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Jackson Pollock and America’s Abstract Painting Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Jackson Pollock was one of the most outstanding American artists. He was a person of bright and fascinating destiny, known for his large works and inventing a new style of painting – action painting. He was born on January 28, 1916, in the small town of Cody, WY. In the future, friendly critics tried to create a beautiful myth because of the place of his birth. As this town got its name after the well-known American character of times of conquest of the Wild West, they represented the artist as the same dashing cowboy – freedom-loving, rebellious, not accepting general rules. Jackson Pollock was the most outstanding and fascinating painter of America’s Abstract painting.

Being rebellious because of his nature, he never took into consideration any laws. He was fast and furious, brightly burning his life, leaving a remarkable trace after him. He outpoured his creativity into his works made in the new style of painting that he invented. So, soon after his birth, Pollock’s family moved to San Diego. So he spent his youth in California. Artist’s father, Leroy Pollock, could not find a permanent job, that’s why he traveled along with America with his. He tried many jobs, but he wasn’t successful anyway. Eventually, he practically left his family, occasionally sending small sums of money.

Pollock had 4 elder brothers and sisters. He was brought up by his mother, Stella Pollock, whose neurotic and imperious character influenced not only Jackson’s mind and artistic style but also his life. The boy grew gloomy and closed; herewith he suffered from gushes of anger under which he could make an unexpected deed, that’s why he was twice expelled from school. Also, Jackson was under the great influence of mysticism, which interested him from an early age. Especially, he was interested in the philosophy of Jidda Krishna-murti, who stated that the truth opens to a person only intuitively while “outpouring” the personality. Jackson took these words too deeply and that was certainly to define his outlook.

Young Pollock considered that the easiest way to “outpour” is art. At the same time, he did not cherish illusions concerning his talent, instead, he critically approached his possibilities. Nevertheless, he decided to become an artist – it seemed to him, that a powerful strong-willed effort was enough to make him whatever he wanted.

When Pollock was 15, his elder brother Sanford and he spent summer with a group of land surveyors in the Grand Canyon. There, he drank alcohol for the first time. (Emmerling 10). His later alcoholism can be explained by physical intolerance that greatly influenced psychological problems caused by a lacking father and a neurotic mother. Later in his life, Jackson spent several times in psychiatric clinics, though it didn’t help. Alcohol also caused his death. He died on August 11, 1956, in a car accident.

Nevertheless, Pollock was still interested in art. Reproductions of Picasso, Matisse, and Franz Marc greatly influenced him. And his interest grew stronger. Pollock studied at an art school in LA. There his art teacher supported his interest. Sometime later, Pollock’s elder brother moved to New York. He wanted to study with famous artist Benton. And knowing that Jackson possessed special talent, he offered his younger brother to join him and study together in Art Students League. He wanted Jackson to join him. “So Pollock went to New York City in 1930 to study art with Thomas Hart Benton, a major figure in the American art movement called Regionalism” (“More About Jackson Pollock”).

He became Pollock’s first mentor. Jackson was his student for 3 years. No wonder, that Jackson’s paintings of the early and middle 30th were under the strong influence of his teacher. “Pollock’s sketchbook, containing more than 500 drawings, shows his continued efforts to organize compositions rooted in twisting counter shifts, as Benton had counseled” (“Jackson Pollock: The Artist”.).

While being Benton’s student, Pollock got acquainted with David Siqueiros and well-known Mexican muralist José Orozco. Their unique art made a lasting impact on Pollock.

Like many young artists of this time, Pollock was looking for a job during the time of the Great Depression. This job was given to him by WPA Federal Art Project, where he worked from 1935 to 1942. But his real first breakthrough was in 1943 due to his first wall-size work “Mural”. At that time he already experimented with various methods, media, ways of painting, and surfaces. In 1947 he has brought up the new technique of drawing – step by step “pouring”, or dripping, enamel or aluminum paint on a flat canvas. “As the result, he got huge canvases covered with intricate patterns” (“Jackson Pollock”).

At the beginning of 1930th Jackson, one of those young artists invited to take part in a group exhibition. There he got acquainted with Lee Krasner – his future wife. Peggy Guggenheim, the rich New York successor, was attracted by his works. She became Pollock’s sponsor patron. She introduced his works to the public. In 1943, Pollock’s first solo exhibition was organized.

In 1945 Peggy loaned a small house in Springs. Krasner and Pollock lived there till they died. Nowadays their house became a museum and the Study Center.

