Biography of Jackson Pollock

Legend and Art Titan

Jackson Pollock & His Work
Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images

Jackson Pollock (born Paul Jackson Pollock January 28, 1912-August 11, 1956) was an Action Painter, one of the leaders of the avant-garde Abstract Expressionist movement, and is considered one of America’s greatest artists. His life was cut short at the age of forty-four, in a tragic automobile accident at his own hands while driving intoxicated. Although he struggled financially during his lifetime, his paintings are now worth millions, with one painting, No. 5, 1948, selling for about $140 million in 2006 through Sotheby’s.

He became particularly well-known for drip-painting, a radical new technique he developed that catapulted him to fame and notoriety.

Pollock was a mercurial man who lived a hard and fast life, punctuated by periods of depression and reclusiveness, and struggled with alcoholism, but he was also a man of great sensitivity and spirituality. He married Lee Krasner in 1945, herself a respected Abstract Expressionist artist, who had a large influence on his art, life, and legacy.

Pollock’s friend and patron Alfonso Osorio described what is so unique and compelling about Pollock’s work by saying about his artistic journey, "Here I saw a man who had both broken all the traditions of the past and unified them, who had gone beyond cubism, beyond Picasso and surrealism, beyond everything that had happened in art....his work expressed both action and contemplation." 

Whether or not you like Pollock’s work, the more you learn about him and his oeuvre the more likely it will be that you come to appreciate the value that experts and many others see in it, and to appreciate the spiritual connection that many viewers feel to it.

At the minimum, it is hard to remain unaffected by the man and his art after watching the intensity of his focus and the grace of his dance-like movements in the remarkable footage of his actual painting process.

A LEGEND AND ART TITAN

Besides his own artistic contributions, there were several factors that together helped to turn Jackson Pollock into an art titan and legend.

His macho hard-drinking,  photogenic cowboy image was similar to that of rebel movie star James Dean, and the fact that he died in a high-speed single-car crash on an alcoholic binge, with his mistress and another person as passengers, contributed to the romance of his story. The circumstances of his death, and the smart handling of his estate by his wife, Lee Krasner, helped fuel the market for his work and the art market in general.

During his life Pollock was often reclusive, fitting the myth of the lone artist and hero that America admired following World War II. His image grew along with the growth of the art business and culture in NYC. Pollock came to New York City as a 17-year-old in 1929 just as the Museum of Modern Art opened and the art scene was booming. In 1943 the art collector/socialite Peggy Guggenheim gave him his big break by commissioning him to paint a mural for the foyer to her Manhattan townhouse. She contracted to pay him $150 per month to do so, freeing him to focus entirely on painting.

The piece, Mural, catapulted Pollock to the forefront of the art world. It was his largest painting ever, the first time he used house paint and, although still using the brush, experimented with flicking paint.

It garnered the attention of the renown art critic Clement Greenberg, who said later, “I took one look at Mural and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.” Thereafter Greenberg and Guggenheim became Pollock’s friends, advocates, and promoters.

It has even been confirmed by some that the CIA was using Abstract Expressionism as a Cold War weapon, secretly promoting and funding the movement and exhibitions worldwide to show off the intellectual liberalism and cultural power of the U.S. in contrast to the ideological conformity and rigidity of Russian communism.

BIOGRAPHY

Pollock’s roots were in the West. He was born in Cody, Wyoming but grew up in Arizona and Chico, California. His father was a farmer, and then a land surveyor for the government. Jackson would accompany his father sometimes on his surveying trips, and it was through these trips that he was exposed to Native American Art which would later influence his own.

He once went with his father on assignment to the Grand Canyon which may have had an impact on his own sense of scale and space.

In 1929 Pollock followed his older brother, Charles, to New York City, where he studied at the Arts Students League under Thomas Hart Benton for over two years. Benton had a great impact on Pollock’s work, and Pollock and another student spent a summer touring the Western United States with Benton in the early 1930s. Pollock met his future wife, the artist Lee Krasner, also an Abstract Expressionist, while she was viewing his work at the yearly school exhibit.

Pollock worked for the Works Project Association from 1935-1943, and briefly as a maintenance man at what was to become the Guggenheim Museum, until Peggy Guggenheim commissioned the painting from him for her townhouse. His first solo exhibit was at Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, in 1943.

Pollock and Krasner were married in October of 1945 and Peggy Guggenheim lent them the downpayment for their house, located in Springs on Long Island. The house had an unheated shed that Pollock could paint in for nine months out of the year, and a room in the house for Krasner to paint in. The house was surrounded by woods, fields and marsh, which influenced Pollock’s work. About the source of his imagery,  Pollock once said, “I am nature.” Pollock and Krasner had no children.

