When my friend Diana asked me at Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey: 1924-1954, the art exhibit we saw at the Museum of Modern Art on 26 February 2016, what it is that I like about Pollock’s paintings, the best I could come up with was two vague statements. The first is simple to say but impossible to define in any concrete terms as it’s purely aesthetic: I simply find his work, especially his later canvases up through the famous “drip paintings,” beautiful. What does that even mean, though? I can’t say, except to suggest that they please my eye in a certain way that moves me. That’s the best I can do. How do you define or explain beauty—after all, it really is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? What’s beautiful to me may not be to you or anyone else. How do you explain that? I can’t; can you? So Pollock’s painting are beautiful to me: they make me happy; I smile when I look at them.
Susanne Langer, a philosopher of art and aesthetics, defined “beauty” as “expressive form,” which she maintained “do[es] something to us.” “Beauty is not identical with the normal,” Langer admonished us, “and certainly not with charm and sense appeal, though all such properties may go to the making of it.” She continued, “Beautiful works may contain elements that, taken in isolation, are hideous.” Furthermore, Langer asserted that our responses to art are “intuitive,” and therefore can’t necessarily be explained, a condition we’ll see afflicted me in my reaction to Pollock’s paintings. (I blogged on Langer on 4 and 8 January 2010.)
My other response was even harder to describe, much less to define. I said that Pollock’s work excites me. It’s dynamic, energetic, explosive. His paintings make me feel infinitely animated—I don’t really know a word for it: in motion, active. But it’s not physical—I don’t go running around the galleries like a Tasmanian devil or something. It’s visceral. I actually feel as if my insides are roiling, but not like I’m sick—like I’m exhilarated. Could that be an adrenaline rush? Can art get your adrenaline pumping? I suppose it can, since art triggers emotions and emotional responses can trigger adrenaline, can’t it. Maybe that’s it then.
I’m not altogether certain you’re supposed to explain, at least not fully, a response to art. Music is almost entirely an emotional experience, so why shouldn’t painting and sculpture be emotional—or psychological in their effects? Pollock himself wrote: “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.” Diana, who turned out not to care much for Pollock’s art (I asked why she agreed to go with me to MoMA; she was curious and thought I might help her “understand” Pollock some), later when we made a short stop at the permanent collection on the fifth floor (Gauguin, van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, Rousseau, and so on), explained her appreciation of several of the pictures based on the artists’ use of various painting techniques—line and focus, and color and balance. She’s a longtime student of the Art Students League (ironically, where Pollock also studied) and an amateur painter. I, on the other hand, have no training in art—or even “art appreciation”—and whatever I know of art theory has been picked up haphazardly over the years of just looking at painting, sculpture, and drawings—and occasional reading. (“The entire qualification one must have for understanding art is responsiveness,” wrote Langer, and “the real [artistic training] is not the ‘conditioning’ effected by social approval and disapproval, but the tacit, personal, illuminating contact with symbols of feeling.”) I’m the quintessential “I don’t know anything about art; I just know what I like” guy.
This wasn’t the first, nor the last, time Diana asked me to explain what was essentially a visceral response to some work of art, both visual (she did the same thing after the Alexander Calder exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art about which I wrote on 21 August 2017) and theatrical (after the Suzan-Lori Parks plays The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Venus; see the reports posted on 1 December 2016 and 7 June 2017). I’ve never made a satisfactory reply to her query. In any case, I didn’t help her at all. What I see as dynamism—Pollock himself described his painting as “motion made visible memories arrested in space”—Diana sees as randomness and chance, which she dismisses as “not art,” which she insists requires control and selectivity. Leaving aside that I don’t necessarily see that art can’t be random, at least in part at any rate, I disagree that Pollock’s work wasn’t controlled and selected. An element of chance did enter into his work, but it didn’t operate exclusively or even dominantly. Indeed, the artist himself declared: “I can control the flow of the paint. There is no accident.”
