Jackson Pollock
Biography, Drip-Paintings Of Abstract Expressionist Inventor of 'Action-Painting'.

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Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)


Early Days, New York Training
Early Contacts: Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim
Influence of Surrealism
Pollock's Technique of Action Painting
Surrealist Automatism
International Fame
Last Years
Reputation As an Artist
Retrospectives, Collections
Pollock's Greatest Paintings
Article: Jackson Pollock The Artist

For analysis of works by Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Famous Paintings

The She-Wolf (1943)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
For other gesturalist works similar,
to those produced by Pollock, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Pollock, photographed
action-painting, was one of
the great abstract painters,
of the 20th century, and the
leading American exponent
of avant-garde art in the 50s.

Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
An entrancing example of Pollock's
all-over style of gestural painting,
which treats all areas of the canvas
equally, rejecting all conventional
points of reference or focus.

Blue Poles (1952)
By Jackson Pollock.
National Gallery of Australia.


An influential member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, and one of the most influential figures in American art, Jackson Pollock was the founder of the innovative painting technique, known as Action Painting. This method of making abstract art involved dripping and smearing the paint onto the canvas in dramatic sweeping gestures. Pollock would pour and fling the paint, using sticks and knives, onto an unstretched canvas which had been tacked to a hard wall or floor. This enabled him to walk around the painting and become part of the painting process. This avant-garde approach - vividly captured by Hans Namuth in his photos of the artist at work in his studio - both fascinated and appalled the art critics and earned him the nickname "Jack The Dripper." By rejecting the use of an easel and other more traditional painting techniques, he carved out a unique niche for himself in post-war abstract expressionist painting. Fellow artist Lee Krasner (1908-84) (later his wife) was a central influence in Pollock's artistic life. Now fully appreciated for their originality, Jackson Pollock's paintings are seen by some critics as the most revolutionary pictures of the mid-twentieth century.

For a guide to geometric and
organic abstraction, see:
Abstract Paintings: Top 100.

Best Artists of All Time.

Another key person was Peggy Guggenheim, a wealthy art collector who was to become one of Pollock's early supporters and promoters of his work. Pollock is best known for masterpieces like: One (Number 31) (1950) Museum of Modern Art, New York; Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Blue Poles (No.11) (1952) National Gallery of Australia; Out of the Web (Number 7) (1949) Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart; Convergence (1952) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Lucifer (1947) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Eyes in the Heat (1946) Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; Orze (1950, MoMA, New York); and Arabesque Number 13 (1948, New York, R.B. Bahr Collection). In 2006, according to a report in the New York Times, his painting No 5 (1948) was sold privately by media mogul David Geffen for $140 million, making it the most expensive painting in the history of art. Many of his paintings are now available as prints in the form of poster art. For different styles of abstract expressionism, see the Colour Field Painting of Mark Rothko (1903-70), Clyfford Still (1904-80) and Barnett Newman (1905-70) - see in particular Mark Rothko's paintings - and the gesturalism of Willem de Kooning (1904-97).




Early Days, New York Training

The fifth son of a peripatetic farming family, Pollock was frequently on the move in his youth because of the failure of his father's enterprises. The family eventually settled in 1924 at Riverside, a town near Los Angeles. Here Pollock attended school for a time, before moving into the growing city in 1928, where he began to study art and to associate with artists. In 1929 he moved to New York to join an older brother, Charles, already an art student, and enrolled at the Art Students League in a course given by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). He became interested at this period in the mural work of the Mexican painters Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). Pollock's friendship with Benton remained close even after he ceased to study with him: not so much because of Benton's rural American subject matter, but due to his rhythmic use of paint and his independent attitude as an artist.

Early Contacts: Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim

During the Depression in New York, Pollock was desperately poor, often ill, and already (by 1936-7) plagued by alcoholism. Nevertheless, during the period 1935-1943, he took part in the Federal Art Project and began to learn something about modern European painting, both abstract and Surrealist.

In 1941 Pollock met a student of Hans Hoffman, Lee Krasner (1908-84), who was to become his wife, and who introduced him to the circle of young artists later to become the leaders of Abstract Expressionism. They included William Baziotes (1912-63), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), and Roberto Matta (1911-2002), all of them strongly oriented towards Surrealism. At that time, in the early years of the war, many European artists whose reputation to the young Americans was almost legendary had sought refuge in New York, among them such legendary 20th century painters as Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Max Ernst (1891-1976), and Andre Masson (1896-1987).

