record of the performance of painting - his play in and around the canvas, where he could enter them as a participant and hover above them as their creator. "There is no accident," Pollock once said, "just as there is no beginning or end.. Sometimes I lose a painting, but I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image, because a painting has a life of its own."
Critics were quick to recognize the power of Pollock mature work. Greenberg, who would be his staunchest and most powerful supporter, wrote at the time, "[His] superiority to his contemporaries in this country lies in his ability to create genuinely violent and extravagant art without losing stylistic control." But when Pollock's pictures reached a wider public, through coverage in magazines such as Vogue and Life, the response was a mixture of shock and incredulity. Nor was he widely collected at first, having only a small circle of supporters. Commercial success would soon come, but even at its height - after Art of This Century Gallery had closed and gallery owner Betty Parsons had taken over Pollock's contract - the painter was still being treated for alcoholism.
Pollock supposedly stayed dry from mid-1948 to late 1950, and during these years he lived primarily in Long Island, only occasionally coming into the city. In 1950, he had a successful solo exhibition, and, along with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, was selected by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Venice Biennale. But a year later he was drinking again.
Late Period and Death
Pollock's radical abstraction seemed to herald an incredible new freedom for painting, yet semblances of recognizable imagery continued to hover in the background of his pictures. The vast expanse of Blue Poles (1952) is knitted together with the aid of diagonal lines. And One: Number 31 (1950) retains a strong sense of rhythmically dancing figures, amidst its remarkable diversity of effects. Pollock might have abandoned the realism of his youth, but he still managed to make his paintings eloquently metaphorical. Like many of his canvases from this time, One evokes a mood of grandeur which ties it to the tradition of sublime landscape which stretches back into the 18th century. It also glistens as if it were dappled with light in the manner of Monet's canvases, and many critics have speculated on whether Pollock was influenced by the French Impressionist.
Pollock never really lost his interest in figurative imagery - as he once put it, "I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you're painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge." As early as the late 1940s, figuration showed signs of resurfacing in his work. By 1950, whilst his drinking increased, he returned to drawing, resurrecting some of his old motifs, and producing a series of mainly black and white poured paintings. Some, like Yellow Islands (1952), incorporate touches of color and are highly abstract; some, like Echo (Number 25, 1951), are calligraphic in style and only residually figurative; others bear clear images of heads. They were badly received when Pollock first exhibited them, but he continued to work on them right through 1953, his last productive year of work.
His personal troubles only increased in his later years. He left Betty Parsons Gallery, and, his reputation preceding him, he struggled to find another gallery. He painted little in 1954, claiming that he had nothing left to say. In the summer of 1956, Krasner took a trip to Europe to get some distance from Pollock, and soon after the painter began a relationship with 25 year old artist Ruth Kligman, who he had met at the Cedar Bar. Then, on the night of August 11, 1956, while Pollock was drunk and out driving with Kligman and her friend, Edith Metzger, he lost control of the car, killing himself and Metzger, and seriously injuring Kligman.
The Legacy of Jackson Pollock
Pollock's immediate legacy was certainly felt most by other painters. His work brought together elements of Cubism, Surrealism, and Impressionism, and transcended them all. Beside that achievement even greats such as de Kooning, who remained closer to Cubism, and hung on to figurative imagery, seemed to fall short. And the best among subsequent generations of painters would all have to take on his achievement, just as Pollock himself had wrestled with Picasso.
And as early as 1958, when pioneering performance artist Allan Kaprow explicitly addressed the question of his legacy in an article for Art News, some were beginning to wonder if Pollock might even have opened up possibilities outside of the realm of painting. To borrow critic Harold Rosenberg's words, Pollock had re-imagined the canvas not as "a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or 'express' an object.. [but as] an arena in which to act." And it was a short step from this realization to interpreting Pollock's balletic moves around the canvas as a species of performance art. Since then, Pollock's reputation has only increased. The subject of many biographies, a movie biopic, and major retrospectives, he has become not only one of the most famous symbols of the alienated modern artist, but also an embodiment for critics and historians of American modernism in its finest hour.