We may not recognize as good a work of art that puts us off until “we have grasped its expressiveness,” Langer also admonished us. Our response to a piece of art may be instinctive, but the philosopher explained that it can be prejudiced, because “the free exercise of artistic intuition often depends on clearing the mind of intellectual prejudices and false conceptions that inhibit people’s natural responsiveness.” After all, “the function of art,” she declared, “is to acquaint the beholder with something he has not known before.” Additionally, Richard Kostelanetz, an artist himself as well as a critic of the avant-garde, submitted that since “audiences and critics would sooner acknowledge the familiar than explore works of art they cannot immediately comprehend . . . a truly original, truly awakening piece of art will not, at first, be accepted as beautiful.” One friend of Vincent van Gogh’s, for instance, admitted that at first the painter’s art “was so totally different from what I had imagined it would be . . . so rough and unkempt, so harsh and unfinished, that . . . I was unable to think it good or beautiful.” Langer instructed that “if academic training has caused us to think of pictures primarily as examples of schools, periods, or . . . classes . . ., we are prone to think about the picture, gathering quickly all available data for intellectual judgments, and so close and clutter the paths of intuitive response.” I think this may have been what prevents Diana (and many others who share her opinion of Pollock) from appreciating Pollock’s work—as well as that of theater artists like Parks or Adrienne Kennedy—anywhere near the way I do.
Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey: 1924-1954 at MoMA (22 November 2015-1 May 2016) was entirely composed of works from the museum’s collection and included over 50 pieces, among them engravings, drawings, lithographs, and silkscreen prints along with the paintings. Collection Survey covered essentially the whole of Pollock’s short career (he died in August 1956 in an alcohol-related single-car crash at the age of 44), from 1930 (a painted wooden cigar box) to 1954. (The artist painted two canvases in 1955, Scent and Search, and none in 1956.) From one perspective, it traced the artist’s development from figurative work, visibly influenced by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, to deliberately non-representative paintings (and experiments in other media), ultimately to his drip paintings, the culmination of his distinctive style and the art form which distinguished Pollock from his contemporaries and set American Abstract Expressionism apart from European art. In 1943, at an exhibit at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of This Century (1942-47) of young American artists, the famous de Stijl modernist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) remarked of Pollock’s paintings, “I think this is the most interesting work I've seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man.”
Paul Jackson Pollock was born on 28 January 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, the youngest of five boys. He grew up in Arizona and California, where his family lived a peripatetic life, moving from ranch to ranch, town to town, and in 1928 Pollock began to study painting at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. Plagued by disciplinary problems, Pollock was already drinking heavily by the time he turned 15. In September 1930, 18-year-old Pollock followed his older brothers Charles (1902-1988) and Frank (1907-1994) to New York, and registered at the Art Students League, where Charles was already studying, to study under his brother’s teacher, the Regionalist painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), who encouraged him throughout the decade. In 1937, Pollock began therapy for his drinking under the care of a Jungian psychoanalyst; he would go through several therapists in his lifetime. Though most didn’t do him much real benefit, he was affected by Jung’s theories of the subconscious and the significance of signs and symbols and this knowledge became evident in his art.
By the early ’30s Pollock knew and admired the murals of Mexican painters David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and Diego Rivera (1886-1957). He traveled throughout the U.S. during the ’30s, but spent most of his time in New York and he settled there permanently in 1933, sharing a Greenwich Village apartment with the now-married Charles. (Brother Sande, 1909-1963, moved to New York City in October 1934 and he and Jackson shared an apartment. Sande eventually changed his last name to McCoy—his father’s birth name before the older man was adopted as a child—to get around the Works Progress Administration’s ban on one household collecting multiple WPA paychecks.) Jackson Pollock worked on the WPA Federal Art Project (1935-42) and in Siqueiros’s experimental workshop in New York (1936). (In 1931, Pollock watched Rivera paint his controversial mural at Rockefeller Center. I posted an article on Diego Rivera on 12 and 15 April 2015.) The painter also first met artist Lee Krasner (1908-84), a founder of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, who would eventually become his wife, in 1936, but they did not meet again for six years.
Pollock exhibited Birth (ca. 1941) in American and French Paintings at McMillen Inc. in January-February 1942. Also exhibiting in the show was Lee Krasner and, impressed with his work, she sought out Pollock; Krasner began to support and promote Pollock’s work and introduced him to influential figures in the New York art scene. (More outgoing than the introverted Pollock, Krasner, a native New Yorker, was one of those people who just seemed to know everyone worth knowing. Among these was Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist with whom Krasner was studying. He, in turn, introduced Pollock and Krasner to playwright Tennessee Williams, who, in 1969, wrote In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel which features an artist character who resembles Pollock. There’s even a scene in which the artist discusses color theory in terms reminiscent of Hofmann.) In August, after Pollock’s brother Sande and his wife moved to Connecticut, Krasner moved into Pollock’s East 8th Street apartment. At the end of that year, Pollock took a job at a printmaker where he learned the technique of silk-screening; the job lasted only a short time, but Pollock would use the skill in 1943 and ’44 when he branched out from painting to experiment with other expressive forms.