This influx of great European artists led Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), a noted American collector of 20th century modern art, to open a gallery in New York, (she had closed her London gallery in June 1939), which was part-museum, and part-commercial. This venue, known as her Art of the Century Gallery opened in 1943, as part of her plan to encourage young American painters. Pollock was asked to exhibit and, fascinated by his work, Guggenheim gave him a yearly contract in return for ownership of a substantial part of his output. At the same time she commissioned from him a mural for her New York town house. This painting, now in the collection of the University of Iowa, was Pollock's first really large-scale work, and is a key example of his fusion of European modernism with the scale and new space that were to be characteristic of his own style.


Influence of Surrealism

At this time, too, the critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94) began to write articles underlining the importance of Pollock's work. Before the mural, Pollock had painted some interesting and individual works such as The She-Wolf (1943, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and The Guardians of the Secret (1943, San Francisco Museum) but the very titles of these hint at their fundamental reliance on Surrealism, with its intentions and associations drawn from the unconscious. The forms were powerful, yet retained an affinity with those of Picasso and Andre Masson, the two artists from the School of Paris who, together with Joan Miro, most strongly influenced Pollock. With the mural, however, almost 20 feet in length, a new, pulsating rhythm entered and dominated his work. Densely painted, charged with energy, it created the space of the new American painting.

In October 1945, Pollock married Lee Krasner and shortly afterwards - thanks to a loan from Peggy Guggenheim - moved into a wood-frame house and accompanying barn (now known as the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio) in Springs on Long Island, NY. It was here, during the period 1946-50, that he abandoned traditional methods of fine art painting in favour of his own technique of working with liquid paint: a method commonly known as "action painting". Curiously, for most of this time he was not drinking.

Pollock's Technique of Action Painting

The name "action-painting" was first coined in 1952 by the American critic Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) in the December edition of Art News. It referred to Pollock's hallmark technique of dripping paint onto a canvas. Instead of using the traditional easel, he placed his canvases on the floor and dripped, splattered and poured paint (synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels) onto them from a can, using sticks, trowels or knives - sometimes using a heavy impasto by combining broken glass or other material.

The origin of Pollock's theory and practice of action painting is unclear.

He was allegedly introduced to the technique of painting-pouring in 1936 at a New York workshop run by the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), famous for his large-scale Mexican murals, and later used it on some of his canvases during the early 1940s. Alternatively, he may have heard of experiments conducted in New York during the war, by the emigre surrealist artist Max Ernst (1891-1976), who married Peggy Guggenheim, one of Pollock's most important patrons. Ernst developed a method of using paint dripped from a swinging can. It followed independent experiments by other abstract painters like his wife Krasner and the influential art teacher Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) - see the latter's 1940 painting Spring (Private Collection, Connecticut). Indeed it is said that both Krasner and Pollock were influenced by the "automatic painting" of Robert Motherwell. A third possible explanation is that Pollock was introduced to the practice of Navajo Indians in New Mexico, who make their famous sand paintings by sprinkling earth onto the ground to form patterns.


Surrealist Automatism

Wherever it came from, Pollock's action painting is similar to certain surrealist theories of 'automatic painting', propounded by Salvador Dali (1904-89), that supposedly allow artists to express their unconscious moods of creativity. See, for instance, Pollock's Pasiphae (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

As Pollock himself commented: "I prefer... the canvas on the hard wall or the floor... On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting."

A certain amount of Surrealist automatism is undoubtedly involved in this method, although this element can be exaggerated if it is taken to suggest that Pollock was not firmly in control of his paintings - although he certainly permitted, and even encouraged minor accidents. The edges of his paintings are clear evidence of the care with which he organized the beginning and end of his work, but the struggle between control and freedom which animates the picture surface cannot be missed by the spectator. Indeed, it is one of the most potent forces in Pollock's art.

International Fame

Pollock first exhibited his "drip-style" paintings at Betty Parsons' gallery in New York, in 1948. They attracted a fair amount of attention, but it wasn't until the following year that he became a real celebrity. It happened almost overnight as a result of a 4-page spread in Life magazine (August 8, 1949) that posed the question, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" The review also explained that his works had been purchased by five US museums and over 40 private collectors, including Peggy Guggenheim. It was the start of the Pollock public profile as one of the great abstract painters of the mid-20th century.

