From the Archives: Turning Points in Pollock's Early Imagery

From the University of Iowa Museum of Art Bulletin, Spring 1976

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Stephen C. Foster

The author wishes to extend his thanks to those on the staff of the University of Iowa Museum of Art for their editorial and other assistance, and to Linda Gail Jones for her help in locating and compiling certain information contained in this article. To Jan Muhlert, I owe special thanks for the enthusiasm and enterprise which led to the publication of the museum Bulletin, and more specifically, for her encouragement to publish this article on Pollock's Mural.

Early in 1943, Jackson Pollock had the good fortune of meeting the collector-dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, American champion of the European surrealists and friend of the younger generation of American painters. The preceding year, Miss Guggenheim had opened a museum-gallery, Art of This Century, which provided a place where the younger Americans could look at advanced European (especially surrealist) art and where émigré Europeans and the Americans could meet and discuss their mutual artistic problems. The museum-gallery also provided certain progressive American artists with the opportunity to exhibit their work. Moreover, in building her own collection of modern art, Miss Guggenheim aided all these artists by way of outright purchases and commissions.

Pollock first benefited from contact with Art of This Century in the spring of 1943 when Miss Guggenheim invited him, along with Robert Motherwell, to participate in an exhibition of collage she was to hold there April 16–May 15. Her subsequent show, “The Spring Salon for Young Artists,” May 18-June 26, also included a work by Pollock, Stenographic Figure, which seems to have been well received by some of the reviewers. Because of the success of his initial performances, and upon the encouragement of sympathetic artist friends, Miss Guggenheim awarded Pollock a contract, scheduled him a one-man show (November 9–27), and finally, and for our purposes most importantly, commissioned from him a large painting to decorate the entrance hall of her New York apartment. This painting, Mural (Figure 1), executed on a grand scale in December of 1943 or January of 1944,1 now hangs in the permanent collection of the University of lowa Museum of Art, and is the subject of this paper.

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It would seem that Miss Guggenheim had originally intended to commission a mural, properly speaking, but on the advice of Marcel Duchamp, changed her mind. “Marcel Duchamp said that he should put it on a canvas, otherwise it would have to be abandoned when I left the apartment.” She goes on to comment: “This was a splendid idea, and—for The University of Iowa—a most fortunate one, as I gave it to them when I left America.”2   Pollock, with this commission in hand, wrote a letter to his brother (July 29, 1943) describing his situation at the time, and refers there to the preparatory stages of the Mural.

Things really broke with the showing of that painting [Stenographic Figure]. I had a pretty good mention in the Nation—I have a year’s contract with Art of This Century and a large painting to do for Peggy Guggenheim’s house, 8 ft.11-1/2 in. x 19 ft. 9 in. With no strings as to what or how I paint it. I am going to paint it in oil on canvas. They are giving me a show Nov. 16 and I want to have the painting finished for the show. I've had to tear out the partition between the front and middle room to get the damned thing up. I have it stretched now. It looks pretty big, but exciting as all hell.3

Through October of that year, Pollock was preoccupied with painting for his November show, and work on Mural was postponed. Following the show, nothing was done until December, 1943, or January, 1944, when, according to Peggy Guggenheim herself, he “suddenly one day. . . got up and in a few hours painted a masterpiece.” 4 Once under way, the execution of the painting proved easier than its installation, which Pollock initially and unsuccessfully attempted by himself.

He not only telephoned me at the gallery every few minutes to come home at once and help place the painting, but he got so drunk that he undressed and walked quite naked into a party that Jean Connolly, who was living with me, was giving in the sitting-room. Finally, Marcel Duchamp and a workman came to the rescue and placed the mural.5

Mural hung in the apartment until 1947, when it was loaned to the Museum of Modern Art for its exhibition of “Large Scale Modern Paintings” (April 1–May 4). From there it traveled to the Yale University Art Gallery, also on a loan basis, where it was to stay until 1951.

