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Jackson Pollock

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Jackson Pollock: Jan. 28,1912-Aug. 11,1956...United States

"Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within."
~Jackson Pollock

One of the most troubled, as well as great artists in the area of gestural abstraction was the action painter, Jackson Pollock. He was born as far away from the art world as most could imagine. Born the youngest of five boys to Stella and LeRoy Pollock in Cody, Wyoming, the young family was soon moving on to live in Arizona and then California. His first real art experience was at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. His oldest brother, Charles, went to New York to study art at the Art Students League under painter Thomas Hart Benton. In 1930, Jackson also went to study under Benton. “He drove his kind of realism at me so hard I bounced right into nonobjective painting.”

Thomas Hart Benton…April 15, 1889-January 19, 1975...United States

Benton was a very well respected American mural painter. His cartoon-like paintings of the everyday Midwestern life were his specialty. He first got into art working as a cartoonist in Joplin, Missouri. He went on to be trained more formally at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian in Paris France. An outspoken artist, Benton hated modernism, preferring a style that is known as Regionalism. This style made his a very popular artist. He moved from New York to work at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. He would die in Kansas City in 1975 at work in his studio, literally with his paint brush in hand. How ironic that he was open about his detest for the abstractionist style but helped train one of the most, if not the most popular, abstractionist artist of his generation.

Pollock was studying under Benton and working for the easel division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project for nearly eight years. It was not long after he began to study in New York that Pollock was invited to participate in the "French and American Painting" show in 1942. Through his involvement at this show, he met his future wife Lee Krasner. As an artist, Pollock rejected Benton's representational subject matter but kept his emphasis on rhythmic composition. He was also greatly influenced by the Cubist and Surrealist styles. Soon, art collector, dealer, and patron to several artists, Peggy Guggenheim saw the potential in the budding artist. She offered him his first solo exhibition in1943 at her Art of This Century gallery and patronized his works that first year for him one-hundred fifty dollars a month. This partnership was maintained for several years.

Along with Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage via shows and money, she also commissioned for him to paint a huge mural for her home, smartly titled Mural. This work was a huge transition for Pollock as an artist. It was a huge commission and a huge size (eight feet tall and nearly twenty feet long). He worried and thought about what he might paint. Peggy was getting restless. Over the course of one night he painted the whole work. The finished product launched Pollock from near unknown status to being the hottest artist in the world. Not only did the work give him his start at fame, but is also would alter his approach to painting forever after. This was the pivot were he angled away from his figurative surrealism and moved in the direction of Action oriented Gestural Abstraction.

Mural

1943/44, Oil on Canvas, 8 feet x 19 feet 10 inches. University of Iowa Museum, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.

Lee Krasner was an artist, but focused much of her energy in their first years together to help promote and manage Pollock’s work. Struggling with alcoholism since he was fifteen, Pollock was in and out of psychoanalysis in his adulthood to help him recover from binges. It is said that when he was being professionally analyzed, his work was great. But most of the time he got better, worked, got stressed, went out to drink, and would be found or drag himself home days later. When sober, he was an extremely shy and introverted man, but when under the influence, he became a violent wind-bag. He needed to be away from the city. After their marrage on October 25, 1945, Pollock and Krasner moved to a small farm at 830 Fireplace Road in The Springs on East Hampton, Long Island New York in November of 1945. There he had the space to work and be productive. “When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing.” Gaining popularity, his career exploded when he was featured in the August issue of Life Magazine in 1949.

“Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” asked Life magazine. His work at that time was identified as drip painting, earning him the nickname Jack the Dripper. It was around this time that he also began to number his paintings with the year instead of giving them titles. “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” Later, in 1952, art critic Harold Rosenberg was describing Pollock’s rhythmic movements as he moved around his canvas that was placed on the ground and drip the paints. Rosenberg described Pollock as an “Action Painter.” The action was in the dripping and the artists physical movements. He used his brush more as a stick than an actual brush. He also applied paint with many other utensils including turkey basters. “It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” There were also some cases when he mixed other materials into the paint, including glass, to give it a textural quality.

