The Case for Jackson Pollock | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


[MUSIC PLAYING] NARRATOR: In 1947,
Jackson Pollock started dripping,
flinging, scattering, and pouring paint onto canvases
spread across the floor. Some thought it was lunacy,
but the most influential voices thought it genius. That’s the legacy
that has prevailed. That’s why you’ve heard of him
and see his work in museums. That’s why a single
one of his paintings can sell for $50 million. But when you find yourself in
front of one of his paintings now, what do you do with it? How do you look at this and
derive some sort of something from it? Why does it matter? And what does it mean now? This is the case
for Jackson Pollock. Paul Jackson Pollock was born
in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, moved around the
southwest with his family, attended high school
in Los Angeles, and landed in New York in
1930 to pursue art encouraged by his older brother Charles. Pollock studied at the
Art Students League under American regionalist,
Thomas Hart Benton, whose representational style he
would go on to react against. But his rhythmic
structure and contrast of light and dark, the
young artist internalized. His eyes were trained
on the usual suspects of European modernism,
including, of course, Picasso, who Pollock once cursed,
saying, “That bastard, he misses nothing!” He looked to the Mexican
muralists, like Jose Clemente Orozco and also David
Alfaro Siqueiros whose experimental workshop
Pollock joined in 1936. Siqueiros believed
the paintbrush to be an implement of hair
and wood in an age of steel and that revolutionary
art required new materials like
automobile lacquer and paint thinner and innovative
techniques like airbrushing, stenciling, flinging paint,
and controlled accidents. Pollock incorporated some of
these lessons at that time but drew from many sources. His southwestern childhood
had sparked his interest in Native American art. He visited MoMA’s 1941 show,
Indian Art of United States, several times attending a
demo of Navajo painting made by dropping colored
sand on the ground. In the early ’40s, Pollock
was making paintings with imagery derived
from mythology and from his knowledge
of Yuumei analysis. The surrealist interest
in the unconscious attracted him as well. And he was certainly
familiar with their embrace of automatism or yielding
control of the making process to let the unconscious
mind hold sway. So it wasn’t like Pollock’s drip
paintings came out of nowhere. Others were doing it too. Arshile Gorky dripped in 1944. Hans Hoffman did
around the same time. And Pollock was trying it
out in his paintings as well. But his first big
break came in 1942 with this kind of work,
which was selected for a show at Peggy Guggenheim’s
gallery, Art of this Century, having been judged by the
likes of Piet Mondrian who, having fled Europe
during World War II, claimed this was the most
interesting work he’d seen in America so far. Pollock’s first solo show
garnered much attention. His pictures
described as archaic, tribal, and of elemental power. Curator James Johnson
Sweeney described his talent as volcanic. It has fire. It is unpredictable. It is undisciplined. What we need is more young men
who paint from inner impulsion. Guggenheim also
commissioned this new talent to create a mural for
her New York townhouse. And he produced an epic
19-foot long canvas that cemented his
rising star status and gave a glimpse
of the rhythmic forms and loose brushwork
that would follow. Pollock’s other 1942 break was
meeting painter Lee Krasner. They married in ’45 and moved
out to Long Island near East Hampton where they
set up studios– hers in the house
and his in the barn. Pollock continued to
begin his paintings with totemic and
mythological subjects but painted over
them with layers so thick that the original forms
were mostly indistinguishable. By ’47, Pollock was spreading
his canvases on the floor. Sometimes his initial
layer involved brushwork, but successive layers
were built up with poured, dripped, and scattered paint,
artist oils, enamel house paint, and aluminum
radiator paint. He used sticks, trowels,
and palette knives. Sometimes string, sand,
or nails entered the mix. Narrative content
began to disappear until all that was
visible was the splatters and skeins of paint
we all now think of when we think of Pollock. The titles dropped away
too, and he began to number his paintings like
musical compositions. There was no
sketching in advance, but it wasn’t just paint
flung willy nilly, at least most of the time. To a considerable
degree, he controlled his flow of paint and
distribution of color. He knew what kinds of motions
and what tools and paints produce certain results. He decided what to cover over
and what to let show through. His all-over compositions betray
a keen awareness of the edges. And after jags of activity,
he would stop and take stock of what he’d done before
entering back in or deciding the work was resolved. Pollock once responded
to a critic’s remarks by telegramming Time
magazine saying simply, “No chaos damn it.” This new work did
have its critics. It was described as
a child’s contour map of the Battle of Gettysburg
and a mop of tangled hair. Then and now, people
likened his dripping to bodily spillage–
vomit, pee, ejaculate. But there were
many who championed this radical departure,
notably the Museum of Modern Art and art critic,
Clement Greenberg, who believed Pollock’s
drip paintings to be the culmination of
the advancement of art since the dawn of modernism,
charting “the dissolution of the pictorial into sheer