By the end of the 1946–1947 season, Miss Guggenheim had made plans to return to Europe; consequently, beginning in 1948, Pollock came under contract with a new dealer, Miss Betty Parsons. Feeling that Mural was too large to travel, and having been informed by Yale that they no longer had adequate room to hang such a large work, Miss Guggenheim felt herself under pressure to find the painting a permanent home. In a letter to Lester Longman, dated October 3, 1948, she offered Mural to The University of Iowa. A second letter, dated November 11, restated the offer and urged the University to decide as quickly as possible. On November 29, Mr. Longman, then director of the Department of Art and Art History, gratefully accepted the gift, and immediately after began negotiations with Yale for its delivery to Iowa City.6  After considerable delay, about two years, the painting was finally shipped from New Haven on October 18, 1951. Since its arrival in Iowa City, Mural has received wide publicity; it appeared in several loan exhibitions, and was reproduced and discussed in many books and articles published both in America and abroad.7  Because of the deteriorating condition of the painting, a complete restoration was undertaken by Louis Pomerantz in 1973.

Pollock’s Mural was preceded by what can usefully, if somewhat arbitrarily, be viewed as two “earlier” stages of his career. The first of these involves his work with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in New York, which began in September of 1930 and lasted approximately two years. It was under Benton’s guidance that Pollock developed his taste not only for large-scale painting, but for certain features of his pictorial execution which had a lasting effect on his art. This same climate encouraged his interest in the Mexican muralists—Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera—whose social inclinations and technical attitudes, reinforced many of the attitudes he had already inherited from Benton. By the summer of 1933, Pollock had viewed each of these Mexican artists firsthand. Pollock’s contact with Siqueiros was renewed in 1936, when the latter conducted an experimental workshop in which Jackson and Pollock’s brother, Sanford, participated. The importance of the workshop for Pollock is well described by Francis O’Connor in the following passage.

In the spring Siqueiros established an “experimental workshop” at 5 West 14th Street, on the west side of Union Square, in which Sanford and Jackson worked. Siqueiros was engaged in exploring new techniques and mediums applicable to mural painting as well as to the banners so frequently produced for Communist demonstrations. Among the many experiments were the use of spray guns and air brushes along with the latest synthetic paints and lacquers, including Duco. The spontaneous application of paint and the problems of “controlled accidents” occupied the members of the workshop. The floor was covered with spatter and drip. It is likely that this experience had an influence on Pollock’s later development.8

This experience with Siqueiros directly followed Pollock’s first employment by the WPA (1935). He was intermittently associated with the Project until January of 1943.

The second stage of his early career may be placed about 1940, when according to his brother Sanford, Pollock had “finally dropped the Benton nonsense and is coming out with an honest creative art.”9 The following year Sanford stated that “he has thrown off the yoke of Benton completely and is doing work which is creative in the most genuine sense of the word.”10 The change his brother refers to here seemed to involve many things, some of them firmly established in his early experiences of the 1920s and 1930s, although not pictorially realized. In 1924, while a student at the Manual Arts High School, Pollock was introduced to psychology by Helen Marot. She was to remain a friend of Pollock’s for some time to come and was partially responsible for Pollock’s psychiatric treatment for alcoholism beginning in 1937 and continuing, under doctors of a specifically Jungian persuasion, through 1940 and 1941.11  The clear sympathy for myth and Jungian iconography in his work from the early forties undoubtedly has its sources here. It is probably significant that about the same time, Pollock met John Graham, a well-known painter. Graham’s interest in primitive art and myth must have provided Pollock with the additional impetus he needed at that time to convert his own interests in psychology and myth into specifically artistic problems. It was Graham, furthermore, who was responsible for the inclusion of Pollock's Birth in “American and French Paintings,” a show held in New York at the McMillen Gallery, January 20–February 6, 1942. It should also be kept in mind that throughout his early career, Pollock’s general acquaintance with European modernism was continuously growing.

