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Jackson Pollock

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

“There are no random events, just as there is no beginning or end”

Jackson Pollock, the fifth and youngest son of Stella May McClure, is born in Wyoming on January 28, 1912. His family situation is relatively complex and is characterized by frequent moves (9 moves in 16 years) to American cities and states.
Thus, he himself grows up in Arizona and southern California where he receives his first influences from Indian art and especially from their sand painting. In 1928 they moved to Los Angeles where Pollock enrolled at the Manual Arts High School and soon found himself under the guidance and influence of Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, a visionary painter who is also a member of the Theosophical Society.
So Schwankovsky gives him the elementary knowledge of painting on a theoretical and practical level, but also encourages the until then agnostic Pollock in a further study of Theosophical literature. It is this spiritual quest of Pollock's that later prompts him to embrace Carl Jung's theories on the unconscious. 
In 1929 Pollock followed in the footsteps of his brother Charles and settled in New York where he attended classes at the Art Students League from his brother's teacher Thomas Hart Benton. He studied there for the next two and a half years, until he left in early 1933.
Two years of poverty followed, one with his brother Charles and another with his brother Sanford where he shared an apartment with him and his wife in Greenwich Village until 1942. In late 1935 Pollock was hired by the WPA Federal Art Project as a painter , which offers him relative financial security. In this period, his works are influenced both by Benton's theological teachings and by the American expressionist Albert Pinkham Ryder. 

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The first effects of Pollock's alcohol addiction began to show in 1937, where the artist began psychiatric treatment for alcoholism until he suffered a nervous breakdown a year later and was confined to a clinic for about four months. After these experiences, however, a conversion to a semi-abstract art can be observed in him, influenced by Mexican painters such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, but also by modern Spanish painters such as Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso.
Gradually his paintings acquire symbolic elements and become more surreal. Two successful psychoanalysts contribute to this and, based on Carl Yung's theories, undertake his treatment between 1939 and 1941 for depression and alcohol dependence. It is characteristic that psychoanalysts use Pollock's own tables during sessions. Some of the paintings that characterize this phase of his life, although they do not receive positive reviews, are: Bird (1941), Male and Female (1942), Guardians of the Secret (1943) etc. 


In 1943 Peggy Guggenheim hires him in her gallery "Art of This Century" in New York and in the same year Pollock presents his first solo exhibition in that gallery. Pollock himself comments somewhere about her coming into his life like "a comet from outer space, or like a priestess of some Mesopotamian tribe"... 

At the dawn of 1944, he creates his first work in wall dimensions (Murals). It is a revolution, both for him and for art, a “revelation” as he says. Moving away from traditional painting techniques, he slowly discovers that he can express his inner conflicts and anxieties through the very act of painting.

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He abandons the brush and the easel, spreads large canvases on the floor and begins to drip, splash or pour the paint on them (a method he invented and called dripping, which is generally also called action painting). He walks around the canvas, steps on it and drips douco, aluminum paint or enamel paint, his whole body participating during the painting. Works such as Shimmering Substance (1946) and Eyes in the Heat (1946) are characteristic of his conversion and demonstrate the scope of his imagination, the surreal element of his technique and his anxiety to express himself through painting. 
In 1944 Pollock married Lee Krasner and a year later they moved to East Hampton, Long Island. Krasner (1911-84) is also an abstract expressionist whose works only gained relative recognition after Pollock's death. Nevertheless, he himself values ​​her as a painter and respects her. This marriage is good for him, perhaps because this woman can command and balance him, especially if we take into account his propensity for alcohol and his frequent depressions. Besides that, they are supported mainly thanks to her work, she is the one who takes care of Pollock's public relations and his general image, but she is also the one who tolerates his infidelities with Guggenheim.

More generally, from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Pollock had solo exhibitions of his new works almost every year, at the Guggenheim Gallery until 1947, at the Betty Parsons Gallery from 1947 until 1952, and then at the Sidney Janis Gallery. Between 1951 and 1952 his works are characterized by dark colors, such as Echo (1951) and Number Seven (1952), while from 1952 they start to become colorful and reach their zenith until 1953. Some features of this period are Convergence (1952) and Blue Poles (1952). Since then he is considered to be in decline, although there are several notable works by him, such as White Light (1954) and Scent (1955).