texture into apparently sheer sensation.” Pollock became a
larger-than-life figure thanks to media attention
and the revelatory images made by photographer Hans Namuth
of Pollock painting in 1950. Namath also made a short film
of Pollock at work outdoors and gave us the unforgettable
view from below of Pollock painting on glass. Art critic, Harold
Rosenberg, called this kind of work action painting. As Pollock was among
a number of artists at the time for whom the
canvas could be considered “an arena” in which to act,
the term abstract expressionism began to be used to describe
the work of these artists who pursued abstraction as a
means to convey emotion, each with their own distinctive
gesture and approach. World War II had been hell,
and for Pollock and his ilk, still lifes and portraits
were now insufficient. Echoing Siqueiros,
Pollock explained new needs need new techniques. Today, painters do not
have to go to a subject matter outside themselves. They work from a
different source. They work from within. He had a productive
pocket of years and would return
to representation with a series of
paintings from ’51 and ’52 made with black enamel
and a turkey baster, oscillating between
abstraction and figuration. But in his last years, he
made work only sporadically, struggling with the
alcoholism that plagued him throughout his life. Pollock was at the wheel when he
died in a car accident in 1956 at the age of 44, throwing
his mistress from the car and killing her friend. Then and now, Pollock’s
brief but brilliant career was emblematic of the post-war
American boom, a country no longer culturally
subservient to Europe but defining its own terms. Pollock symbolized American
fearlessness and freedom, so much so that his work
and that of his peers was promoted during
the Cold War as proof of what was possible
in a democracy– no matter that Pollock had
been a member of the Communist Party. There’s a tendency to think
of Pollock’s breakthrough as cutting the 20th
century into halves– a before and an after. In 1958, artist
Allan Kaprow wrote, “He created some
magnificent paintings, but he also destroyed painting.” Of course, he didn’t
destroy painting. He destroyed some sense a
painting as a grand progression of movements from this to that. The medium has persisted,
finding other innovations and other audiences. Kaprow saw Pollock’s legacy
as pointing the way forward from painting to
everything else, leaving us “at the point where
we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled
by the space and objects of our everyday life.” As Pollock reacted
against Benton, many artists reacted against
Pollock, against gesture, against expression. As quickly as it appeared,
Pollock’s signature mark making became clicheed, representing
an era in American history when the art was
macho and large. The art world was
insular and small. And the reputed artists were
almost all-male and white. But where does this
leave us today? When looking at
his work, Pollock recommended we “not look
for but look passively and try to receive
what the painting has to offer and not bring a
subject matter or preconceived idea to it.” Of course, no one comes to
art or to anything this way. But perhaps you might
appreciate the work he suggested “just as music is enjoyed. After a while, you may
like it or you may not.” Ornette Coleman likened his
own improvisational jazz to Pollock’s work and
said, “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished,
but still it’s free form.” What happens in
the artist studio is almost always a mystery– training and expertise
and persistence synthesized over time
into a picture or a thing. But Pollock shows what happened
to get us here more distinctly than anyone had before. It’s clear that a person was
here and traversed this canvas. And now he’s not. Paint that was once liquid and
flowing now hardened and frozen in time. Pollock called it energy
and motion made visible and memories arrested in space. While the largeness of
his persona has faded, Pollock certainly isn’t
absent when you with the work. It’s fun and almost irresistible
to imagine being Pollock. There are lots of
things you can think about when looking at this
work– how a lot of painting tries to hide the
fact that it is indeed made of a viscous substance
while a Pollock allows the pain to revel in its
true liquid self. You can think about how
the picture plane is at once shallow and dense and
also overwhelmingly expansive, pointing to the infinity
that lies beyond. You can make note of the
variety of markings and textures and the tension between
planning and accident. What’s the difference really
between drawing directly on the canvas or in the
space just above it? Everything and
nothing it turns out. That bit of distance
relinquishes authorship and allows gravity and chance
and life to play a part. It’s in that distance that we
reside when with his work– in that nebulous area between
conscious and unconscious thought and action where so
much of life can be found. These pictures are
not easy to read. There is no beginning
and no end really– an idea Pollock
considered a compliment. In these lines and
layers and residues, there is new information
blotting out old. There are vast networks
of markings– what Kaprow called the endless tangle. Like an ocean or
a galaxy, we must settle to a great degree
in their inscrutability. In a similar sense,
we must also live with and struggle to grasp as
Pollock so desperately did the inscrutability within. The Art Assignment is funded
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