Last Years

In 1951, at the height of his fame, Pollock abruptly ceased using his action painting method. At the same time his palette grew darker; he even produced a series of black pictures painted in oil and enamel paint on unprimed cotton duck canvases. The series culminated in Portrait and a Dream (1953, Dallas Museum of Art). After this he reverted to normal colouration and reintroduced a number of figurative elements. During this period (1951-55) Pollock was experiencing additional commercial pressure from his gallery, and his personal life was becoming increasingly difficult. Commentators have alleged that his row with Hans Namuth, the photographer who filmed Pollock at work in 1950 was also a major irritant. In any event he began drinking heavily once again. In 1955, he completed his last two works Scent and Search. Pollock painted nothing in 1956, and thus failed to resolve the issue of primacy between the figurative and abstract aspects of his style. On August 11, 1956 he died at the wheel of his car when it ran off the road. He was 44.

Reputation As an Artist

By 1956, Pollock's paintings and painting methods were having an enormous influence on his contemporaries both in America and Europe; the former included such gesturalists as Willem De Kooning (1904-97) and Franz Kline (1910-62); the latter included gestural artists like Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) (1913-51), sometimes referred to as the "European Jackson Pollock", and the Cobra group leader Karel Appel (1921-2006). Since his death, Pollock's reputation - founded on his position as the most representative of the Action painters and the symbol of the triumph of American painting after the Second World War - has never ceased to grow. One of the few American painters to be recognized during his lifetime and afterward as the equal of twentieth century European masters, his canvas No 5 (1948) was the subject of a report in the New York Times which stated it had been sold by media tycoon David Geffen to Mexican financier David Martinez for $140 million. If true, it makes it the world's most expensive painting ever. For more details, see: Most Expensive Paintings - Top 10.

Retrospectives, Collections

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York held two important retrospective exhibitions of Pollock's work - in 1956 and 1957. Paintings by Jackson Pollock hang in some of the best art museums in the world, including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; MoMA, NY; Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, NY; Albright-Knox Art Gallery; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Lee Krasner Pollock Collection, Los Angeles; Guggenheim Museum, Venice; Tate Gallery, London; Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris; and others.

Pollock's Greatest Paintings

Here is a selected list of the best paintings by Jackson Pollock.

The She-Wolf (1943) Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Troubled Queen (1945) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Eyes in the Heat (1946) Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.
The Key (1946) Art Institute of Chicago.
Shimmering Substance (1946) Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Enchanted Forest (1947) Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Lucifer (1947) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Number 5 (1948) Private collection.
Composition (White, Black, Blue, Red on White) (1948) New Orleans Museum.
Summertime: Number 9A (1948) Tate Modern.
Out of the Web (Number 7) (1949) Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.
Number 1 (1949) Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Number 10 (1949) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
One (Number 31) (1950) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Number 29 (1950) National Gallery of Canada.
Number 7 (1951) National Gallery of Art.
Convergence (1952) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
Blue Poles (No.11) (1952) National Gallery of Australia.
Portrait and a Dream (1953) Dallas Museum of Art.
Easter and the Totem (1953) The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Article: Jackson Pollock The Artist

One of the greatest modern artists, Pollock was one of the prime movers of abstract painting in America. His great contribution lay in "going the full nine yards" in his willingness to expend himself extravagantly and profligately, often at the cost of the harmony and coherence of individual paintings, in order to take possession of the modern abstract picture.

Energy, sometimes reduced to an unrelenting rhythmic monotone or mere motor violence, was a hallmark of Pollock's painting. In the beginning these energies were tumultuous, self-fascinated and desperate; in the later phases of his work they were more controlled and impersonal. The superabundance of his pictorial energies - the expression of a power almost grotesque in relation to its situation - link Pollock to the tribal art tradition of romantic exaggeration and hyperbole.

As a distinctly American romantic temperament, Pollock made his own individualism the theme of his art. In an early "dark" style particularly, his paintings functioned as a kind of fever chart of the ecstasies and the torments of his sense of isolation. The very fact that he felt it necessary to express his anguished sensibility in a Herculean dimension was also in the American grain. If Pollock seemed driven to register his own rancors, fancies and impulses, it was not merely as an act of self-indulgence; his was an honest record of the sensitive man's response to contemporary crisis, an effort to come to terms with a world in which traditional order and traditional values were seriously threatened. The violent emotionalism of his first style marks the rise of a new school of romantic sensibility in American art. It is new because it has synthesized indigenous modes of feeling as well as the form and language of European modernism. Pollock's tormented individualism connects him to a whole gallery of American romantics from Melville and Poe through Faulkner. His radical achievement was to make the American romantic sensibility viable in abstract art, and to express it unsentimentally.