The artist participated in his first show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Artists for Victory, in December 1942-January 1943; on 20 May 1950, Pollock would sign an open letter (published in the New York Times) in which 28 artists (18 painters and 10 supporting sculptors) accused the MMA of “contempt for modern painting” and refusing to participate in the upcoming juried MMA show, American Painting Today – 1950. (On 23 May 1950, the New York Herald Tribune published an editorial response entitled “The Irascible Eighteen” defending MMA, giving a name to the group of protesting artist. In its 15 January 1952 issue, Life published a photo of 15 of the original signatories, including Pollock, under the headline, “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show,” establishing the name “The Irascibles” for the painters.)
In 1943, Pollock briefly worked as a custodian at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (since 1947 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). In May and June that year, the artist’s work was included in the Art of This Century’s Spring Salon for Young Artists, an exhibition of young American artists that attracted considerable attention. In July, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) gave Pollock a contract that was extended until 1947 that paid him $150 a month as an advance against sales, permitting the young artist to devote all his time to painting. This was followed in November with Pollock’s first solo show, at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century; Guggenheim would eventually house four solo Pollock exhibits at the gallery. In May 1944, MoMA bought The She-Wolf (1943), Pollock’s first piece in a museum collection. That summer, Pollock and Krasner spent the season in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Hofmann ran a summer art school. (Tennessee Williams was also spending summers in Provincetown, surrounded by several artists, models—many of them dancers—from Hofmann’s school, and sundry others from the art and theater world.)
Before 1947, Pollock’s art manifested the influence of Picasso, Miró, and Surrealism, and in the early ’40s, he contributed paintings to exhibitions of Surrealist and Abstract art. By the mid-’40s, though, Pollock was painting in an entirely abstract manner, liberating himself from the vertical constraints of an easel by affixing unstretched raw canvas to the floor. “On the floor I am more at ease,” he would explain later. “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” In 1947, his “drip style,” marked by the use of sticks, stiffened brushes, or palette knives to drip and spatter paint, as well as pouring paint directly from the can (or simply punching holes in the can and letting the paint dribble out), emerged. Pollock’s drip technique, also called “action painting,” was derived from the Surrealist focus on the subconscious and the notion of automatic drawing (“automatism”).
Abstract Expressionism, also known as the New York School, for those who don’t already know, is an art movement—but not a unified style—that began in the United States around 1940 with artists of European origin like Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), and Arshile Gorky (1904-48). It emphasizes the act of painting, as expressed in the textures and colors of the media used, and the connection between the artists, who found universal themes within themselves, and the media. By the late 1940s, a second phase of the movement began, the principal expression of which was “gesturism” or “action painting,” which stressed the texture of the medium and the physicality of the act of painting. (The first strain was color field painting, emphasizing unified color and shape. Some of these artists are Sam Gilliam, b. 1933; Kenneth Noland, 1924-2010; Morris Louis, 1912-62; and Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011). Pollock, the best-known exemplar of this form of art, vigorously splashed, dripped, and splattered paint on the canvas. (Time magazine dubbed Pollock “Jack the Dripper” in 1956 because of his technique.) Other artists from this school included Mark Rothko (1903-70), Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Franz Kline (1910-1962), and Larry Rivers (1923-2002).
In March 1945, Pollock had a solo exhibition of 17 canvases at the Arts Club of Chicago; some of the pieces from the show went on to the San Francisco Museum of Art, giving the artist national exposure outside New York City. On 25 October 1945, Krasner and Pollock were married and moved to a farmhouse in The Springs, East Hampton, on New York’s Long Island. Eventually, he turned the property’s barn into his studio, which figured in many photos and films of the artist at work with his canvases spread out on the floor. From December ’45 to January ’46, Pollock exhibited for the first time (of five) in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art—known as the Whitney Annual (precursor to the current Whitney Biennial, launched in 1973). In April and May of 1947, Pollock’s Mural (1943) was included in MoMA’s Large Scale Modern Paintings. In October ’47, the most influential art critic in the country, Clement Greenberg (1909-94), declared in the British magazine Horizon (October 1947): “The most powerful painter in contemporary America and the only one who promises to be a major one is . . . Jackson Pollock.” The 11 October 1945 issue of Life magazine included “A Life Round Table on Modern Art” which put Pollock among such modern masters as Picasso, Miró, Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), and de Kooning. The following 8 August, Life published “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” by Dorothy Seiberling (b. 1922) that included photographs by Martha Holmes of Pollock at work. In November and December 1949, Pollock exhibited an untitled painting in The Intrasubjectives at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York, a seminal show in the evolution of what would eventually be called Abstract Expressionism.
