Jackson Pollock – A Brief Biography (1912-1956)
Jackson Pollock was an American painter, who is considered one of the major figures in the abstract expressionist movement.
Most famous for his drip technique, also known as action painting or all-over painting, Pollock would leave an indelible mark on 20th-century art.
Jackson Pollock, born Paul Jackson Pollock, was born on 28th January 1912 in the city of Cody in Wyoming to Stella and LeRoy Pollock. He was the youngest of five brothers.
Pollock’s father was first a farmer and then later worked as a land surveyor for the government. His mother, on the other hand, came from a family of weavers, and she weaved and sold dresses since she was a teenager.
When Pollock was barely ten months old, his mother took him and his brothers to San Diego. Pollock would never return to Cody again and grew up in Arizona and California, where he went on surveying trips with his father to learn and explore Native American culture.
Jackson Pollock was first enrolled at a high school from which he was expelled in 1928 at the age of 16. Following his expulsion, he enrolled at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he was living at the time.
It was during these years that Pollock became truly interested in art. He was deeply influenced by the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and, more particularly, Jose Clemente Orozco. He would later describe Orozco’s famous fresco Prometheus as the greatest painting in North America.
In 1930, Pollock, aged 18, moved to New York City along with his brother Charles, where they enrolled at the Arts Student League, of which Georgia O’Keeffe was an alumnus. At the League, they studied under Thomas Hart Benton, who was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement.
Although Pollock was not much influenced by Benton’s American rural life subject matter, he did inherit and develop Benton’s independence as an artist and his rhythmic use of paint. It was under Benton’s tutelage in the early 1930s that Pollock spent a summer touring Western America along with Benton and a fellow art student named Glen Rounds.
Pollock was also greatly influenced by the works of Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso.
Early Experimental Period and Struggle with Alcoholism
In 1936, Jackson Pollock, aged 24, attended an experimental workshop in New York City held by one of his idols, David Alfaro Siqueiros. It was during this workshop that he was first introduced to the use of liquid paint.
By 1938, Pollock had begun struggling with alcoholism. While he worked for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project, he also underwent Jungian psychotherapy under the acclaimed doctor, Dr. Joseph L. Henderson, to get rid of his alcohol addiction.
Seeing his passion for art, Henderson encouraged Pollock to draw and paint in order to keep himself occupied and productive, and distracted from alcohol. Unfortunately, therapy did not improve matters.
Pollock worked for the WPA until 1942, which was around the same time that he stopped undergoing psychotherapy. It was around this time that he began to use the paint pouring technique on canvases, such as in his paintings Male and Female and Composition with Pouring I.
First Art Commission
In 1943, Jackson Pollock, aged 31, signed his first major contract with art collector Peggy Guggenheim’s art gallery. He soon received a commission from her to create an 8 by 20-foot painting, which was simply titled Mural, for the entry to her new townhouse. French artist Marcel Duchamp, who was Peggy’s friend and advisor, suggested that Pollock paint the work on a canvas rather than on the wall so that it would be portable.
The painting was made with oil paint on linen and marked a significant transitional moment in Pollock’s artistic career, as he now began leaning toward action painting. Mural remains the largest canvas painted by Pollock in his career.
The painting was received well by art critics, some of whom began referring to him as one of the greatest painters America has produced. After his first exhibition shortly thereafter, he was described by critics as a volcanic talent that had a fire and was unpredictable and undisciplined, and which spilled out of itself in a mineral prodigality not yet crystallized.
Many in his circle, including Peggy, considered him to be the new genius on the art scene.
The Drip Period and Rise in Fame
Between 1947 and 1950, Jackson Pollock would go on to have the most creatively productive period of his career, during which he created some of his most famous paintings using the drip technique, such as Number 5 (1948), Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950), Autumn Rhythm (1950), and One: Number 31 (1950).
By late 1949, Pollock’s fame as an artist grew exponentially after a four-page spread in Life magazine asked the question, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” thereby giving him and his works such great publicity that he almost instantly became the new star of the art scene in America.
The first foreign exhibitions of his artworks were organized between 1948 and 1951 in the studio of Paul Facchetti (a young gallery owner) in Paris and in Europe. The exhibition was organized with the help of Facchetti, Michel Tapie (a French critic), and Filipino-American artist Alfonso Ossorio. Many of his works were inspired by the Ukrainian-American artist Janet Sobel, who was a pioneer of the drip technique.
This period of Pollock’s career came to be known as the drip period, during which he consciously moved away from figurative representation and challenged the western tradition of using easel and brush. He used synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, which was a fairly new medium back then.
He considered his use of household paints instead of artist’s paints as a natural growth out of need. He also used hardened brushes, basting syringes, and sticks as paint applicators. Instead of painting on an upright surface, he laid his canvases down on the floor to paint, thereby adding a new dimension by viewing and applying paint to his canvases from all directions. His technique of pouring and dripping paint is regarded as one of the origins of the term action painting, and with this technique, he was able to achieve his own signature style of palimpsest paintings with paints flowing from his chosen tool onto the canvas.
Pollock used the force of his whole body to paint on the large canvases. This technique earned him the nickname Jack the Dripper.
Pollock preferred to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor as he needed the resistance of a hard surface to paint. He was more at ease when the canvas was spread out on the floor, as he felt closer and more a part of the painting and could view and attack it from all sides and literally be in it.
He preferred to use unconventional tools such as sticks, knives, and trowels instead of brushes, palettes, easels, etc., and he liked to drip fluid paint, or a heavy impasto with sand or broken glass or other foreign matter added.