Here he started to create his large-scale artworks. People worshipped and hated his paintings. However, his solo exhibitions were extremely popular. By that time he was very popular in New York. In August 1949 his talent began to shine all over the world as in Life magazine an article about him was published.

In 1956 style of his work changed. Pollock almost gave up colors. During this period he created a lot of black paintings on canvases and fabrics unprimed.

Struggle with alcoholism changed Pollock’s mind. No wonder that his art also transformed. Nevertheless, he returned to a multi-colored palette. However, in the last year of his life, he completely gave up art.

At that time, his family with Krasner was no happier. Pollock “had taken a mistress and Krasner took the opportunity to go to Europe to re-evaluate their relationship. Unfortunately, Krasner received a call informing her of her husband’s sudden tragic death” (“Jackson Pollock: Biography”).

Jackson Pollock was a dedicated artist of the style he invented. Action painting is one of the types of abstract expressionism. It “uses a visual language of form, color, and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world” (Arnheim 7). It is a type of dynamic, impulsive painting where the artist makes his painting with vigorous, gestural movements, sometimes by splashing or dribbling, and without any ready image in his mind of how the future painting will look like. Sometimes, this term is regarded as a synonym to Abstract Painting, but that point of view is mistaken as Action Painting is only one aspect of this movement.

In December 1952 the term Action Painting was used for the first time. Well-known art critic Harold Rosenberg mentioned this term for the first time in his article issued in Art News magazine. In this article, Action Painting was introduced as a painting technique, which allows the artist to express his instinctive creative powers. Rosenberg wrote that the act of painting is much more important than ready work. The term Action Painting soon became common, despite many critics were against Rosenberg’s idea of the importance of the event, not the ready painting. For example, Mary McCarthy said that “you cannot hang an event on a wall, only a picture” (McCarthy 30).

Rosenberg’s article didn’t mention names of separate painters as well as it was not followed by illustrations. However, the artist who is above all connected with Action Painting is Jackson Pollock who described his feelings while performing the act of painting on canvas laid on the floor: “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and be in the painting…When I am in my painting, I am 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” (Interview with Jackson Pollock).

A lot of ideas of how Pollock invented his dripping techniques were argued, even including such fishy tale as he figured it after kicking over a can of paint. The most popular theory is that Pollock was under the impact of Navaho’s sand paintings – Indians during some rituals scatter tinted sand on the ground making niggled patterns. But it doesn’t mean a lot where he found the clues; Pollock used this technique to create his masterpieces which are usually regarded, as the greatest abstract paintings ever.

“Pollock was the first American artist of this genre who was taken seriously in Europe. He also was the first “all-over”‘ painter, pouring paint rather than using brushes and a palette, and abandoning all conventions of a central motif. He danced in semi-ecstasy over canvases spread across the floor, lost in his patterning, dripping and dribbling with total control. He said: “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through”.

He painted no image, just “action”, though “action painting’ seems an inadequate term for the finished result of his creative process. Lavender Mist is 3 m long (nearly 10 ft), a vast expanse on a heroic scale. It is alive with colored scribble, spattered lines moving this way and that, now thickening, now trailing off to a slender skein. The eye is kept continually eager, not allowed to rest on any particular area. Pollock has put his hands into paint and placed them at the top right — an instinctive gesture eerily reminiscent of cave painters who did the same. The overall tone is pale lavender, and active. At the time Pollock was hailed as the greatest American painter, but there are already those who feel his work is not holding up in every respect” (Pioch 170).

Pouring technique and tremendous works made on the floor are the things Pollock is famous for. His work Number 2 demonstrates this fact. It is a commercially dyed dark red canvas decorated with paint drops and poured lines. Due to a big concentration of black and white paints, oil bled into a porous canvas, imitating shades. Pollock used this effect, carefully placing within darker areas drops of Indian red color, the color which is similar to fabric, creating repoussoir effect which inhales life and naturalness to the drops, which in another case would seem a dull error.

Pollock did not drip paint randomly, he carefully thought about the place of each drop of this or that color, trying to control the plan of a picture, despite the idea of Abstract painting. Curved elements can be noticed for the first time in Number 2 work because it was drawn not on canvas, though on fabric. “Elements that soaked through appear there as if white were under black but appear on the front with the white on top, showing that Pollock filled in parts of the white lines so the overall aesthetic balance of lights and darks would, as he liked to say, ‘work’” (“Jackson Pollock: Preface”).