That Pollock was able to move into a significant advanced painting style in the late 1930s, along with a number of other American artists, was due to a curious set of circumstances. Most important was the international crisis, which made the prevailing regionalist sentiment and the complacent optimism of American scene painting suddenly appear preposterously provincial. A world in dissolution deserved better of the artist than an uneasy aesthetic isolationism which identified virtue in art with the rural western idyl of Thomas Benton, the backwoods folklore of John Steuart Curry, and the somewhat satirical ancestor worship of Grant Wood. The dramatic crisis in European culture drew American artists closer to the spirit of continental modernism, and migration of European intellectuals and artists to these shores renewed vital artistic contacts that had lain moribund for many years. There was a sense even by the late thirties, as John Peale Bishop has noted, that the European past had been confided to us, since we alone could "prolong it into the future." The immediate stimulation for the American vanguard came from the group of Surrealist artists who gathered around the dealer, Peggy Guggenheim; in the early years of the war, and from the influential teaching of the German modernist, Hans Hofmann, who had opened an art school in New York. The Federal Art Project of the WPA was another factor in the emergence of an advanced art. As a national experience in self-discovery, it both reinforced and offset the new rapprochement with modern European modes. In their eagerness to find a new way for art, Americans began again to consult continental examples; but a newly awakened sense of their own powers made them do so in a more critical and independent spirit.

Of all the artistic influences in the air, the belated discovery of Surrealism was perhaps the most important. Surrealism was one of the major lacunae in our artistic culture, and its absence left the modern American artist without a portion of the romantic patrimony. The importance of both Dada and Surrealism arose as much from their mood of romantic protest, their state of mind, as it did from their actual program or artistic devices. Although this spirit had never seized the American imagination, in Europe the Surrealists figured prominently in the continuing art revolution which sought to release the artist from the harsh compulsions of modern life, from what one critic has described as the "regimentation of men and the culture of things."

The Surrealists, by their presence in America during the war, were to offer some very crucial hints for a new synthesis of abstract form and a romantic-feeling content. Their "automatism" and rehabilitation of instinct provided a vital alternative to the geometric design and pattern-making of the academicians of Cubism and abstract art. While the rational constructions of the Cubists had given modern art perhaps its most impressive and elevated style, by the late twenties much of the generative power of the movement had been lost or supplanted by an abstract academicism. In America a decade later, a kind of post-Cubist Byzantinism was considered our most advanced style; it was reflected in the competent, doctrinaire, non-objective art of the American Abstract Artists group. To such currents in art, Surrealism - embodied by its chief theorist Andre Breton (1896-1966) - posed the alternative of the spontaneous, of unpremeditated impulse and gave a new primacy to creative freedom. A number of Americans were quick to seize on this alternative and used it to enlarge the expressive possibilities of their art. Eventually, they subordinated surrealist intuitions completely to their own artistic needs and purposes.

The impact of the surrealist liberties - on the American avant-garde was sharp if somewhat oblique. Pollock was undoubtedly affected by the milieu around Peggy Guggenheim, his first dealer, and his own methods were "automatic" to a degree. Later he wrote: "The source of my painting is the Unconscious. I approach painting the same way I approach drawing, that is, directly, with no preliminary studies. When I am painting, I am not much aware of what is taking place; it is only after that I see what I have done."

Arshile Gorky, an elegant, mannered virtuoso in both figurative and abstract modes during the thirties, was in the early years of the next decade deeply influenced by the unstable forms and molten space of Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Matta Echaurren. Later Andre Breton claimed Gorky for Surrealism when he suggested that Gorky treated nature "as a cryptogram." The earliest works of painters like Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes and Clyfford Still were - all in varying degrees - concerned with myth and with the "primitive"; and these artists worked in a form of symbolic, surrealist-tinctured abstraction. Along with Motherwell and Pollock they all relied on "accident," felicitous or disruptive, to give vitality to their creations.

