Artist's Biography - Jackson Pollock
Born Paul Jackson Pollock on January 28, 1912, in Cody, Wyoming. It is central to many of the myths surrounding Pollock's life that he was born in Wyoming, this somehow connecting him to a romantic vision of cowboys and the frontier. In fact, Pollock's family moved from Wyoming to San Diego, California, when he was just a few months old. Paul Jackson Pollock--known as Paul until he was in high school--was the youngest of Stella May McClure and LeRoy Pollock's five sons. During his childhood the poor but close-knit family moved regularly throughout California and Arizona following the demands of LeRoy Pollock's migrant farm work. Stella Pollock, known as a "capable woman who kept the family on its course," loved art and passed this passion on to her brood; all five sons eventually pursued careers in the arts.
Pollock began high school in Riverside, California, but his restless, rebellious nature prevented him from finding much of interest there; he was expelled during his first year thanks to an argument with a military recruiting officer. He attended an arts-oriented high school when the family moved to Los Angeles, where he fell under the sway of an art teacher who introduced him to Eastern mysticism, native American beliefs, and vegetarianism. But Pollock was expelled again, along with two friends, this time for publishing a pamphlet criticizing the school for encouraging and rewarding athletics at the expense of academics; nonetheless, he was readmitted the next year.
By this time two of Pollock's older brothers who were studying art in New York had begun sending him enticing clippings and academic news. When they came home for a visit in the summer of 1930, Pollock decided to accompany them on their return. He spent two years at the prestigious Art Students League, mostly studying with Thomas Hart Benton, who had gained a sizable reputation for his "American realism"--depictions of working people, particularly cowboys. Pollock helped mix paints for Benton and posed for some of his works.
Doubted Artistic Abilities
Pollock had yet to definitively decide on a career. He felt that he had some talent, but he was uncertain about his technical abilities and the expressive capacity of his work. Fortunately, Benton recognized Pollock's potential and encouraged him; the two corresponded long after the younger artist had moved on. Benton wrote to Pollock, "You've the stuff old kid--all you have to do is keep it up."
The 1930s marked an exciting period in art, despite the crushing economic conditions of the Great Depression. In 1934 and 1935 Pollock was earning ten dollars a week working as a school janitor, sharing his meager salary with one of his brothers. In 1935, however, he was accepted into the Federal Art Project, a government aid program, and was paid about ninety dollars a month to turn in a handful of paintings per year. This income was vital to Pollock's development; it enabled him to take classes, in which he met other young artists.
In 1936 he worked in the studio of Mexican artist David Siqueiros, renowned for his mural wall paintings. His workshop was the site of considerable experimentation: budding artists investigated new tools like spray-paint guns and airbrushes, as well as innovations in synthetic paint. This open, exploratory atmosphere stimulated Pollock's imagination. He also found inspiration in frequent road trips across the country, sketching the sprawling landscapes of the West during his travels.
Pollock's work from this era betrays a restless search for his signature style. Many of his canvases echo the dark outlines and strong forms of the Mexican style embodied by Siqueiros and Mexican social realist Diego Rivera. Other paintings employed abstract forms reminiscent of Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso, whose work Pollock studied with great intensity, as he did the creations of Russian master of the abstract Wassily Kandinsky, to whom he was introduced during his tenure as a custodian at New York City's Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). Pollock's work appeared in several government-sponsored shows throughout the country, yet despite the comforts of financial aid and some small success, Pollock suffered emotionally. Beginning in the late 1930s, he underwent treatment for alcoholism and psychological difficulties. Though he sporadically controlled his drinking problem, it is widely believed that alcohol played a role in the auto accident that ended his life.
In 1941 Pollock's work formed part of an important New York gallery exhibit, where it was noticed by another young artist, Lee Krasner. Krasner, after discovering that Pollock lived around the corner from her, sought him out; thus began an artistic partnership that led to marriage and lasted until Pollock's death. Krasner introduced Pollock to other artists and provided him with indispensable psychological support. By 1942 he had begun to define the contours of his mature style: his outsized, vividly colored new canvases were strewn with symbols. Paintings like Male and Female and The Moon-Woman displayed the swirling energy of shapes and lines that became typical of Pollock's work, as well as his celebrated "alloverness," characterized by a rejection of central focus in favor of spreading designs all over the canvas.