The importance of his early teachers and, indeed, the importance of Pollock’s own early work for his later painting, is somewhat problematic. Accounts by scholars on this question vary considerably. Even Pollock’s own statements are not very helpful. In an interview published in 1944 he speaks of his training with Benton.

My work with Benton was important as something against which to react very strongly, later on; in this, it was better to have worked with him than with a less resistant personality who would have provided a much less strong opposition.12

Pollock continued to consult Benton for the rest of his career, and authors such as O’Connor have pointed out that “Benton’s experience in Paris from 1908–11 coincided with the development of Cubism” and that “Benton's early work of about 1916 was abstract and strongly influenced by Synchronism. These influences . . . certainly contributed to Benton’s handling of the problems of form organization as seen in his method of compositional analysis. . . . The devices of pictorial composition were the foundations of his teaching.”13 Consequently, Benton served as Pollock's initiation into the modern European tradition of painting.

In the same interview, Pollock says the following about the European moderns:

I accept the fact that the important painting of the last hundred years was done in France. . . . Thus, the fact that good European modernists are now here is very important, for they bring with them an understanding of the problems of modern painting. I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious. This idea interests me more than these specific painters do, for the two artists I admire most, Picasso and Miro, are still abroad.14

The presence of such artists as Max Emst, Matta, and André Masson can easily be detected in Pollock's work, especially in his reliance on informal and automatic techniques.15  It would seem fair to say that notwithstanding his education with Benton, what influence from this period remained in his work of the forties was strained through other important experiences. Work on Mural was most obviously and importantly preceded by work whose formal and intentional complexions were guided largely by the more recent European contacts. These contacts provided the direct base upon which Mural was built. As a document of Pollock’s career, Mural possesses a unique capacity for clarifying his work which immediately preceded it and for anticipating his future work as well. More importantly, Mural, by comparison to earlier and later works indicates, as early as 1943, the enormity of Pollock’s achievement, and represents a surprisingly complete record of Pollock’s mature artistic thinking.

A discussion of earlier works, Male and Female (1942) and Guardians of the Secret (1943), can help clarify the historical position of Mural. The male and female aspects of the earlier work presumably refer to their psychological counterparts in Pollock himself, or perhaps more generally to aspects of collective humanity. In any event, they are rendered by recognizable human symbols. Their posture is one of confrontation, a confrontation of archetypal attitudes amplified emotionally by his use of cubist-surrealist hybrid forms. The sources of these symbols in previous art, however interesting, have been argued elsewhere, and need not detain us here.16 What is especially worth pointing out, however, is the way Pollock attempts to present his figures and their environments as communicable entities. The figures, first of all, are confined to a, by then, fairly conservative presentational format; that is, they sit in an environment as if they were participating in an event. The event and the protagonists require an appropriate symbolic reading, signaled in the case of the figures by the breasts, erected penis, etc., and in the environment of the action by the chaotic pseudo-data supplied by automatic writing. The point is, that the figures and their environment are things that the picture is about. What precisely they are about is indicated by a highly conventionalized language of forms and signs whose capacity for meaning exists largely in historical terms. Meaning, in these circumstances, becomes a “received idea,” and, indeed, the meaning of Pollock’s painting at this point was received, from his early acquaintance with psychoanalytical theory, and from his more direct sources in the surrealists, Miro and especially Picasso.

Guardians of the Secret (Figure 2) is a similar kind of picture where two personages flank what appears to be a psychological field. Here Pollock has somewhat generalized his symbols, his “Guardians” becoming more like symbols of the conscious. The psychological field placed above a dog (probably representing Pollock himself) symbolizes the subconscious and assumes, by comparison to the earlier picture, a much more prominent place. Yet, in terms of how the picture communicates, little has changed since 1942. The weight of the communication is still shouldered by the explicitness of the signs and symbols Pollock provides, and by their serviceability as a formal language, it is important though, that Pollock’s direct, although by comparison undifferentiated, action in the painting, contained in the automatic writing of the central panel, is given more prominence. This may indicate Pollock’s loss of faith in the power of his Jungian symbols to foster the kind of direct communication that he apparently sought. Sam Hunter sees this change in the following light: “His Surrealist symbolism was part of the romantic commitment to the self.” Hunter comments that once Pollock had “discharged his own rancors, fears, and more disturbing fancies, he was free to break the limits of the self. He then could rediscover himself more coherently in the objective action of the painting and in its internal dynamics.”17