In New York during the early forties there were two private temples of Surrealism, the Julien Levy Gallery and Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century. Most active and significant was Peggy Guggenheim who not only became a transmission point for the painting of international Surrealism but introduced their makers, in the flesh, to the American art scene. She made accessible to the young New York painters whose work she exhibited such artists as Breton, Masson, Ernst, Tanguy, and Matta. For the first time since Duchamp and Picabia had invaded New York in the period of the Armory Show, US artists knew what it actually felt like to live in the midst of an active international art milieu. They were able to keep abreast of the new currents, not by having recourse to the latest issue of Cahiers d'Art as they had in the past, but simply by listening and observing. They must have felt modern art freshly and with a new sense that they were actually living it; contact with many of the impressive reputations of Paris had done something to free them of their provincial diffidence.

More than anything else, it seems now in retrospect, the sudden efflorescence of cosmopolitanism during the war was the inspiration of the new abstract art movements. During the thirties there had been many promising hints of a new synthesis, especially in the painting of Pollock, Gorky and Hofmann, but they were not entirely decisive. The moment of crystallization had to wait until the first years of the forties, and it was only then that the search for abstract idioms assumed the unity of a sustained collective effort. Hans Hofmann had begun to splash pigment around freely on canvas as early as 1938, but his influence was not so immediately decisive as Pollock's. Gorky had in some ways anticipated Pollock, particularly when he began to paraphrase Picasso in the late thirties; but for all his remarkable instincts and painterly gifts, Gorky lacked the primitive force and energy that seem necessary to bring the new in art. His remained an epicurean sensibility until the last years of his life when he suddenly seemed to catch fire from the painting atmosphere he himself had been instrumental in creating, Then his art blazed out in passionate fulfilment of his great promise.

The first and most decisive public expression of the new mood came from Pollock. Everything that had been amorphous, contingent on circumstance, and unstable in advanced painting first came into focus in his art with his first New York exhibition in 1943. The unwavering pitch at which he registered his own sensations and even revealed his uncertainties, lent a new confidence and security to the American vanguard. His spirit of monumental intransigence and dynamism helped release energies that had been pent up in American art for twenty years. Pollock's first expression was dark and narrow, haunted by obsessive themes and a self-absorbed romanticism; yet he managed miraculously to preserve a plastic painting rationale derived from the most elevated modern styles. He achieved this even as many fellow-artists, whom we now associate with him, seemed prepared to leave the high road of twentieth-century painting tradition for the byways of myth and symbolism. From the beginning there was a touch of revolution in Pollock's painting; many artists who now seem more drastic or advanced are still elaborating on some phase of that revolution. But surely none would hesitate to name Pollock as the most critical figure in the emergence of the new genre of abstraction.


Pollock was killed in a tragic automobile accident in the summer of 1956 at the age of 44. He grew up in Arizona and Southern California. Geographical impressions may very well have played a significant role in the development of his painting. He has described his delight as a youth at seeing the western landscape, immense, illimitable, unroll before him from freight trains or his old Ford. His early peregrinations filled him even in maturity with some nostalgia, as if the freedom of boyhood and the open road were best. He retained something of the restiveness of his youth and an unformulated, primitive sense of the vastness of things American. A rootless feeling which was as acute as his instinctive distaste for social restraints, real or imagined, persisted throughout his life.

The romantic bias of Pollock's individualism and his sense of freedom as expressed in his art stand out in sharper definition when his work is compared with the abstract painting of the new European generation. No painters of the French vanguard, many of whom have felt Pollock's influence, permit themselves the liberties he takes. Barring some notable exceptions, the foreign abstract article generally still has the look of studio manufacture, and an air of knowing - if shallow - professionalism. Pollock's raw directness and his lack of finish strike most contemporary European critics as being in appallingly bad taste. Those painters who have followed his example in France, under the general banner of art informel or the specifically gestural style of tachisme, and have adopted his formal devices and scale, are unwilling or unable to pursue the more radical implications of his art. A traditional French hedonism, which is being given a more and more decorative elaboration today, pulls them up short on the threshold of discovery. The French for the most part see in artists like Pollock little more than a promise, and are convinced that painting only begins where American abstract art so suggestively but disappointingly ends. Behind Pollock's art is a conviction, equally strong, that the moment painting indulges in a derivative pictorialism, the moment it becomes a conscious artifact, it loses its creative meaning. The European finds audacity, originality and certain intriguing effects in the new American painting, but misses its inner working process.