The wealthy and powerful collector-exhibitor Peggy Guggenheim took a singular interest in Pollock's work, sponsoring his first solo exhibit at her gallery in 1943 and three more shows from 1945 to 1947. Pollock's efforts were the object of extravagant praise--and stern disapproval from critics who labeled it "lavish, explosive, and undisciplined." An unanswered question in many reviews pertained to the degree of control this firebrand really exercised in his works.
Landmark Development or Child's Play?
Pollock had bought a house and barn on Long Island with Krasner, using the barn for his studio and tacking his paintings to the floor instead of working on an easel. "On the floor I am more at ease," he wrote in 1947. "I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since ... I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting." At this point Pollock began to lay snaking lines of paint over some of the images in his paintings to veil or hide them. He found in this technique the key to the next phase of his work; he gave up the "background" and began painting only the "veil" of squiggling, spattering drips and lines.
Pollock made use of a variety of unusual implements to achieve his desired effects, including hardened brushes, trowels, sticks, and even kitchen staples like basters. He used his wrists, arms, and whole body as he whirled thin streams of paint around the canvas. He would drip one color at a time, waiting until the previous one had dried. He tried out different kinds and thicknesses of paint, including metallics. The surface would become interwoven with colored lines, often seeming to explode with its vibrant hues and untrammeled creative verve.
Pollock improvised his canvases, not bothering with sketches or plans and thus inviting the charge that he merely painted chaos. When an interviewer asked him if he had an image in his mind before he began, Pollock replied, "Well, not exactly ... because it hasn't been created, you see.... I do have a general notion of what I'm about and what the results will be." He used the paint to draw--a revolutionary idea at the time given the standard method of using paint to finalize what had first been drawn--since he found in this an appropriate means for manifesting his emotions. "When I am in my painting," he wrote, "I'm not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of `get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about ... because the painting has a life of its own."
Critics in the late 1940s were widely divided about the new form that Pollock was spearheading; it became known as abstract expressionism, or action painting. When Pollock's works appeared in exhibitions, some praised them as a landmark development in modern art, while others derided the pieces as empty and merely decorative. Some critics condemned the canvases as too random and argued that any child could drip paint and get similar results. Yet scores of viewers have found meaning in Pollock's creation of space or lack thereof through the use of his drips and lines and the very texture of paint on the canvas. Most of Pollock's works from this time bear only numbers and dates as titles, as he rapidly abandoned descriptive labels. In the 1950s, though, he did bestow a few evocative names, like Autumn Rhythm and Lavender Mist.
Pollock continued experimenting with his style into the 1950s, working for a time exclusively in black and white. Later, specific faces, figures, and animals began to appear in his paintings. Toward the mid-1950s Pollock even combined his drip technique with traditional brushwork. Works like Easter and the Totem and Ocean Greyness garnered praise for their variety and inventiveness and demonstrated the artist's capacity to grow and change. Pollock's work appeared in exhibitions throughout the world and powerfully influenced that of other artists. Helen Frankenthaler developed yet another mode of painting, the soak-stain technique, after seeing, and being amazed by, Pollock at work in his studio.
A crash on a curving Long Island road brought an end to this promising career, killing him on August 11, 1956, in the Long Island town of Easthampton. A few months before his death, a large show of Pollock's works had opened at an important New York gallery. He had created, according to one critic, "the most original art among the painters of his generation." Indeed, he would cast a prominent shadow over the artists who followed him.
In 2000, actor Ed Harris directed and starred in the biopic Pollock, a film which garnered critical praise as well as two Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor (Harris). Marcia Gay Harden, in the role of Lee Krasner, picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
© Biography Resource Center, 2001 Gale Group
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