It seems that vertical black lines are drawn from left to right. Prevailing of white color impacts a small tension. This fact is solved by locating white lines, mainly at the other edge of canvas or fabrics. When Pollock was drawing on the floor, just like the Indian painters, he worked together on both sides of canvas or fabrics. If one will turn the picture upside down, it will be obvious that white lines are located also as free and logical, as black lines.

One of the main features of Pollock’s large-scale works is that the main art elements are located from left to right. The left edge of the painting, regardless of which edge he chose to paint first, always begins “with an elegant pirouette of paint, which then dances across the length of the canvas, until it reaches the terminal right edge, where a suddenly stymied form signifies the artist’s frustration that subjective infinity is limited by the objective length of his ground” (“Jackson Pollock: Preface”). It is quite typical for his unrestrained mind.

The shape of his works, which was far from being usual (five times wider than their height), served his tendency to “write out” his paintings. Also, during these years he was deeply interested in mural paintings. Several vertical black lines oblong the picture has something in common with Benton’s theory of mural painting. He taught students to create a wall of vertical lines around which a small amount of smooth and curved forms can be located.

Pollock often used this technique in his work, especially it is noticeable in Blue Poles, and also in Number 2, where white color opposes black border. This shape of the wall with vertical lines can penetrate even deeper into his memory. The family photo of a drawing-room in Cody was made in 1912 on which an oblong number of oleo lithographs of flowers on the wall, the image, shape which is carefully represented in his pouring works. It seems that all details of style and the invoice of Pollock’s works, both his main works and sketches, are taken from his life experience and education.

In a lot of ways, Pollock’s works were a closed system that again and again absorbed itself until disseminate its energy. All his paintings, unique and individual, were added to modern legends of art, because of the heroism of character which surpasses tragedy and traditions.

Between 1947 and 1950 Pollock painted his most celebrated works. This period in his life was called the “dripping period”. However, experiencing the peak of his popularity he unexpectedly gave the drip technique up. After 1951 in his works dark paints prevailed, in particular, black paint. Gradually Pollock began to introduce figurative elements to his works. He was becoming more and more commercial, which reflected him as deepened problems with alcohol (Evans, “Jackson Pollock”).

Despite the struggle with alcoholism throughout all his life, Pollock’s career was suddenly interrupted by a New York accident, where he smashed his car in the tree at the age of 44 years. After his death, Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner disposed of his works and stated that Pollock’s influence was nevertheless strong, despite changing tendencies of the world of art

The influence of the art of Native Americans is obvious and very strong in Pollock’s works. He, as well as American Indian artists, used similar techniques. For example, he painted only those pictures which arose in its consciousness when it was empty, without any thoughts or any imposed image, he painted shapes of “the Spirit world”, and thus his works are full of primitive aesthetics. This “visual language” connects Pollock’s paintings with the primitivism art of Native Americans.

Primitivism was a rather popular art style among modernists. Pollock picked the closest to his spirit and culture form of it to explore. Finally, Pollock’s art is deeply connected with the art of Native Americans.

Pollock’s works always provoked the hottest contradictions among art critics. He was often at the center of various debates and disputes.

As was already mentioned above, Harold Rosenberg responded about Pollock’s painting technique as something that had changed painting, he said that was a turning point in art when the painting is to paint only, without pursuing another aim. Gesture on a canvas was a gesture of clearing from clichéd ideals imposed by politics and morals. Pollock lived a life free of such imposed clichés. However, his paintings and unique techniques are still very popular and attract new supporters and followers.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Print.

Emmerling, Leonhard. Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956. Germany: Taschen, 2003. Print.

Evans, Charles. T. “Jackson Pollock”. novaonline. Nova Online, n. d. Web.

Huntfor.com. “Jackson Pollock”. Museum Gallery of Oil Painting, n. d. Web.

Jason-Pollock.com. “Jackson Pollock: Biography”. Jason-Pollock.com, n. d. Web.

Learn.columbia.edu. “Jackson Pollock: Preface”. Columbia University, Department of Art, History and Archaeology, n. d. Web.

McCathy, Mary. A Bolt From the Blue And Other Essays. NY: New York Review of Books, 2002. Print.

Nga.gov. “Jackson Pollock: The Artist”. National Gallery of Art, n. d. Web.

Pioch, Nicolas. “Action Painting”. ibiblio. 2002. Web.

Rosenberg, Harold. Interview with Jackson Pollock. Art Life Magazine. New York: NY, 1952. Print.

Uima.uiowa.edu. “More About Jackson Pollock”. University of Iowa of Museum Art, n. d.. Web.

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