A fellow painter has said that in the beginning Pollock paraphrased Picasso and then turned against his inspiration and violently eliminated all evidence of his debt. The American vanguard's search for authority has been a troubled one, moving between a Scylla of fashionable modernism and a Charybdis of provincial expressionism. The history of that voyage is the story of Pollock's evolution as a painter.

Pollock began his artistic education in 1929 when he came to the Art Students League in New York and studied with Thomas Benton. Benton's homely American scene painting was at the time compelling, and he was a vital personality who exerted a strong influence on his students. Although Pollock studied with him for only two years, he did not begin to shake off Benton's style until the middle thirties. It is significant that the younger artist found his independence not so much in reaction to Benton but through him, by re-creating, amplifying and exaggerating his first teacher's rhythmic distortions under conditions of greater intensity until his forms achieved a different order of life. In a sense, Pollock arrived at abstraction by pushing Expressionism to a point where subject matter was so improbable that there was no need to retain it. By the middle thirties Pollock found in the Mexican Jose Orozco a more satisfying drama of violence. His paintings of this period are muddy, crude and inchoate but already stamped with genuine temperament; they still describe, if very freely, figure groups or landscape.

In 1936 Pollock began to eliminate recognizable subject matter, and replaced it with angular, non-representational shapes and thick, rhythmic coils of tarry black line, which stood out in assertive texture and relief. His colour combinations of muddy blue-greens, brick reds and yellows were loud and violent; the forms, elementary in their simplicity but full of character. These paintings were still close to Orozco in spirit. Curiously enough the colour schemes and rugged, plastered surfaces were similar to some Gorky still life of the same epoch, paintings which Pollock has said he never saw, however.

There is one small crayon and water-colour painting from this period of a rather more representational character that deserves attention for what it reveals of Pollock's inner struggle. It is an alternately muddy and vivid little landscape, with a black hole in the foreground holding a ladder, and a night sky in the background lit by blood-red flames. The artist always felt a very personal relationship to the painting which stood as a private symbol of frustration and hope and represented a voyage of the soul from darkness into light. The fact that the light in the painting emanated from a conflagration apparently signified that Pollock's crisis would be resolved by violent catharsis.

In a sense that is exactly what happened immediately after, first in his bold distortions based on Mexican painting and then in his rapid and aggressive assimilations of Picasso and European modernism. In the late thirties Pollock filled notebooks With abstract anatomical themes that were Picassoid, but with a difference. To Picasso's delimited, contained abstract imagery of the period, Pollock applied his own expansive energies with startling and novel results. His nervous, broken line shredded Picasso's fantastic anatomies, reducing them to a system of expressive accents; more generalized thematic variations. Carried away perhaps by a random inventiveness in line, Pollock began to create more evenly distributed effects which broke up the unity of Picasso's abstract figuration, and were the first step toward a later free and cursive calligraphy which dispensed with image suggestion altogether.

These drawings also revealed a tension between ugliness and elegance, clumsiness and finesse, that has persisted throughout Pollock's work. He often seemed to wish to destroy his great natural gifts as a draftsman by deliberately breaking the rhythm of his line when it had achieved only the most rudimentary signs or configurations. If Pollock pursued the rude and apparently incomplete statement, however, it was with a purpose of freeing himself from the prejudice of geometric design. Even more, he sought to repudiate any commitment as to style or manner; in this early work there was, indeed, almost a fetish of non-style.

In 1942 Pollock participated in his first New York group show, organized by John Graham at the MacMillan Gallery. Showing with him were Graham, Lee Krasner (later Mrs. Pollock) and Willem de Kooning, another unheralded member of the avant-garde who less than ten years later was to share the leadership of progressive American painting. Pollock showed a blue-green, expressionist-flavoured abstract painting. His abstract figuration had a look of phantasmagoria and already resembled those disembodied, astral eyes which later became a key theme in his painting. In these agitated movements and grotesquely suggestive whirlpools of line Pollock found a private totem which has persistently refused to be expelled from his painting. Some time later De Kooning, too, discovered that his abstract paintings were still inhabited by an obsessive reality, the human figure of an earlier phase, or more exactly, "The Woman." A highly charged atmosphere survived in Pollock's freest abstract transpositions from Picasso, and these paintings often ended, as if he were powerless to prevent it, by looking like fantasias of the unconscious.