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An initial reformulation of his aesthetic occurs in his attempts to reinvigorate his earlier symbols in an untitled drawing of 1943 (Figure 3). Here, instead of relying on conventional syntax, posturing and figure/environment relationships, characteristic of Male and Female and Guardians of the Secret, he wrests the signs and symbols from their conventional setting and distributes them more freely across the entire field of the canvas. The figuration thereby becomes the means of composing its own environment to the degree that it exists; it no longer serves as a symbolic clarification of some center field, but becomes an aspect of that field. Yet Pollock understood that this still fell within the realm of automatic writing, as practiced by Masson and other surrealists, and was only useful to the degree that it encouraged new relationships between existing forms and signs. It supplied a nearly boundless potential for symbolic invention but, and the importance of this can hardly be exaggerated, he also recognized that ultimately this landed the artist back on a statement about the meaning of an event. However inventive the symbols or their relationships to one another, they remained no more and no less than a symbol, and therefore, secondary statements of meaning.

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For a person whose experience of himself was as acute as Pollock's, this must have seemed inadequate—even artificial. Allan Kaprow observes: 

In retrospect, most of the Surrealist painters appear to be derived from a psychological book or from each other: the empty vistas, the basic naturalism, the sexual fantasies, the bleak surfaces so characteristic of this period, have always impressed most American artists as a collection of unconvincing clichés.18

By late 1943, Pollock’s problem became one of how to provide a completely new situation where what the painting meant would evolve in primary terms, and thus transcend its meaning as an equivalent statement of historical or mythical ideas. He appears to be one of the first artists to realize that it was the very concept of meaning itself, and not the things that “meant,” or that had acquired fixed meaning, that had to be rethought. What things now began to mean to Pollock, “meant” only to the degree that they were directly governed by the active process of giving them form. The question he posed here put him in line with most progressive artists of the last hundred years, who, as Robertson claims, “have been increasingly concerned with acts of revelation rather than with vehicles of communication in the usual sense.”19 Pollock, like so many artists before him, found that he had to reject history, and by extension the freight of historical meaning, to permit uncompromised recovery of himself. The traditional concept of meaning and its history are rejected for its reality: “Acceptance of what I do.”2 

In Mural we are faced with Pollock’s first successful, and in this case, monumental attempt to evolve such a new situation. The figuration has changed in a number of ways. First, the conventional repertoire of signs has either been dropped or driven into the field. The presence of the figures extends throughout the breadth and height of the canvas. The boundaries drawn between some mythical agent of action and the action of the artist himself, common in the earlier works, is almost completely eliminated here. Furthermore, the very nature of the figures has changed—they are not so much “totems” (figures, as it were, traceable in the history of form) as they are evidence of the artist’s activity which permits meaning to evolve in the first place. E. C. Goossen realizes the importance of this when he points out: 

The presence of the figure (in the painting) would define the scale of the picture from the “inside,” in terms of the proportions of the human body, and the picture’s scale depends upon its relation to the human body of the spectator “outside.”21

Yet to crystallize, meaning must attach itself to something, and the succession of figures still identifiable in Mural appear to be that thing. 