Inspired by Native American sandpainting, he developed this style of his which was quite similar to the Indian sand painters of the west.
However, even though his paintings looked completely improvised and accidental, he rejected such assumptions by saying that he usually had an idea of how he wanted his paintings to look by the end of the creation process.
Pollock’s process combined the movement of his body, dripping, pouring, spattering, and flinging of paint, the force of gravity, and the absorption of paint into the canvas. All the while, he would move around the canvas, working on it from all four sides as if in a dance or trance, literally being in the painting, until he would stop when he would achieve his desired result.
Another major influence of his in this technique was the Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen.
During this period, Pollock also began simply numbering his paintings rather than naming them. He did this because he thought numbers were neutral and they forced the viewers to look at the paintings passively and try to receive what the paintings had to offer without any preconceived ideas or notions of what they are to be looking for in the painting.
Change in Style
From 1951 onward, Pollock’s paintings became darker in color. He created a collection of paintings all painted in black on unprimed canvases. The collection came to be known as Black Pourings and it was exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Surprisingly, not a single painting was sold. In fact, the situation got so bad that Parson later sold one of the paintings to a friend at half its price.
In these paintings, Pollock tries to find a balance between abstraction and depictions of the figure. But this phase of his was short-lived and he soon went back to using colors while continuing to experiment with figurative elements.
Pollock also moved to the more commercial Sidney Janis Gallery during this period as the demand for his works among art collectors was high.
The pressure and stress imposed by his sudden fame as an artist began to take a toll on him, leaving him more and more frustrated. To cope with his personal issues and with the pressure, he resorted to drinking alcohol more than ever before.
Marriage to Lee Krasner
Jackson Pollock met fellow artist Lee Krasner when they both exhibited their artworks at the McMillen Gallery in 1942.
Three years later, they were married in a church with just two witnesses present. They went on to buy a house and barn in Springs, New York, away from the city, with the help of a loan from Peggy.
Pollock converted the barn into his studio, which was where he practiced and perfected his drip technique.
Although over the years, Pollock became the more famous artist of the two, it was not until the late 1960s that Krasner began getting credit for her influence on the development of his painting style. Krasner possessed tremendous knowledge and training in modern art and its techniques, which she used to help get Pollock up to date with what contemporary art was.
Krasner even mentored him in the tenets of modernistic paintings, due to which he was able to change his style to fit a more contemporary and cosmopolitan genre of modern art.
Over the course of their marriage, Krasner became the only person whose judgment Pollock trusted and whose opinions took precedence over that of his peers. She also introduced him to several art critics, collectors, and other artists, which served to further advance his career as an artist on the rise.
In the years since his death, Krasner’s influence over Pollock was widely acknowledged in the art community, some going as far as to claim that Pollock was Krasner’s creation, her Frankenstein, and that there would never have been a Jackson Pollock without Krasner.
Pollock’s alcoholism worsened in his final years, due to which his marriage to Krasner also began to disintegrate. Another reason for the end of their relationship was his affair with artist Ruth Kligman.
In 1955, Jackson Pollock painted his last two paintings, Scent and Search. The following year, he did not paint at all, instead choosing to spend his time at sculptor Anthony Peter Smith’s house making sculptures shaped by sand-casting and having heavily textured surfaces similar to many of his paintings.
On 11th August 1956, Jackson Pollock met with an accident while driving his convertible under the influence of alcohol, killing himself and another passenger named Edith Metzger. Ruth Kligman, who was also in the car, survived.
The dreadful accident had occurred less than a mile from Pollock’s house in Springs. Pollock was only 44 years old at the time of his death.
He was interred at Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave.
Barely four months after his death, a retrospective exhibition of his works was held in his honor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Krasner would go on to manage his estate for the rest of her life and would be buried right next to him in Green River Cemetery with a small boulder marking her grave.
Since his death, the legacy and reputation of Jackson Pollock have not only survived but have intensified and grown in stature. He is now widely regarded as one of the most influential painters in the abstract expressionist movement, inspiring several subsequent artists such as Morris Louis, Allan Kaprow, Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and many other contemporary artists.
More than the look of his artworks, artists were influenced by his approach to the process of creating art.
Over the years since his death, Pollock has been the subject of numerous books, movies, and documentaries. In 1974, Ruth Kligman published her memoir titled Love Affair.
In 1989, a biography titled Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith was published and even ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, the biography was adapted into a film titled Pollock, directed by and starring Ed Harris as Pollock and Marcia Gay Hayden as Krasner. For her role, Hayden received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, while Harris was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Several large-scale retrospective exhibitions of Pollock’s works have been held at venues like the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Many of his paintings have gone on to become some of the highest-selling paintings in modern art, such as Number 11 (1952), Number 5 (1948), Number 12 (1949), Number 28 (1951), Number 9 (1948), and Number 17A (1948).
These paintings have sold for several millions of dollars, and one of them, Number 5, became the most expensive painting in the world in 2006 and remained so until 2011.
One can only imagine what more Pollock could have achieved through his pioneering art if only he had lived longer. He was taken away too soon and through his passing, the world lost one of the most authentic artistic talents it had produced.
Fortunately for us, Pollock left behind a strong body of work that now forms his legacy, and continues to attract and demand attention and inspire and influence artists across the world.
In a relatively short career as an artist, Pollock managed to achieve what most artists take a whole lifetime to achieve if they ever achieve it at all, that is creating a body of work that would last beyond their own lives, thereby inspiring generations to come.