In 1942 Robert Motherwell introduced Pollock to Peggy Guggenheim, and that year he exhibited in a group show at her gallery the painting, Stenographic Figure. It was a loosely knit arrangement of shapes derived from Picasso with a kind of erratic "automatic" over-writing. The colours were bizarre mauves and blue-greens, set against greys and off-whites, suggesting somewhat the high colour key of Mexican papier-mache decorations or the palette of Northwest American Indian art. This was probably the first painting in which Pollock's vermiform shapes actually broke down into energy areas and a free calligraphy. The next year, at the age of 31, Pollock was given his first one-man show at the Art of This Century gallery and with it began a prolific production that carried him through eleven exhibitions in a period of twelve years.

From the years between 1943 and 1947 date the anatomical themes and the compact compositional schemes of such paintings as The She-Wolf, Pasiphae and the more abstract Gothic. Pollock had already begun to unify his pictures by "writing" freely over the surface with an energetic, whiplash line. He had learned to release a confused and opaque bitterness by sheer energy, by the very fury of his attack. The result was that he literally remade the abstract picture, and under new conditions of extraordinary intensity.

In Pasiphae and The She-Wolf Pollock's baroque energies took him to a new form of expression that relieved the dense, impacted surfaces of Picasso's late Cubism with the fluent, abstract imagery of Miro and such other Surrealists as Masson. To the Surrealists he owed not so much the form of his own distinctive ''writing,'' but the notion that the painting was to be ejected as a "stream," in one seeming burst. The wiggly line and agitated movements of these two paintings recall Miro of his 1924-1926 period. Miro, however, floated his shapes on a ground, giving his pictorial incident a setting and hinting at representational illusion. His shapes kept their integrity as individualized forms despite the metamorphic transformations to which they submitted. Out of Miro's ingenious and inventive mind streamed an anarchic abundance of new life and pictorial incident, with an effect of multiplicity and particularity. Rooted in modern tradition, he could afford to play and pun, to sport with his own fears, as one critic has put it, and to make an enchantingly witty game of them. For Pollock, on the other hand, abstract painting was an altogether more solemn matter.

Pollock's early style culminated in his predominantly black, vehemently pigmented canvases of 1945 such as Night Mist and Totem Lesson Number ll. The latter is a large, vertical painting where he played with a grotesque abstract figuration within his own powerful system of chiaroscuro. To achieve intimations of terror within disorder and chaos seemed to be the message of this forbidding and claustrophobic work. Other paintings of the period carried Pollock's anxiety to an unrelieved extreme. After 1947, however, his gloomy and morbid intuitions were spread over a broader surface, and he surrendered most of his inner compulsions to a calm and measured lyricism. The vaguely imagistic references to his own fears and fantasies stopped crowding him and gave way to more sweeping and grandiloquent rhythms and a new clarity. His work no longer suggested presences, fearful or otherwise, or a mood of exasperation, but only a generous and impersonal flow of pictorial energy. He had won a new breadth of feeling as he learned to master larger surfaces.

Pollock's ambition carried him far beyond the traditional unity of easel painting in search of a more monumental space and a total pictorial experience. In 1948 and the early months of 1949 he painted most often on narrow horizontal canvases with irregular patches of cobalt, cadmium red and white against a, dull reddish-brown ground. Even such an assertion of a Mondrian scheme of simple primary colours reflected a new objectivity. These long, narrow "scroll" paintings still retain something of the particularization, texture and sensuality of his earlier work despite their freedom, and have a balance and poise unique in Pollock's productions. White Cockatoo and Summertime are typical of this high moment; their lyricism and purity of movements' remind one of the abstract yet deeply expressive gestures of the modern dance.

From 1947, the year he began to paint with aluminum and commercial paints, and to "drip" as well as brush his pigment on canvas, Pollock strained against the limits of oil painting. He began to contrive a more radical space and invented altogether more remarkable painting effects, working on an ever more monumental scale in a grandiose personal pointillism. As Hans Namuth's dramatic series of photographs and the film of Pollock at work demonstrated, he painted by standing over a canvas and letting paint drip on it from above until he had achieved the rhythmic movements, varied densities and textures desired. The results were probably the most original series of paintings of the immediate postwar period in American art. Yet they were a logical, if unexpectedly ambitious, extension of Pollock's early style. He had merely given his "stream" painting a larger theatre; an aerated web of silver and black line, of spattered paint, against a background of delicate colour diffusions and stains, replaced the old opaque, resistant pigment. Despite the lyrical sublimation of his more turgid style, something of the original tension of Pollock's feeling remained. In Cathedral of 1947 and in the beautiful Lavender Mist of 1950, there are congealed puddles of colour and blotches of dark tone swimming ominously amid all the elegant rhythmic phrasing like disembodied ghosts of the artist's earlier black moods.

