Jackson Pollock and his art
"Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" This query, used as the headline for a 1949 feature in Life magazine aimed at introducing the American public to a relatively unknown artist named Jackson Pollock,
has often been invoked as a starting point for discussion of Pollock's controversial career. Although the judgment expressed in the question was based on a remark made by a respected art critic, Clement Greenberg, most readers probably
thought Life's editors were being facetious. That a painter who made his pictures by flinging pigment from cans of store-bought commercial paint at unstretched canvas rolled out flat on the floor could possibly be considered the
best this country could produce was an idea that, in 1949, must have seemed absurd. The Luce Corporation's other weekly, Time, later coining the witty, but sarcastic epithet "Jack the Dripper," would help accelerate the young
artist's notoriety; indeed, Jackson Pollock's name became widely known in the United States by the late fifties, and by people for whom new trends in painting were otherwise of little or no interest.
The Jackson Pollock story has been explored and exploited frequently in the three decades that have passed since his premature death at forty-four in an auto crash on Long Island. Greenberg, his foremost champion, once characterized Pollock as "a kind of demiurgic genius," and in the years to come this estimation was to increasingly take on the authority of a confirmed fact. B. H. Friedman, the first to attempt a biography of Pollock, recounted his own firsthand observation of this phenomenon, describing evenings at downtown New York's Cedar Bar, where frequently younger artists would surround Jackson Pollock, "trying, trying, trying to touch him for luck." The sculptor Tony Smith, another friend of Jackson Pollock's, remarked in an interview that he had strongly disagreed when he overheard someone say at Pollock's funeral that the tragically dead artist was "just like the rest of us." Smith remembers thinking that this "just wasn't true," because Jackson had "more of the hero about him and everyone knew it."
Some of the elements that have come to comprise Pollock's heroic persona were evident in the earliest reviews of his work. Words like "violent," "savage," "romantic," "undisciplined," and "explosive" were repeatedly used in the 1940s in critiques on the art pages dealing with his first shows. Even The New York Times, in 1949, praised the young artist's "ravaging aggressive virility." Many critics and reporters presented Pollock as a modern-day mixture of the daring of Prometheus and the energy and superhuman strength of Hercules (with more than a dash of the innocence of the Noble Savage). The merit of his sometimes incomprehensible paintings lay in the clear evidence they displayed of search and struggle. Newsweek once pointedly quoted a comment Pollock had made long before in a letter to his father, "I'll never be satisfied until I'm able to mould a mountain of stone with the aid of a jack hammer to fit my will."
To anyone who knew him in the 1920s and '30s, the notion that Jackson Pollock would achieve fame, both as an artist and a "culture hero," would have seemed most unlikely. Intensely self-conscious, the young Jack Pollock was described by his friends and family as childish, troubled, and insecure, restive and driven, and he seems never to have outgrown these traits. One of his later acquaintances remembered being in awe of Pollock's desperation, characterizing him as a man who always appeared to be looking into a hard-driving rain. Life's obituary in 1956 quoted the observation of Betty Parsons, a former dealer of his, that Jackson was born with "too big an engine inside."
In 1941, one of the five Pollock brothers, Sanford, wrote to another family member about their youngest sibling. (Paul Jackson, born January 28, 1912, was the last child produced by the marriage of Stella May McClure and LeRoy Pollock.)
Sande listed Jack's deep-rooted personality problems, which included irresponsibility, overintensity, manic depression, and self-destructiveness, all of which were exacerbated by his excessive drinking.6 The painter Lee Krasner, who
married Jackson Pollock in 1945, later described fourteen years of life with him as a succession of crises: at one moment, he could be beautiful and gentle; in the next, he became either explosively angry or totally bottled up.
Born in Cody, Wyoming, and reared in Arizona and California, Jackson Pollock delighted in reminding those around him of his roots. Snapshots from the family's archives that date back to the late 1920s (when Jackson had helped his father on a surveying job along the north rim of the Grand Canyon) show a handsome boy in cowboy getup. One picture even shows him shooting his gun off a mesa. In 1930, however, Pollock moved east to join several of his brothers at New York's Art Students League, and he was never to return permanently to the western locales where he had grown up. About ten years later, when asked if he preferred the East or West, Pollock did not hesitate to answer that "living is keener, more demanding, more intense and expansive" where he was now; he added that the artistically stimulating influences were much more interesting and rewarding in New York. At the same time, he remarked that he still had "a definite feeling for the West."
Apparently, this nostalgia never dissipated, and especially during the last decade of his life, Pollock often donned his pointed boots and seemed ever more to relish acting the cowboy; friends remember that sometimes he even sat like one on his haunches, walked like one, and his occasional "busting up" of the Cedar Bar reminded many onlookers of an outlaw in a frontier saloon. Perhaps Pollock, who really was shrewder than generally given credit for, adopted this pose to create a legitimate context for his taciturn and restless personality. Aloof, a loner with an aura of melancholy, uneasy in society, frequently drunk, rash and impulsive but always faithful to his own convictions, his fate controlled by destiny—these have been cited by cowboy historian Rita Parks as characteristics commonly used to typify the legendary American heroes of the Old West. As Life pointed out, a similar restlessness had been forced upon Jackson Pollock as a child, since his father had had trouble holding down a job, and his ambitious mother—a "real pioneer"—encouraged the family's moves in search of a better life. According to his wife, Jackson was quiet, because he didn't believe in talking, he believed in doing; the origins of his taciturnity were explained by his brother Charles: Jackson didn't waste words because the family he had been raised in "didn't need much talk."
In a 1950 interview with the Pollocks, which appeared in The New Yorker magazine's "Talk of the Town" section, Lee Krasner invoked her husband's background as a way of explicating the expansiveness of his newest large paintings.
"Jackson's work is so full of the West.... That's what makes it so American," she said to the unidentified interviewer, who was actually their East Hampton neighbor, Berton Roueche. This observation, Roueche noted, Pollock himself
"confirmed with a reflective scowl." Subsequent writers have had a field day with the Western metaphor, to the ludicrous point where Pollock's artistic achievements have been likened to the cowboy sport of bronco busting; as the
"Billy the Kid of the Manhattan art world," reporters have presented him "twirling lariats of color in wide open spaces" in order to create "vistas of writhing paint trails." Thomas Hess, one of the first to analyze this turn of
events, commented that it had begun to sound in too many reviews as if Pollock had just ridden out of the old frontier, not with guns afire but with "anecdotes blazing." Reporters implied that, as Pollock rode (not on horseback, but in
his frequently photographed depression-vintage Ford Model A), exactly like the bigger-than-life American folk hero Pecos Bill, "the light of wide prairies shone through his eyes and tornadoes screeched over his shoulder." Either
implicitly or explicitly as a result of these analogies, Jackson Pollock came to exemplify for modern times the cowboy's attitude of ultimate honesty; Hess explained this as based on the fact that he seemed to be living his own life
"from the inside out," cowboy style.
Jackson Pollock's reputation for stubborn independence was to prove a key component in defining the parameters of his myth. Postwar America was so homogenized, bureaucratized, and "buttoned down" that many people felt easily lost in a "lonely crowd." As iconoclastic night-club comic Lenny Bruce liked to point out, to be a man in the fifties meant you had to "sell out." Since a significant portion of the population chafed under these conditions, it is not surprising that movies with frontier themes became very popular in that decade. In films like Shane, High Noon, y.io to Yuma, and other adult westerns, the hero riding off into the sunset in many ways more accurately exemplified not the nineteenth century winning of the West, but the contemporary dilemma. These characters were cheered on by viewers because, without regard for acceptance by society, they made their own decisions. It would soon become apparent that Jackson Pollock — described by fellow Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline as a "lone shepherd dog running outside the world" — was a real version of the Hollywood and Madison Avenue he-men being created and marketed in response to current audience demand.19 Thus it was that the media, always hot on the trail of new trends, began to emphasize the cowboy in Pollock.
Many of Jackson Pollock's published and private statements prove that his thinking directly correlated with the basic premises of the acting style so inextricably a hallmark of his era. For example, in an interview he gave in 1944 to the journal Arts & Architecture, he noted (about the European Surrealists), "I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious." In Possibilities magazine, whose sole issue was published in the winter of 1947/48, Pollock described his total absorption when he worked: "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing." His paintings, Pollock said, had a life of their own; his role was to let it come through. Another of the Abstract Expressionists, Willem de Kooning, remembers that Pollock, comparing the way each approached his canvas, taunted, "You know more, I feel more," and in an interview in the early fifties, Pollock defined painting as "a state of being."
After his own car crash, the raw directness of Jackson Pollock's totally unpreconceived recording of his unconscious was not only eulogized in lyrics by Mike McClure published in Evergreen Review,it was publicly hailed in an essay by Kenneth Rexroth, who finally said what many had believed to be true, that Pollock's life (death), and works were the essence of Beat. Rexroth officially added the artist to a growing list in the radical press of heroes "suicide" by contemporary American society.43 A verse by Dylan Thomas, a sax solo by Charlie Parker, a painting by Jackson Pollock—all of these works by the movement's martyrs were applauded as "pure confabulations" whose simple existence constituted their best and only reason for being.
In the years since his death, many hypotheses have been put forth to try to explain the unprecedented imprint of Jackson Pollock on American society. In addition to being lauded for stubbornly maintaining an individual stance in an increasingly homogeneous world, Pollock has been posthumously congratulated as well for what some have perceived as a grand existential gesture made in the face of atomic threat. And, most prominently, over and over again, Jackson Pollock has been credited with having virtually singlehandedly brought about the long-awaited aesthetic triumph of America over the centuries-old hegemony of Europe.
Some have concluded that the magnitude of Jackson Pollock's importance is in large measure due to the fact that no framework existed previously for his kind of energy.44 But that is true—if at all—only in a very narrow art-historical sense, for the matrix into which Pollock's accomplishments fit is so much more complex and wide reaching. A tense, insecure, explosive man, embodying none of the traditional hero's traits, Jackson Pollock became an American hero nevertheless, and he has proved, moreover, to be a role model with tenacious staying power. Politics, artistic styles, social issues, all of these keep changing, but the example set by Pollock has managed to retain an extraordinary relevance; indeed, as the years have gone by, and newer and newer trends have developed, the extent of Pollock's impact is continually being reassessed and upgraded.
Hardly any expert today would disagree with the judgment that, whether or not he could be considered America's greatest painter, Jackson Pollock has certainly been the most influential artist ever produced by this country. But, while he was alive, some reviewers— unsympathetic in the extreme—accused Pollock of running a wrecking enterprise. His work, they complained, ruthlessly shattered the accepted conventions of picture making. Looking back, we can see that these critics were really not wrong in what they were saying; what they could not know, however, was just how profoundly Pollock's challenge to tradition was to change the course of art.