On August 11, 1956, Jackson Pollock dies in a car accident, crashing his car into a tree, once again (and last) drunk. 

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"Action painting" or painting?

If one wants to classify Pollock in an artistic movement, then the movement of Abstract Expressionism is the most suitable. Abstract Expressionism is a term first used in 1919 to describe the works of Kandinsky, but by the 1960s it encompassed a number of artists. Another more limited designation is "New York School" and includes the artists active in the 1950s and 1960s.
But abstract expressionism also includes various "tendencies", as some (mainly critics) insist to the point of disgust at putting art into molds. The two main trends are Action Painting and Color Field Painting. We deal with Action Painting (or Dynamic painting, as the critic Harold Rosenberg suggested) as Pollock is considered its proponent.
In this trend, the placement of color on the canvas is of major importance, as artists do not aim to depict their feelings on the canvas, but to "enact". Understandably, objects are absent from the works, both because they are an obstacle to painting and because the objects here are the emotions themselves. Besides, the artist now understands that he does not need to express or represent an object, as the externalization of his inner voice and (consequently) feeding the work with a piece of his soul, is the greatest challenge for him.
However, Pollock is not an abstract expressionist, he is not a proponent of Action Painting, he is not the most important exponent of the New York school and he is not the father of American painting. The "critics" may include him in the above "in terms of temperament" (as they tend to justify) and place him next to De Kooning, F. Klein and Baziotis (of Greek origin W. Baziotes), but he himself did not join never in any group, nor left descendants. 

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Elemental Evidence 1

Pollock as a person was relatively eccentric and extreme, like most artists. Observing the sober, we see a person who is kind, brilliant and well read. Being drunk, however, he turns into a deranged horse, violently lashing out at anything in his path.

The reviews he received were controversial, as on the one hand the press tried to be serious about his work and on the other he characterized it simply as an artistic whim. "If this is art, then everyone is an artist" was one of the naïve comments heard from time to time. The fact is that in Europe he was more accepted, with exhibitions at the Venice Biennales in 1948, 1950, and 1956 as well as a solo exhibition in Paris in 1952.

It is no coincidence that in 1949 Georges Mathieu, a French abstract painter, described him as the best living American painter. This, of course, does not agree with Pollock's financial earnings, as he never sold a painting for more than $10,000, while he often struggled to make ends meet.

A short color film capturing Pollock during the painting process was shot by Paul Falkenberg and Hans Namuth, with music by Morton Feldman and titled "Jackson Pollock (1951)". Also, in 2000 Ed Harris made a biographical film about Pollock's life and work, which I highly recommend.

No. 2

Pollock's technique and style, especially from the 70s onwards, influenced many artists who were looking for new ways of expression. After all, his technique was not accidental at all, apart from the fact that the common viewer could not understand it, let alone accept it. 

The painting begins with the drop of paint falling on the canvas. Next comes the process of painting in which his whole body participates. His movements are essentially an automatic writing of the body imprinted on the painting and highlight Pollock's action, gestures and anxiety to express his inner voice through the painting. Sometimes this can take several weeks, but even when the project is finished and the tarp is cut to the dimensions he wants, he can tinker with certain areas and make any corrective changes. 

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In Pollock's paintings one can notice that there is an undeniable balance and this is the proof that nothing happens by chance. At any point in the table, no element trumps another. The artist himself controls the flow of color, improvises but has a general sense of his goal, participates in the creation of the work but is also directed by it. Of course, it should be noted here that neither theosophical influences, nor alcoholism, nor experiments with automatic writing or anything else can turn anyone into an artist.

Ultimately, Pollock seems to have known the secret that would redeem him through painting. He knew that his body was the medium of expression of the unconscious and he let it manifest itself in every way, with every touch. The extent to which Pollock achieved this can be seen in his paintings, as long as he understands that these paintings have a life of their own and lets them tell him their story....
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