Peggy Guggenheim gave Pollock international exposure when six of his works are included in a display of her collection at the Venice Biennale in May-September 1948; with four additional pieces, the collection traveled to Florence in February 1949 and to Rome the following June. In July through August 1950, Hans Namuth (1915-90) took his now-famous series of some 200 photos and extensive film footage of the artist at work in his Long Island studio. One of the canvases the painter completed while Namuth was shooting was the iconic One: Number 31, 1950, arguably Pollock’s most famous and recognizable drip painting. Some of the photos were published in ARTnews in May 1951 and in the 1951 issue of Portfolio. In November ’50, Namuth filmed Pollock painting on glass—so the photographer could film some of the work from below. The film, shot outdoors and in color, was shown at MoMA in June ’51.
Guggenheim organized Pollock’s first European solo exhibition at the Museo Correr of Venice in July and August 1950 with a show of her own collection of over 20 pieces. Venetian art critic Bruno Alfieri (1927-2008) described Pollock’s work in L’Arte Moderna as “chaos”; “absolute lack of harmony”; “complete lack of structural organization”; “total absence of technique, however rudimentary”; “once again, chaos.” This sounds a lot like Diana’s criticism of the artist’s work, but it was what Alfieri confessed was only “superficial impressions, first impressions,” and continued: “Pollock has broken all barriers between his picture and himself: his picture is the most immediate and spontaneous painting. Each one of his pictures is a part of himself. . . . The exact conclusion is that Jackson Pollock is the modern painter who sits at the extreme apex of the most advanced and unprejudiced avant-garde of modern art. . . . Compared to Pollock, Picasso . . . becomes a quiet conformist, a painter of the past.” (Time published the negative excerpts from Alfieri’s review, entitled “Chaos, Damn It!,” in its 20 November issue and Pollock responded in a letter to the editor, published on 11 December, declaring: “No chaos damn it.”)
In March 1952, Pollock’s first solo show in Paris opened at the Studio Paul Facchetti and in November, art critic Clement Greenberg arranged the artist’s first retrospective at Bennington College in Vermont. In April and May 1953, four paintings by Pollock were included in 12 Peintres et Sculpteurs Américains Contemporains, an exhibition organized and circulated by MoMA’s International Program. The show opened at Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne and traveled to Zürich, Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Oslo. Despite his increased popularity and renown in Europe, Pollock didn’t obtain a passport until July 1955, and he never traveled outside the U.S. By the spring of 1956, he hadn’t painted anything new in a year-and-a-half. After several years of abstinence, he’d been drinking heavily since the fall of 1950 and his depression had deepened; his and Krasner’s marriage was deteriorating badly, and when she took off for a vacation in Europe in July ’56, he stayed home in The Springs. While Krasner was away, Ruth Krigman (1930-2010), a young, aspiring artist with whom Pollock had begun an affair, moved into the farmhouse. On 11 August, he was killed in a one-car, drunk-driving automobile accident in East Hampton; Krigman was with him in the car but survived, though a friend of hers who was visiting was also killed. Krasner returned from Europe for her husband’s funeral.
You could say that Pollock led a tumultuous, if short, life. And maybe that’s what made his art so turbulent. One reviewer called his work “a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out.” But if, like me, you just let it move you, the pure emotionality of the action painting, the intricacy of the lacy lines, the astonishing endlessness, boundlessness of the paintings—I’m speaking of his late work, though the early- and mid-career pieces like 1934-38’s The Flame or The She-Wolf of 1943 tend in this same direction—the lack for formality won’t amount to much. Perhaps because he was one of the first American artists of any stature who never went to Europe to study or work, Pollock’s art showed few signs of the European refinement of Picasso, Miró, and the other continental Expressionists and Surrealists who were the vanguard of contemporary art. He acknowledged an impact of his upbringing in the American west which can be seen and felt in the roughness and rawness of his earliest paintings in contrast with his European models—some of which was born of his familiarity with the Mexican muralists and the teaching of Thomas Hart Benton whose style was a sort of brawny social Realism. When Pollock finally found his own style, namely the drip painting, that American vitality took the form of the dynamism and energy that make his canvases so stirring. At least to me—for not everyone agrees even today, 60 years after his death. Art critic Robert Coates (1897-1973), who coined the term “Abstract Expressionism,” once dismissed Pollock’s work (also sounding like my friend Diana) as “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless” in 1948 in the New Yorker.