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Pollock’s intentions in Mural are further clarified in slightly later drawings of 1944 (Figure 4), where the symbols characteristic of his earlier work are obscured by an overall technique which Pollock formerly reserved just for the field. The integration of the figure and the field is now nearly complete, and by virtue of their further identification with the field, the figures have lost much of their discreetness. Further evidence of the demythification of Pollock’s figures, and of their increasingly human intentions, is provided by another Pollock owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art, Portrait of H.M., 1945 (Figure 5).22 As in the drawing of 1944, figures are clearly present, scattered throughout the field, but divested of their historical and ritualistic paraphernalia. Yet, in certain important ways, Mural was more prophetic of his mature work than the slightly later drawings mentioned above. Mural, unlike the drawing, or even the Portrait of H.M., has engaged the artist’s complete potential for action and, thus, provides the viewer with his first solution on a truly human scale. Pollock’s situation at this time was well expressed by Harold Rosenberg, some four years later, when, he claimed that “through conversion of energy, something valid may come out” but that “the question of what will emerge is left open.”23 The subsequent preoccupation of Pollock’s art seems to center on this problem, first stated in Mural, of the complex relation between the process permitting the evolution of meaning and the object of that meaning.

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It was natural that Pollock should push his ideas to their ultimate conclusions. By 1946, in such works as Shimmering Substance (Figure 6), Pollock had eliminated the figural connotations altogether, devoting the major part of his attention to the process involved in the actual painting. The absence of figure, foreshadowed in Mural, is now complete, and the object of the meaning necessarily becomes more and more the painting itself. This direction is pursued even further in his classic drip paintings of 1947–1950, where even the craft history of painting is rejected for a more informationally and historically neutral technique (Figure 7). The historically conditioned “hand” of the artist is rejected in favor of techniques already available from artists such as Max Ernst, Hans Hofmann, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and others that he knew.24 Yet, the evidence of the artist’s action is clear, and its role as the object of meaning is once more confirmed.

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There is one change in Pollock’s work from 1942–1947 which should be noted here, and this concerns the ritualistic or nonritualistic nature of his gestural procedure. Much of the historical importance of Mural is its conversion of a previously represented ritual into a real ritual; one that was physically acted out. This fact distinguishes Mural from his later work of 1947–1950, as for example Cathedral, where what happens is more behavioral than ritualistic. The ritual, by nature, proceeds by reenactment, the action having been set prior to its performance. Thus, what goes on, in an important sense, is less discovery (best perceived by behavior) of the self than it is the affirmation of the self. Ritual requires an act of faith (Rosenberg claims that the artists engage in their conversion of energy in the “belief” something significant will come out)25 that behavior does not. It is by this act of faith that hope of significant communication is maintained.  In Mural, the composure of the figures, and the regularity of their appearance across the canvas, betray Pollock’s prior, or ritualistic purpose in their painting.

From 1947 to 1950, the absence of the figure was the rule, but by 1950, Pollock expressed a sense of insecurity about the communicability of his procedure in the drip paintings which finally accounted for his gradual return to more explicit figuration by 1950.  Robert Coates anticipated Pollock’s problem in a review of 1948, when he observed that “such a style has its dangers, for the threads of communication between artist and spectator are so very tenuous that the utmost attention is required to get the message through. There are times when communications break down entirely.” Coates specifically mentions Cathedral as a case in point.26

At this point, Pollock again appears to have fallen back on Mural as a kind of precedent. In Number 27 (Figure 8), the quality of the figuration and its rhythm across the canvas are strikingly similar. Although the line is less discernible as a contour, and less differentiated from the field in terms of value, the figures again represent something different in nature from the field they occupy. The lines do not describe the figures now, but appear to be traces of the painter's passage through the painting. Mural and Number 27 represent two peaks of Pollock's creativity. Mural represents the problem’s initial statement and Number 27 its nearly definitive solution.

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From 1943 to 1950, Pollock seems to have come nearly full circle. That he should have advanced to something so close to where he began exhibits, more than anything else, the enormous foresight and intuitive power of Pollock’s painting late in 1943. Mural’s uniqueness resides in its unification and embodiment of the mature Pollock’s overriding artistic concerns and not merely in its formal record of Pollock's artistic descent, nor in its formal parentage of his future work. That Pollock changed his work following Mural indicates less a dissatisfaction with the picture than it does the enormous potential for change he realized by painting it. Mural stands among the greatest works of the early New York School, and one whose eventual impact on contemporary and later painting can hardly be overestimated.





