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"... Painting is self-discovery. every good artist paints what he is. (1)"

Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming in 1912 and running wild, growing up in Indian country, he acquired a passion for Indian ritual sand painting. He eventually become notorious for his apparently chaotic, abstract 'action' paintings which were derided as much as they were praised. As was he, who became known, unaffectionately in certain art critic's circles as 'Jack the Dripper' mocking the technique he'd evolved for executing a great deal of his artwork, a method he preferred to describe as 'pouring'. Throughout his life up until the tragedy of his death in 1956 when he was the victim of a drunken car accident, he evolved techniques through many influences, these he transmogrified to converge within his own inimitable style.

This essay focuses mainly upon the work he did in the formative years of his career, before he started creating what are instantly recognisable around the world today as Jackson Pollock Paintings.

The first major influence in Pollock's formative artistic life, was that of his Art teacher, Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock attended Benton's classes in Drawing, Painting, Composition and Mural painting at The Art Students League in New York, from 1930 to 1933. At the time of their first meeting, Benton was involved in Painting murals at The New School for Social Research, with the Mexican artist, Jose Clemente Orozco. There can be no doubt of the profound effect that Benton had upon Pollock and his work:

"My work with Benton was important as something against which to react very strongly, later on; in this, it was better to have worked with him than with a less resistant personality who would have provided a much less strong opposition." (2)

Pollock's choice of subject matter in some of his early paintings, such as 'Camp With Oil Rig', 1930-33 (left) and 'Going West' (below), show some of this influence. Benton himself would tend to portray 'regional' subjects in his work, situations that were synonymous with events in American history.

Pollock's use use of curves and chiaroscuro in one of his earliest paintings, 'Woman', 1930-33, is reminiscent of Benton's style of working:

Although Benton's lines are cleaner and the overall effect is a lot smoother than in Pollock's work.

Naked Man With Knife', 1938 – 41, is compositionally a clear echo of Benton's painting 'Discovery',1919:

However, Pollock's work, even at this time, is much more than just a consequence of other outside influences. These were merely shaping factors for his own tremendous raw talent. At this early stage he was well on the way to formulating his own very distinctive style:

"Pollock's earliest known paintings date from his studies with Benton at the Art Students League. From the very beginning, they show qualities that were to remain permanent in his work: assured totality of conception, dynamic rhythm, unfailingly articulate touch, and emphatic contrasts of light and dark. His impulses are linear and draughtsmanly, yet his feeling for paint, for its heft and fluidity, is sensuous and painterly." (3)

Another influence that was as important to Pollock's career as Thomas Benton had been, was that of the European artist John Graham. Pollock first made contact with Graham after having read the article by him that he had published in his 'Magazine of Art'. The article was called 'Primitive Art and Picasso' (4) and in it he stated:

"The unconscious mind is the creative factor and the source....... of power and of all knowledge, past and future" (5)

Pollock was much impressed with this article, probably because it had resonance with ideas that he himself had been considering. He was, no doubt familiar, with Jung's theory of the collective unconscious and had become familiar with the principles of theosophy and the teachings of Krishna Murti when he was at Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles, between 1928 – 1930. In New York, Graham made a point of befriending young, unknown artists (among them Gorky and David Smith), and explicating the principles of Cubism to them. He believed in an art whose source, as he wrote in his Systems and Dialectics of Art, was "the immediate, unadorned record of an authentic intellecto- emotional REACTION of the artist set in space...." This reaction was to be embodied in the variations in brush pressure and stroke - in all the physical acts that the medium could register. Graham thus anticipated the principles of Abstract Expressionism, especially the value ascribed to the artist's gesture, which he called "automatic 'ecriture." (6)

Pollock became absorbed with the theory of Cubism, the symbolism of Surrealism and with the work of Picasso and Miro in particular. This presented him with a unique lexicon for the interpretation of the mechanical/industrial world outside, through the emotional/spiritual world within.

