Jackson Pollock

The biography of Jackson Pollock reads like the plot of a movie: he was born in the still-wild American West; his father deserted the family when Jackson was very young; his school career was marked by troublemaking and expulsions. He struggled with alcoholism, had a tumultuous relationship with his artist wife, and he died the archetypal American death, in an automobile. What this script omits, however, is Pollock's singular, improbable achievement, for which Mural was the foundation—he changed the course of American art. Like many artists who matured during the Depression and the Second World War, Pollock was trained in American art, primarily Regionalism, and intrigued by Surrealism and Abstraction, the foremost European modernist movements. But Pollock broke the mold, early and notably, to create his Mural, a work so different from anything else at the time that his standing in the art world is unique.

Pollock was born in Wyoming in 1912 and grew up in California. He became interested in art as a teenager through magazine reproductions of work by artists like Matisse, Franz Marc, and Picasso. His high school art teacher encouraged his interest. A letter to his brothers, written when he was seventeen, describes well his state of mind:

"As to what I would like to be. It is difficult to say. An Artist of some kind. If nothing else I shall always study the Arts. People have always frightened and bored me. Consequently I have been within my own shell and have not accomplished anything materially."

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. Benton became Pollock's surrogate father and confidante.

These were the Depression years, and like many young American artists, Pollock found work through the Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration. Pollock also was among a Greenwich Village coterie of young artists who were joined by refugees from wartime Europe. Through them Pollock learned about surrealism and automatism, and the idea that art should be an expression of the unconscious mind. He began to explore the possibilities of creating art with his whole body, using sweeping gestures and brushstrokes that emphasized the effort and energy of the act of painting.

Pollock's interests, his education, and his experiences in the art world came together with the creation of Mural, 1943, commissioned by the legendary gallery owner, Peggy Guggenheim. The content of Mural—that is, the mere suggestion of figures in a work that is generally abstract—was new enough in American art, but the physicality of its technique and its vast scale (it measures nearly nine by twenty feet) seemed to capture the vital spirit of a country that was, by now, at war in order to save the world. When asked if he used nature as a source of inspiration for his work, Pollock responded, "I am nature!" Mural was a turning point for Pollock's art and his reputation. He had moved painting to an imposing new scale, filling it with energy and force. 

In October 1945 Pollock married his long-time companion-artist Lee Krasner. They moved from Manhattan to a farmhouse on Long Island. This move coincided with a dramatic change in his artistic style: the creation of the "drip" paintings of 1947 to 1950. These extraordinary images—the prime cause of Pollock's notoriety, acclaim, and, finally, position of vast artistic influence—consist of intricate arcing traceries of pigment flung, poured, and dribbled onto canvas laid flat on the studio floor. He said of his method:

"My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. 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. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West... When I am in my painting, I'm 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."

The majority of Pollock's drip paintings are quite large, over six feet in length on average. Several are nearly as big as Mural, including the almost eighteen-foot-long Autumn Rhythm of 1950. He also did some modestly sized works. They vary in color from monochromatic to strikingly unusual hues, and from utter abstraction to nascent representationalism.

In the late forties and early fifties, Pollock was repeatedly discussed in the popular and art-world press, received positive critical reviews, and was featured in articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, and Time magazine. The journalists had an all-American phenomenon to write about. In 1949 he was on the cover of Life. The accompanying article asked the question: "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"

Pollock continued to struggle with alcoholism in the years after Mural, even as his paintings were being shown around the world. His reputation grew as New York consolidated its new position as the center of the art world. He did work, but during ever briefer periods of sobriety, creating such memorable works as Easter and the Totem of 1953 which broke new ground. But he never painted when he was drinking, and thus could work only in ever-shorter periods. He died at the age of 46 in a car crash. It has been speculated that the crash was intentional.

Swiftly but posthumously, Pollock became the most famous artist of the American twentieth century. His seminal contributions to art had made him a worthy subject for myth-making. And, Mural is here in Iowa—to remind us of the beginning of the future of twentieth-century American art.