1.  Francis V. O'Connor, Jackson Pollock (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967), p. 29.

2.  Peggy Guggenheim, Confessions of an Art Addict (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 106.

3.  Jackson Pollock, from a letter of July 29, 1943, cited in O'Connor, p. 28.

4.  Guggenheim, p. 107.

5.  Ibid.

6.  Letters contained in the files of the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

7.  Exhibitions:

Art of This Century, New York. March 19-April 14, 1945. Opening day visitors were “invited to view a Mural. . . from 3 to 6, at 115 East 61st St., 1st floor.”

Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 11-May 4, 1947. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 1947-1951.

Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, Dallas, Tex., February 20-April 1, 1962.

Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 3-June 4, 1967. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July 15-September 15, 1967.


Art Journal, Fall 1969, p. 49 (illustration).

Guggenheim, Peggy. Confessions of an Art Addict. New York: Macmillan, 1960, pp. 106-107. L’Arte Moderna, January 30, 1967, p. 12 (illustration).

O'Connor, Francis V. Jackson Pollock. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1967, pp. 29, 36-37, 39, 40-41, 90-91, 132.

O'Hara, Frank. Jackson Pollock. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1959, pp. 10-11, 14, 18.

Robertson, Bryan. Jackson Pollock. New York: Abrams, 1960, p. 144, plate 115.

Rose, Barbara. American Art Since 1900. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975, p. 173 (illustration).

Rozwenc, Edwin C. and Gutman, Judith Mara. The Making of American Society: An Institutional and Intellectual History of the United States. Vol. 1. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1973. Illustrated in the visual essays section, “Movement.”

Rubin, William. “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition, Part III.” Art Forum 5, April 1967, p. 30.

Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970, p. 155 (illustration).

The Art Gallery. May 1969, pp. 420-21.

Wasserman, Emily. La Pittura Americana Tra Due Guerre: Dal 1910 al 1940. Milan, Italy, Fratelli Fabbri Editori, 1970, p. 85 (illustration).

8.  O'Connor, p. 21.

9.  Sanford Pollock, from a letter of May, 1940, cited in O'Connor, p. 24.

10. Sanford Pollock, from a letter of July, 1941, cited in O'Connor, p. 25.

11. Rosalind Krauss, “Jackson Pollock’s Drawings,” Artforum (January 1971), p. 61. See also Judith Wolfe, “Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollock’s Imagery,” Artforum (November 1972), pp. 65-73.

12. “Jackson Pollock,” an interview with the artist in Arts and Architecture (February 1944), p. 14.

13.  Francis V. O’Connor “The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912-1943,” Artforum (May 1967), p. 17.

14. “Jackson Pollock,” an interview with the artist, p. 14.

15. William Rubin, “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition, Part IV,” Artforum (May 1967), pp. 29-31.

16.  David Freke, “Jackson Pollock: A Symbolic Self-Portrait,” Studio International (December 1972), pp. 217- 221. See also Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock (New York: Braziller, 1959), pp. 17-21.

17. Sam Hunter, “Jackson Pollock,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 24 (1956) 2:9.

18.  Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Art News (October 1958), p. 26.

19.  Brian Robertson, Jackson Pollock (New York: Abrams, 1960), p. 36.

20.  Jackson Pollock, handwritten note in the artist’s files, cited in Bernice Rose. Jackson Pollock: Works on Paper (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1969), p. 16.

21.  E. C. Goossen, “The Big Canvas,” Art International (November 1958), p. 46.

22. According to Frank O’Connor this is a portrait of either Helen Marot or Herbert Matter.

23. Harold Rosenberg (with Robert Motherwell), “Statement,” Possibilities 1 (Winter 1946/8), p. 1.

24.  Rubin, pp. 29-31.

25.  Rosenberg, p. 1.

26.  Robert Coates, “The Art Galleries: Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock,” The New Yorker (January 17, 1948), p. 57.