"While the influence of Siqueiros and Orozco was still strong - as in the large violent forms of 'Naked Man with a knife' Picasso represented a completely fresh vocabulary of distorted, fragmented and primitive forms and a new, supremely sophisticated way of creating an expressively packed picture out of the shallow, planar space ultimately derived from the grid of Analytical cubist infrastructure." (7)

He considered that 'representational' art had become obsolete with the advent of the camera and that it was the job of the artist to express the effect of the modern world and all of its advancements, upon the human mind and spirit.

"The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world - in other words - expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces." (8)

In Pollock's painting, 'Birth', 1938-41 this preoccupation can be observed. Instead of painting a static, illustrative picture of a child being born, he has taken glimpses of the various physical and emotional aspects of the subject from different angles. He has then arranged these images so that they converge and intertwine on his canvas. The effect is quite stunning, the painting exudes the joy, the pain and the strangeness that one associates with birth. It also contains certain 'Surrealistic Iconography', for example, the eyes that peer back from the canvas at the viewer. These figure in a number of Pollock's paintings. In surrealist art they represent the contact/convergence point between the world of matter and the world of the spirit or the inner and the outer world.

"The source of my painting is the unconscious. I approach painting the same way I approach drawing. That is direct- with no preliminary studies. The drawings I do are relative to my painting but not for it." (9)

Although Pollock disclaims that he has intended these references to appear, his use of primary colour and certain imagery that occurs in this painting and in other works of his, for example 'Bird', 1941 is quite reminiscent of American Indian art. It is well known that Pollock was intrigued by the Indian sandpainters and the ephemeral nature of the artwork that formed part of their shamanist healing rituals.

"I have always been very impressed with the plastic qualities of American Indian art. The Indians have the true painter's approach in their capacity to get hold of appropriate images, and in their understanding of what constitutes painterly subject-matter. Their color is essentially Western , their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn't intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasms." (10)

In the early 1940's, Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to Paint a mural. This 'Mural' he painted in one long burst of energy, with no preparatory drawings, but he contemplated the blank canvas for hours before he made one single mark. There is in this work, as there is in many of his works, so much going on. The surface of the canvas is shifting constantly in a dynamic rhythmic dance. The lines bend, arch and leap as if they could be sprites taking part in the dance, but they never actually close into definable figures. Instead they hook and loop through one another in a kind of abstract calligraphy that one strains to read.

'Pollock went on, in the majestic syncopation's of "Mural" to explore not so much the properties of pouring and dripping (although the painting shows some evidence of the technique) but rather the large sustained rhythms of the "allover" style of which this is the first major statement. Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her New York townhouse and painted in a single session either late in 1943 or early in 1944, the painting, at 7 feet 11 3/4 inches by 19 feet 9 1/2 inches, was the largest Pollock had yet made, an absolute break with the easel and an appropriation of the mural for the purposes of heroic abstraction, not thematic illustration.' (11)

Pollock considered the easel painting to be in the twilight of its popularity and the mural to be the direction that would succeed it. In an application for a Guggenheim fellowship in 1946 Pollock wrote:

"I intend to paint large movable pictures which will function between the easel and the mural......I believe the easel picture to be a dying form, and the tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural. I believe the time is not yet ripe for a full transition from easel to mural. The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely." (12)

In the mid 1930's Pollock had joined the 'experimental workshop' that had been established by Alfaro Siqueiros on Union Square, New York. Siqueiros was a Mexican muralist, who's work was greatly admired by Pollock. He encouraged Pollock to experiment with various mediums, new materials and techniques:

"Among the many experiments was the use of spray guns and air brushes along with the latest synthetic paints and lacquers, including Duco. The spontaneous application of paint and the problems of "controlled accidents" occupied the members of the workshop." (13)

In the early 1940's Pollock continued with these experiments, pouring and dripping the paint onto the canvas which he would lay, unstretched onto the floor. Using sticks rather than brushes, he would trickle the paint over them onto the canvas, methodically working from all four sides of, and sometimes actually 'in' the painting. Initially he would 'pour' over a composition of figures and shapes, thereby obscuring the recognisable imagery, transforming it into something more interesting.

