As you know from my previous article, the art world is abuzz with the unveiling of the newly restored Pollock “Mural” — the great “pillar of American art.” Although I have studied art, I was actually unfamiliar with Pollock’s work until I entered the University of Iowa who owns the Mural. Admittedly, I am not a large follower of the Abstract movement, but the debate over his work s fascinating.
His parents were from Iowa (hence the fortuitous circumstance of his great art returning here), but Jackson Pollock (first name Paul), was born in 1912, two years before WWI, in a small town in Wyoming. He would move around the western states as a child, and it was during that time that he became familiar with the Native American culture on travels with his father; a fact that you can still see expressed in his art.
Another great influence upon his style was his tutoring from Thomas Hart Benton, part of the famous “Regionalist Triumvirate” of three artists who abandoned city life and preferred painting modern works of rural life.
But while Pollock liked the brighter colors and strong impression of this type of art, he was not enticed by rural subjects. In fact, he would abandon any sense of “Realism” to his work at all. With the beginning of his style set in place, Pollock moved on during the Great Depression to work with the Federal Arts Project, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. They employed jobless-artists to create works for government institutions–as a results many of them still hang in those buildings today. Because the program was less interested in the type of art, and more interested in employing artists regardless, it was a great sounding board for many artists of the, at that time, less popular modern abstract art. Pollock was one of those artists who benefited from the new audience.
During the Great Depression, Pollock began struggling with alcohol, and he would undergo treatment under a Jungian Psychologist. While I am hardly a psychologist, I understand that they emphasized the need to understand oneself completely before one could then work with society. One of the ways Pollock tried to familiarize himself with his personality, goals, life, etc. was through art. According to textbooks, this concept of putting oneself into the work (a type of new self-portrait) was characteristic of his later works. Honestly, I have never particularly been able to see that in his works, but then I don’t really get abstract art anyway. What I can attest to is that his emotion’s come across–and a scattered mess they were too.
Shortly after leaving the Federal Art Program, Pollock was hired by Peggy Guggenheim, a famous supporter of the arts, to create his famous Mural for her home. The piece stands at 8 feet tall and is a major accomplishment. Interestingly enough, unlike many other muralists of the time, Pollock created this one on canvas because they wanted it to be portable. Usually, they were placed on the walls themselves. This is the work that launched him into the world of history-changing artists.
It was during the 1930s and 1940s that Pollock improved upon his signature tool–drip painting. First introduced to the concept of using liquid paint instead of powders in 1936 by another muralist, Pollock soon adopted it as his preferred method. Most of his work would feature this style beginning in the early 1940s. He used alkyd enamels (such as the paints used for home walls), which was highly unusual at the time. He then took sticks, syringes, large stiff brushes, etc. and would pour or drip the paint over the canvas. Are you familiar with any of those 70’s movie where they start flinging paint in stripes across the canvas? That’s his style.
His great contribution to the art movement, other than the drip style of painting, was that he moved away from the traditional tools of the trade. Instead of easels, he would set the canvas up against a wall or work off of the floor. He used different objects to paint with instead of normal paint brushes. Instead of smooth deliberate strokes, he would fling his body into moving the paint out. His concept was that the paint came from his soul, moving from his body straight into the work. It’s all about emotions and the expression of them. He felt that he was putting himself down on paper (remember the Jungian influence).
While his greatest works were made in the drip style from 1947-1950, but the stress of maintaining his title as “Greatest artist in the US” started getting to him. He abandoned the drip styles in 1951, and began working with dark colors and canvases. He would later return to colors, but something changed during that time. If his art expressed himself, then he had a dark and depressing turn. He never came back to the “Drip” works; instead moving on to sculpting until his death in 1956 in a car accident while he was under the influence. Also killed in the accident was Edith Metzger, a close friend; however, his mistress, Ruth Klingman, another famous artist survived.
Pollock’s work has sparked decades of debate and conflict. Some believe he was the greatest artist of all time–that he captured not a painting per se, but the “Act of painting.” Kind of like an action shot in a photograph, many claim that his art was the realization of the movement of painting. That does seem to be how Pollock viewed it. I rather think it was something like when I play the piano on bad days–I love to bang and pound away, regardless of whether the keys are in the right order or whether it is recognizable by the end. It is the process of playing, pounding on those keys, that soothes my soul. When I look at Pollock’s work, I think perhaps that is what he was doing–flinging and blazing a mark across the canvas, not for the end results but for the act of flinging and blazing. Personally, I don’t really like the end results; there is little of beauty or meaning in it to me. But I know that it meant something to him, and with art like this, that is what really matters.
Regardless of whether or not you approve, he did change art forever by encouraging the rise of Abstract Expressionism.