Pollock had an affair with Ruth Kligman, who survived the car crash that killed him at the age of 44 in August 1956. In December 1956, a retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Other larger retrospectives were held there subsequently in 1967 and 1998, as well as at the Tate in London in 1999. 

PAINTING STYLE AND INFLUENCES

Many people assume that they could easily replicate a Jackson Pollock. Sometimes one hears, “My three-year old could do that!”  But could they?  According to Richard Taylor, who studied Pollock’s work through computer algorithms, the unique shape and musculature of Pollock’s physique contributed to particular movements, marks, and fluidity on the canvas.

His movements were a finely-tuned dance, that to the untrained eye, might appear random and unplanned, but were really highly sophisticated and nuanced, much like fractals.

Benton and the Regionalist style greatly influenced the way Pollock organized his compositions. From many of his early paintings and sketchbooks from his classes with Benton you can see the influence upon his later abstract works of swirling figural rhythms and “his continued efforts to organize compositions rooted in twisting countershifts, as Benton had counseled.” 

Pollock was also influenced by the Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Surrealism, which explored subconscious and dream-like subject matter, and automatic painting. Pollock participated in several Surrealist exhibitions. I

In 1935 Pollock took a workshop with a Mexican muralist who encouraged the artists to use new materials and methods in order to have a greater impact on society. These included splattering and throwing paint, using rough paint textures, and working on canvas tacked to the floor.

Pollock took this advice to heart, and by the mid-1940s was painting completely abstractly on unstretched raw canvas on the floor. He started painting in the “drip style” in 1947, eschewing brushes, and instead dripping, splattering, and pouring enamel house paint from the can, also using sticks, knives, trowels, and even a meat baster. He would also smear sand, broken glass, and other textural elements on the canvas, while painting in a fluid motion from all sides of the canvas. He would “maintain contact with the painting,” his description of the process of what it took to create a painting. Pollock titled his paintings with numbers rather than with words.

DRIP PAINTINGS

Pollock is most well known for his “drip period” which lasted between 1947 and 1950 and secured his prominence in art history, and America’s prominence in the world of art. The canvases were either laid on the floor or set against a wall. These paintings were done intuitively, with Pollock responding to each mark and gesture made while channeling the deepest emotions and feelings of his subconscious.  As he said, “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.”

Many of Pollock’s paintings also display the “all-over” method of painting. In these paintings there are no clear focal points or anything identifiable; rather, everything is equally weighted. Pollock detractors have accused this method of being like wallpaper. But for Pollock it was more about the rhythm and repetition of movement, gesture, and mark within the vastness of space as he channeled primal emotion into abstract painting. Using a combination of skill, intuition, and chance he created order out of what seemed to be random gestures and marks. Pollock maintained that he controlled the flow of paint in his painting process and that there were no accidents.

He painted on enormous canvases so that the edge of the canvas was not within his peripheral vision and so he was not confined by the edge of the rectangle. If need be he would trim the canvas when he was finished with the painting. 

In August 1949, Life magazine published a two and a half page spread on Pollock that asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”  The article featured his large-scale all-over drip paintings, and propelled him to fame.  Lavender Mist (originally named Number 1, 1950, but renamed by Clement Greenberg) was one of his most famous paintings and exemplifies the confluence of the physical with the emotional.

However, it wasn’t long after the LIFE article came out that Pollock abandoned this method of painting, whether due to the pressure of fame, or his own demons, beginning what are called his “black pourings.” These paintings consisted of blocky biomorphic bits and pieces and did not have the “all-over” composition of his colored drip paintings. Unfortunately, collectors were not as interested in these paintings, and none of them sold when he exhibited them at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, so he returned to his figural color paintings.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO ART

Whether or not you care for his work, Pollock’s contributions to the world of art were enormous. During his lifetime he was constantly taking risks and experimenting and greatly influenced the avant-garde movements that succeeded him. His extreme abstract style, physicality with the act of painting, enormous scale and method of painting, use of line and space, and exploration of the boundaries between drawing and painting were original and powerful.

Each painting was of a unique time and place, the result of a unique sequence of intuitive choreography, not to be replicated or repeated. Who knows how Pollock’s career might have progressed had he lived, or what he would have created, but we do know that, in fact, a three-year-old can not paint a Jackson Pollock. No one can.

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING