Jackson Pollock

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A central figure in the New York School of Abstract Expressionists during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Pollock, through his “drip” painting, produced some of the most distinctive and unique work in the history of American art.

Early Life

Paul Jackson Pollock was born January 28, 1912, on the Watkins Ranch at Cody, Wyoming. Both his mother, née Stella May McClure, and his father, LeRoy Pollock, were of Scotch-Irish ancestry and had been born and reared in Tingley, Iowa. The elder Pollock worked at various jobs during his lifetime (ranch hand, dishwasher, truck farmer, plasterer, and surveyor) but listed his occupation as “stone mason and cement work” on Jackson’s birth certificate. By the time Jackson had reached ten years of age, his family (he had four older brothers) had moved six times and had lived in San Diego, Chico, Janesville, Orland, Riverside (all in California), and Phoenix, Arizona.

Pollock entered Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles in 1928 and came under the influence of an art teacher named Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, who encouraged his growing interest in art and sparked his attachment to Eastern mysticism. Although he already knew by this time that he wanted to be “an artist of some kind,” he had personal difficulties in high school (he was temporarily expelled in early 1929) and eventually left without being graduated in 1930. He then followed his older brothers, Charles and Frank, to New York City in the fall of 1930, where he joined the Art Students League and took classes from Thomas Hart Benton, John Sloan, and Robert Laurent. Benton was strongly impressed with Pollock’s talent, especially his use of color; became his mentor; and continually urged the young man to pursue a career in art. Although they rarely saw each other after 1937, this close relationship between teacher and student would persist, via letters and the telephone, until Pollock’s death in 1956.

During this early New York period, Pollock appeared to be the typical all-American young man: well built (although slightly thin), with a mop of auburn hair, rough-hewn good features, and a vague pugnacious air about him. Only later would the creeping effects of alcoholism and hard living be reflected in his appearance: Photographs from the 1940’s and 1950’s show a paunchy and balding man, his face increasingly lined and depressed. The seeds of these personal and physical problems had already been planted in the 1930’s; Pollock was arrested in July, 1937, for public intoxication and disturbing the peace, and he entered treatment for alcoholism, once in 1937, again in 1938, and again in 1939.

The first public exhibition of Pollock’s work came in February, 1935, when he showed a work entitled Threshers at the Eighth Exhibition of Watercolors, Pastels, and Drawings by American and French Artists, held at the Brooklyn Museum. He also joined the Federal Art Project of the Works Project Administration (WPA) in 1935, earning approximately ninety-five dollars per month in exchange for submitting one painting every eight weeks. He would remain with the Federal Arts Project until early 1943 and produced more than fifty paintings during this time. Only two of them are known to exist today.

In April, 1941, Pollock was classified IV-F and declared unfit for military service by his local draft board. He also met Lenore (Lee) Krasner that year at an exhibit at the McMillen gallery. He had been introduced to her briefly in 1935, but this time the relationship flowered. They became constant companions and finally married on October 25, 1945, at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City.

Pollock’s career also began to flower during the early 1940’s. He attracted the attention of Peggy Guggenheim, an art collector, patron, and owner of a newly established museum-gallery in New York called Art of this Century. After inviting him to submit a collage for a show in her gallery in 1943, she issued him a one-year contract which guaranteed him $150 a month plus a negotiated bonus if she sold more than twenty-seven hundred dollars’ worth of his paintings during that year. She also gave him a one-man show at her gallery in November, 1943, and commissioned him to paint a mural for the entrance hall of her town house. Guggenheim’s patronage allowed Pollock to give up the custodial job he had obtained after the end of the Federal Arts Project and devote himself full-time to painting. Pollock’s reputation and creativity soared from this point onward.

Life’s Work

With the financial security provided by his connection with Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock entered the most creative period of his career. Show followed show as he exhibited his work at such prestigious galleries and museums as the New York Museum of Modern Art (1944-1945), the Cincinnati Art Museum (1944), the David Porter Gallery in Washington, District of Columbia (1945), The Arts Club of Chicago (1945), the San Francisco Museum of Art (1946), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1946). He sold his first painting to a museum during this period. In 1944, the Museum of Modern Art, acting on the advice of Alfred Barr, purchased Pollock’s The She-Wolf for its permanent collection. He also received increasingly favorable notices in the art press, which praised his sense of color and surface, his fluent design, and his “exuberance, independence, and native sensibility.”

Pollock’s work underwent a clear creative evolution during this period. His work during the 1930’s revealed the strong influence of Benton and David Alfaro Siqueiros, both advocates of the social realism school of art that attracted so many young painters during the difficult years of the Depression. Although often heavily stylized in their portrayal of reality, the social realists insisted that art carry a clear social or political message and thus serve a “useful” purpose. Paintings such as Going West (1934-1935) and The Covered Wagon (1934)...

(The entire section is 2492 words.)