Of Pollock’s numerous action paintings, the most famous is probably Lavender Mist. The work, painted on November 1, 1950, is textured with more line complexity than any other Pollock. The energy demonstrated and deep colors that bounce off one another keep viewers captivated. This is Pollock at his absolute best.

Lavender Mist 

1950. Oil, enamel and aluminumon canvas. 7 feet 3 inches x 9 feet 9 ˝ inches.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Although he was the first American abstract painter to be taken seriously in Europe, he would continue to struggle with his alcoholism and depression. No amount of success could help him. “The problem isn’t painting; it’s what to do when you aren’t painting.” Toward the end of his life he did not paint at all. Professionally he was in a tough situation. His drip paintings were popular, but the critics wanted something new. He was being interviewed by Selden Rodman for the book Conversations with Artists. This was eight weeks before he died. In an attempt to show some painting to illustrate his ideas, he took Rodman and his wife out to his studio, but had lost the key. After a few minutes of looking for the key, the frustrated and drunk Pollock smashed the window with his fist. Then smashing out another two with his elbow. “Wait, I'll get a hammer and really go to work on this.” In the studio, his point was illustrated and Rodman went back to the house, leaving Pollock and his wife in the studio where Pollock began to cry uncontrollably. Pointing at a painting he said, “Do you think I would have painted this crap if I knew how to draw a hand?” On top of that, his marriage was very rough, with him drinking continually and taking a mistress, Ruth Kligman. The two met in March of 1956 and dated a little but by June, Kligman had broken it off with him. But late that same month, she got a job as supervisor at the Abraham Rattner School of Art for the New York Times. This was near East Hampton and they began to see each other again. This was a unique time for Lee Krasner as well. She was beginning to gain some momentum in her career. Pollock and Krasner had a huge fight on July 9. She wasted the cheating to stop or she was leaving and he told her to go. Krasner left for a trip to Europe on July 12. With Krasner gone, Kligman moved in. By August, Lee was waiting to get word from Pollock when she could come home and Kligman was sick of going to parties with Pollock, only to be ignored. So on August 9, Kligman went off to New York where she would meet up with her friend, Edith Metzger for lunch. Metzger was a twenty five year old receptionist. He father was a German Jew and was killed during the World War 2, but her other immediate family members had escaped to the United States. Kligman convinced Metzger to come back to spend the weekend with her and Jackson. That night Kligman had a date, but would returned to The Springs, accompanied by Edith Metzger, on the 7:05 train from New York the morning of August 11. At the Springs, the girls stopped for a coffee, and Pollock drank beer. He drank all day. After a steak dinner they went off to a party at Alfonso Ossorio's house. On the way he was stopped by a police man that Pollock knew and he went on his way. He was falling asleep and turned into a parking lot when Metzger jumped out. She was scared and didn’t want to drive with the drunk Pollock. Kligman convinced her to get in so they could go home. She did. Jackson was angry at the girls and began to speed home. Metzger screamed and begged for him to stop the car, but the angry Pollock floored the light-green 1950 Oldsmobile 88 convertible. Fireplace Road had several curves and Pollock was laughing wildly as Metzger screamed for him to stop. As he slid around one corner he could not make the next. The intoxicated Jackson drove his car into two small elm trees. Edith Metzger and Pollock both died in the crash. Pollock was buried in Green River Cemetery in The Springs on August 15. No friends spoke at the funeral, mostly because of what he had done; in the affair and his killing of Metzger. After the funeral as the friends met to talk and drink, Pollock’s good friend, Willem de Kooning said 'It's all right. That's enough. I saw Jackson in his grave. And he's dead. It's over. I'm number one.' Others got upset by the comment, but I think it was meant more as a joke than anything.

Although a tormented man that made life destroying mistakes, he was an artist that was widely respected, and is still a huge influence on the world art community. In 2006 Number 5, 1948 was sold at auction by David Geffen, to a Mexican financier named David Martinez for $140 million, making it the most expensive painting ever.

Number 5, 1948

1948. Oil, enamel and aluminumon board. 50 x 78.7 inches. Pirvate Collection.

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Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063