Jackson Pollock, Famous American Painter & Artist

Jackson Pollock in his barn house studio in Springs, 1950s
Jackson Pollock in his barn house studio in Springs, 1950s

One of the most famous artists of all time, Jackson Pollock is world renowned for his rhythmic, expressive canvases that dance with energy and life. Hailing from New York in the 1940s and 50s, his freewheeling paintings encapsulate the inventive spirit of American Abstract Expressionism. A pioneer of Action Painting, he invented the ‘drip technique’, applying liquid paint in loose, linear strands across the surface to create intricate, web-like patterns of movement, prompting Time Magazine to call him “Jack the Dripper.”

Farm Boy to Artist

Born on a farm in Cody, Wyoming in 1912, Pollock was the youngest of five children. His father, a farmer and land surveyor, moved the family around the United States, taking them to Arizona and later California, but he was an abusive alcoholic and abandoned them when Pollock was 8 years old. The arts came naturally to Pollock and he entered the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles as a teenager, discovering the language of Surrealism and psychoanalysis. Pollock came to idolize his older brothers Charles and Sanford, who were both aspiring artists; when they left California for New York’s lively art scene he was soon to follow.

Pollock’s Life in New York

In New York Pollock lived with his two brothers in Greenwich Village and studied painting with regional artist Thomas Hart Benton. After posing for a series of Benton’s murals in 1930-31 Pollock became fascinated by the scale and wonder of mural painting, tracking down Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, so he could witness their dazzling art first hand. By 1936 Pollock had joined David Alfaro Siqueros’ studio to learn mural painting, acquiring skills that would allow him to create outdoor paintings for the Public Works of Art Project during the Great Depression. With Siqueros, Pollock also experimented with expressive and unconventional painting styles and materials, as well as huge scales that would pre-empt his later, vast canvases.

Early Abstraction

The Flame, Jackson Pollock, 1938
The Flame, Jackson Pollock, 1938

Pollock had recurring problems with alcoholism and in 1938, after suffering a breakdown he tried Jungian psychoanalysis. His therapist suggested art therapy; the work that came out of this period reflect his troubled state of mind, with angry, swirling semi-figurative shapes that interlock together into tight networks, Such as The Flame, 1938 and Birth, 1941. Multiple influences were brought together, including the patterns and colors from Native American art and the Surrealism of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

 Mural, Jackson Pollock, 1943, via University of Iowa
Mural, Jackson Pollock, 1943, via University of Iowa

Pollock met and fell in love with artist Lee Krasner in the 1940s and Krasner introduced Pollock to her art circle, including the influential artist Hans Hoffmann, who would become a great supporter of Pollock’s art. Pollock also met gallerist Peggy Guggenheim and showed her his work; she was so taken that she invited him to take part in The Art of This Century in her New York gallery, and gave him his first solo exhibition in 1943. She commissioned him to make a large painting for her apartment, titled Mural, 1943, an important bridge between Pollock’s earlier, Surrealist painting and his mature drip paintings.

The Rise to Fame

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950
Autumn Rhythm, number 30, Jackson Pollock, 1950

Pollock and Krasner bought a barn house in the Springs area of East Hampton in Long Island in 1945. Pollock converted the barn into his studio space, where he painted with his canvases flat on the floor so he could move all around them, dripping liquid paint with sticks and long brushes in swift, fluid movements without touching the surface. Between 1946 and 1952 he made his most iconic works, including Summertime 9A, 1948, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, Convergence, 1952, and Blue Poles, 1952.

Jackson Pollock, 1950, Photograph by Hans Namuth, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography
Jackson Pollock, 1950, photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

The titles of his work increasingly took on numerical references, revealing his move away from figuration into the realms of pure abstraction. Life Magazine’s famous feature on his art in 1949 helped secure his fame, asking, “Jackson Pollock. Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”, while a solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York sold out, making him the top selling painter in the United States. Photographer Hans Namuth also helped secure Pollock’s stature by creating a series of iconic photographs and a film of Pollock at work, highlighting the fusion between painting and performance, or Action Painting, at the root of Pollock’s art.

Summertime: Number 9A, 1948 Tate, London
Summertime, number 9A, Jackson Pollock, 1948, Tate, London

The Cost of Success

Throughout Pollock’s rise to international fame he often faced harsh criticism. Art critic Robert Coates famously called his work “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.” Some of his fellow artists also resented the fame he had achieved, driving a wedge between their friendships. Art historians have also suggested Namuth’s photographs and film demystified Pollock’s working process, lending it a certain formulaic predictability. Facing these challenges proved almost too much for Pollock as his alcohol problems resurfaced, while his marriage hit the rocks as he began having extramarital affairs.

Jackson Pollock, The Deep, 1953, Centre Georges Pompidou Paris France
The Deep, Jackson Pollock, 1953, credit Centre Georges Pompidou Paris, France

In a series of new, all black paintings Pollock abandoned the drip technique, exploring enamel paint poured or thrown onto the canvas, as seen in Echo: Number 25, 1951. But the work was less popular, leaving him deeply depressed and drinking heavily; his masterpiece, The Deep, 1953 expressed the internal turmoil he was wrestling with. In 1956 Pollock crashed his car into a tree while drinking and driving, and died instantly. His new girlfriend Ruth Kligman, who was also in the car, survived. 

Jackson Pollock: His Legacy Today

Just one year after his death Pollock had a memorial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while since then his work has been distributed across major museums and collections around the world. In auctions today Pollock’s art reaches astronomical prices, particularly his drip paintings from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Recent high prices include Number 32, 1949, sold in 2018 for $34.1 million, No. 17A, 1948, sold in 2016 for a whopping $200 million, Number 19, 1948 in 2013 for $58.4 million, No. 5, 1948, which reached a staggering $140 million in 2006, and his famous, earlier Mural, 1943 for Peggy Guggenheim garnering $114 million in the same year, making Pollock one of the world’s most expensive artists of all time.

Did you know? 10 Facts about Jackson Pollock

  1. Pollock was raised in a non-religious family, but in high school he developed an interest in alternative religions and attended a series of lectures by Indian spiritual leader and theosophist Jiddu Krishnamurti.
  2. Pollock struggled with academic subjects at school and was expelled from high school for being a “troublemaker.”
  3. New York, 1930s, Pollock was so poor he had to work as a janitor and steal food to get by.
  4. Pablo Picasso had a profound influence on Pollock in his early career, particularly Guernica, 1937. Pollock saw the work at an exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and filled an entire sketchbook with studies of Picasso’s painting.
  5. A biopic film was made about Jackson Pollock’s tumultuous life in 2000, titled Pollock, with Ed Harris as Pollock and Marcia Gay Harden as his wife Lee Krasner.
  6. The barn house in Springs where Pollock lived with his wife Krasner is now immortalized as the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, a major tourist attraction in the East Hampton area. The studio floor where Pollock made his most famous paintings is still stained with the remnants of his artistic process.
  7. Although his work traveled widely throughout America, Pollock never left the United States, but his art is held in museum collections all around the world, including Australia, Great Britain, Italy and France.
  8. The household paints Pollock used were so sticky that objects and bugs would often get stuck in them. If you look very closely in some paintings they are still visible, such as One: Number 31, 1950, which contains a fly encased in paint.
  9. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, founded the Pollock-Krasner Foundation after Pollock’s death in 1956, an organisation which provides financial assistance to established artists.
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