Pollock's predominantly silver monoliths took painting ever closer to a kind of fragile, open-form, continuous-space sculpture. He made paintings that approached solid relief in texture, and he also simultaneously pulverized the flat, two-dimensional effect that he had in the past been at pains to emphasize, and which was perhaps his strongest link with Cubist tradition. But Pollock's modernity, his mistrust of anything but the immediately given sensation, always asserted itself in the end. Even in his freest inventions he restored the flat, physical reality of the surface by letting his pigment clot or by slapping the unsized edges of the canvas with his paint-dipped palms. Sometimes the synthetic, industrial textures, the moraine of sheer pigment matter, seemed to choke his instinctive grace and lyricism, and a kind of gummy, displeasing effect resulted. At their finest, however, the great silver paintings from 1948 to 1951 breathe an easy, natural grandeur that has few parallels in contemporary American art. For the author they arouse primitive feelings associated with such sonorous phrases as "the deep" or "the starry firmament," identifying a universe beyond the human. However, any intelligible, identifiable feeling-content reveals itself fitfully in the midst of a nameless chaos, for Pollock's fine lyricism must repeatedly be wrested free from the anonymous seething of brute pigment matter. It was one of Pollock's signal accomplishments to give such magnitude and impressiveness to the act of painting as to make us think of the mysteries of natural creation, of that "first division of chaos" at the origin of our world.

One cannot live with such an exalted aspiration for long. Seeking the relief of a more classical dryness, Pollock in 1951 and 1952 reduced his palette to black and white and returned to the firmer unities of his first style, emphasizing draftsmanship and making his blacks bite vehemently into the unsized canvas like an engraver's line. A periodic denial of colour had been a persistent element in Pollock's art from the beginning. Manet, Lautrec and especially Matisse in his Cubist phase, gave magisterial blacks and greys a primary role as if to dramatize the drastic, two-dimensional character of modern painting; by its very nature monochrome painting is more abstract than colour. The repudiation of colour is one way of returning to the fundamentals of structure, as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline have most recently demonstrated. Pollock's "black" paintings were also curiously enough part of a new search for order and restraint within a vigorous contemporary style. The paintings of 1952 had a sobriety and decorum, even though some of the abstract anatomical imagery of his earlier period was revived. Among the most impressive, though least ingratiating, of Pollock's paintings, they left no doubt as to his power to control large spaces even with the most radically reduced pictorial means.

In the last four years of his life Pollock alternated in modes, sometimes drawing in black paint, at other times creating dramatic displays of refulgent colour. He returned to the "stream" painting of 1948-1951, exploiting a new device of flooding his canvas with white pigment until only narrow, ragged edges and trickles of dark tone could be discerned, somewhat in the manner of Clyfford Still. He reached no radically new conclusions after 1952 but was intent rather to explore and amplify the many new roads he himself opened in his first ten years of painting.

His paintings had begun in a fierce mood of nihilism; indeed, one has to go back to the late Chaim Soutine to find work as raw, direct and careless of the traditional integrity of medium as the early Pollocks. He later also established his connection with Dada's mood of iconoclasm and disgust with society first by his violent imagery, and then by his handling of tarry blacks, his non-aesthetic, industrial textures, and by embedding cigarette ends, broken glass and bits of string in his pigment. In the end he subordinated his rancors and romantic individualism to a mood of impersonal idealism, creating finally a new abstract art form of transcendent beauty.

The bold outlines of a vital new idiom were present in Pollock's first show. His energies encompassed forms and methods derived from many sources. The outcome was a body of painting with a radical new physiognomy, and stamped with powerfully original feeling. Compared to its more felicitous French counterpart - in the works of Pierre Soulages, Nicolas de Stael or Georges Mathieu - Pollock's Abstract Expressionism was even at its most refined, incomplete, violent, full of astringencies, with a tone harsh and primitive. Yet it helped significantly to create painting modes larger than any Europe had been able to supply for more than two decades. To give personal freedom new and distinctly native artistic outlines was Pollock's great contribution. In the face of the experimental variety of previous twentieth-century European art, it has taken on the character of a major accomplishment.

• For more biographies of great painters, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about action painting, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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