"Pollock's 1942 -46 work must be seen as profoundly preparatory to the unprecedented synthesis that now took place between Impressionism, Cubism and surrealist automatism in his 'poured' paintings of 1947 - 50, - The application of this new technique for its own sake was the primary intention." (14)

However this wasn't the first time that the technique of pouring had seen the light of day, Pollock must have encountered it when working in Siqueiros' experimental workshop and it had been employed by such artists as Hans Hofmann, Janet Sobel and the effect is not dissimilar to some of the work of Tobey another contemporary of Pollock's. Contrary to popular belief, Pollock's working in this way involved a great deal of disciplined decision making and control and was no doubt, in his mind, more honest and true to art than contrived paintings had ever been.

"There has never been enough said about Pollock's draughtsmanship, that amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by flooding, to elaborate that simplest of elements, the line - to change, to reinvigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in the mass of drawing alone." (15) (The poet Frank O'Hara)

This was highlighted in the 1950's film that Hans Namuth made about Pollock at work that was intended to prove that his working methods were anything but the chaos that they were being derided as. This film in itself represented a watershed in art:

"Pollock became a hero of inarticulate spontaneity, a man who painted his autobiography, who broke down the barriers between art and life." (16)

For the first time the focus of attention was taken from the stationary work of art itself and given to the active artist. Pollock's energetic way of working, is a fascinating performance, rather than merely being the means to an end of creating a picture that represents something else, essentially an illusion, a lie.

"The movements are graceful, beautiful even, but they are not, as they have often been called, a dance: they are untrancelike, unrehearsed, unroutinized. What the swift eye-to-hand movements do reveal is a sense of immediate, intuitive decision. Spontaneity and directness, of course do enter into Pollock's process: they are intentional, products of decision making itself,... " (17)

Pollock is concerned with 'actuals' rather than mere representation. Denying the 'accident', he does away with tricks and illusions and his paintings depict exactly what they are, that is, paint on canvas that crystallises all the energy, emotion, vision and patience that it has taken to complete it. As if he has made a recording of the 'physical action', that it takes to make the artwork. This was a source of inspiration for many young artists, who started to 'perform' their work, employing such techniques as riding bicycles through the paint over their canvas's etc. in fact it was a forerunner of 'performance art'.

"It is critical to grasp, right here, the point that Pollock's ambition was for total visual effect which went beyond anything previously achieved. It amounted to an ambition to affect the spectator by means of painting by 'sensation' alone." (18)

"Jackson Pollock effectively, "Broke the Ice", as William De Kooning put it, he freed artists to paint with an honesty and sincerity that went far beyond the dictates of what society considered to be the way an artist 'should' be creating. A lot of his later work he numbered rather than named, rather like a composer would number his pieces of music, he said that he preferred the viewer to have no preconceived notions of what the painting is about. He felt that his paintings should be enjoyed in the same way that music is enjoyed. In fact he has been described by one critic as: "A contemporary composer playing on his sensations." (19)

Pollock's story is of a rebellious American hero who like Elvis was eventually subsumed by the system and this ultimately led to his demise. He was a pioneer who claimed new territories and in this sense succeeded in creating precisely what he did not believe in, that is, characteristic 'American Art'.

"The idea of an isolated American painting , so popular in this country during the 'thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd..... " (20)

As an artist Jackson Pollock has been much mistrusted and misunderstood, and by the uninitiated he is often underestimated.



  • Pollock by Elizabeth Frank. Published 1983 by Abbeville Modern Masters.
  • Jackson Pollock by Francis V. O'Connor, 1967, for the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • Jackson Pollock: Drawing Into Painting by Bernice Rose and David Elliott. Published by the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1979.
  • Benton, Pollock, And The Politics Of Modernism - From Regionalism To Abstract Expressionism.
    by Erika Doss. Published 1991 by the University of Chicago Press.
  • The Story of Modern Art by Norbert Lynton. Second Edition. Published by Phaidon 1992.