Jackson Pollock was born to LeRoy McCoy Pollock and Stella McClure Pollock on January 28, 1912 in Cody, Wyoming. His stay there was short as the family moved before he was one and continued travelling around the southwest United States. Pollock’s father would take his young son with him to work as a surveyor for road crews. This exposure to vast picturesque landscapes would give Pollock an artistic vision that would help develop a new form of artwork.
The Pollock family finally settled in California and Pollock attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, California. It was there that he discovered a love for artistic expression. Through this pursuit, he followed his brother across the United States to New York City. There he attended the Art Students League and studied under Thomas Hart Benton.
Benton was from the Regionalist school of art and guided the impressionable Pollock. Exposing him to the Masters of art and teaching him the rudimentary elements of drawing and composition. Benton also showed Pollock the majesty of art in mural form. Benton produced large murals on a grand scale with cartoonist like figures and distorted the musculature and bone structure of his subjects. His most controversial work would be the Indiana Murals which depicted everyday people in an unflattering light.
His depictions of Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia thrust him into the national spotlight. His work on broad canvas’ and desire to mould people in his own image challenged Pollock to observe his world through an alternative view. Through this tutelage, Pollock began to incorporate Benton’s “American Scene”, but added his own dark undertones to his work. Pollock once reflected upon Benton’s early teaching as giving him a standard to rebel against in his later work.
As a young artist trying to make his way in the world he was aided by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal which included work relief projects for young artists. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project would provide economic freedom for the developing artist to hone his craft. Many pieces created by Pollock during this time have gone missing, but the surviving works show progression and use of alternative painting techniques combined with a strong desire to convey deeply personal matters through a canvas.
With the shadow of World War II hanging over the United States society, free forms of expression were not readily tolerated. The McCarthy era ushered in strict censorship guidelines. The only way to skirt this scrutiny would be to create art with an abstract connotation and no clear meaning or definition upon first inspection. This provided a template for a new genre, the Abstract Expressionist, to come about. Because their work was based on an abstract subject matter it could be viewed as apolitical. Characterized by its use of large canvas, “all over” approach in which the entire canvas was treated with equal importance. The goal was to demonstrate the vitality and creativity of America as well as its desire to not be constrained by European standards of beauty.
The New York School of Abstract Expressionism rose to the forefront with artists like Mark Rothko who fought the label and contended that he was not an abstract painter, but one only interested in the relationship between form and colour. His focus on the expression of man’s basic emotions in such a unique way personifies the budding movement. Another member of the New York School was William Koening who dismissed the notion that content plays a prominent role in painting.
His insistence that content was but a small element to the greater piece was put to the test in his own creation of a series called Woman, which echoed back to his heavy influence by the works of Picasso. The theme of no central subject had become the actual subject for the New York School. While striving to define themselves with ambiguity, Pollock and his contemporaries were united in their development of this unique new style.
The work of previous years began to receive attention, but despite his beginnings of critical success Pollock was not comforted a retreated into the bottle to find relief for his tortured soul. He was urged by friends to seek counselling for his chronic abuse of alcohol. While the treatment never seemed to take it did expose his Jungian concepts that would shape his artwork. Pollock embraced Jung’s idea that art originates in the unconscious and seeks to become real through cultural symbolism and manifestations.
Pollock’s embrace of the Jungian philosophy that art originates form the unconscious and seeks to become real through cultural symbolism and manifestations is prevalent in his work during the 1940’s which draws heavily on Native American influences. In The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle he based and entire painting on a North American Indian myth. The moon is used to connect with the feminine and show the creative, slashing power of the female psyche. The painting seems to draw the viewer in on a primitive level to appreciate the fusion of colors and Expressionist feels that is urgently communicated.
During the period of time when his acclaim was beginning to grow, he was invited to display his work in a group exhibition with contributions from Picasso, Matisse, and other well-established masters. While this would seem to be sufficient he also left the exhibition with an added bonus, a new love that would become his wife, Lee Krasner. The recognition of his promise also leads him to acquire a patron and dealer in Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim would provide him with another source of financial stability and allow him to purchase a house in The Spring where he would create works that would change the course of the art world forever.
While residing in The Springs Pollock began to experiment with the spontaneous distribution of paint on the canvas. Laying a broad canvas on the floor he developed what became known as the “drip” technique. He utilized sticks, hardened brushes and even basters used primarily in culinary circles to apply paint to his canvas. His “action painting” had never been seen. Pollock began to move away from figurative representation and challenged the traditional easel and wrist technique utilized by so many. He used his entire body as a utensil to create art. He would drip, fling, pour, and spatter paint until his vision was realized.
The frantic dripping a splattering of paint on the canvas has its roots in the works of Max Ernst. Ernst was leading figure in the Dada and surrealist movements who embraced many different styles and techniques. He created what is believed in some circles to be the first surrealist painting Les Hommes n’en sauront rei. It is given this credit because of its embrace of the characteristic elements of Surrealist painting: the dreamlike atmosphere, the irrational juxtaposition of images of widely different associations, the diagrams of celestial phenomena, the desert landscape and the central eroticism.”(Phaidan). He also tried his had at the collage technique from which Pollock’s influence can be seen. While his art was not as expansive in scope, the sense of disorganization but completeness through his collage methods ties his work to Pollock’s as a bridge between Dada/Surrealist and Abstract Expressionism.
One of Pollok’s best-known works that I find to be the most intriguing is Autumn Rhythm. This painting seems to capture the essence of his action painting technique. He began by laying his canvas on the floor of the barn in his Springs home and intertwined colours of white, black, and turquoise forming a web effect. This effect causes your eyes to dart across the canvas in an unceasing movement relaying the energy of the act of creating the painting.
The lines become shapes and the webs create a texture with powerful colours that seem to leap off the canvas. The lines seem to extend out of the boundaries of the canvas drawing you into the work. The pouring and dripping emphasize dominance and personify rhythm in the movements of flicking and splattering of the paint. This painting takes on an all-encompassing theme and is a great example of Pollok’s later work.
Pollock became a cultural icon during his life and even more so after his death. He has become the face of the American post-World War II art movement and credited with bringing a new style to the world of art.
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