Jackson Pollock and his work have become synonymous with midcentury modernism in art and the “Triumph of American Painting” both in the US and abroad. (1) Pollock was attuned to avant-garde art from early in his career, incorporating cutting-edge formal ideas into his own groundbreaking work and thereby developing a visual rhythm and vocabulary that would come to change the face of American art. His early works contain the germ of Pollock’s greatest achievements, and his monumental drip paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s represent the pinnacle of American Abstract Expressionism.
Jackson Pollock moved to New York in 1930 and enrolled in classes with Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Benton became an important early mentor for Pollock. The young artist responded to Benton’s classroom discipline and artistic rigor, through eventually he rebelled against the older artist’s dismissal of pure abstraction. And yet despite his fidelity to figuration, Benton’s distillation of classical forms through the revelation of internal energies would play a role in Pollock’s later abstractions, providing a framework for the roiling pitch and yaw of Pollock’s line.
Sometime around 1939, Pollock became acquainted with the ex-patriot Russian artist John Graham, who had been a crucial link between New York and the European avant-garde for almost twenty years. Graham’s “Primitive Art and Picasso,” published in Magazine of Art in 1937, drew connections between primitive art and the universal unconscious sought by many modern painters, and hailed Picasso for his use of primitive forms toward modern ends. This struck a chord with Pollock, who sought out Graham’s friendship. Graham would give Pollock his first exhibition in 1942, when he included him in French and American Painters at McMillen Gallery. Pollock’s Birth hung alongside works by European greats such as Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, as well as contemporary Americans including Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Lee Krasner.
Pollock sought universal qualities in his art through the ideas of psychologist Carl Jung. Pollock began regular Jungian analysis in 1939 in an effort to deal with his problems with acute alcoholism, and would continue this analysis, under two doctors, until 1941. (2) Part of his treatment included bringing sketches to discuss during his sessions, and through this process artmaking became a central calm in the chaos of Pollock’s life. Jung’s belief in universal archetypes that allowed one to tap into the collective unconscious—the consciousness shared by all human beings—paralleled Pollock’s own search for universal visual meaning. However, the connection between Jungian ideas and Pollock’s archetypal and symbolic works of the late 1930s and early 1940s is not one to one. Rather, these psychological ideas provided the artist with a vocabulary in which to express his artistic theories, just as his analysis provided an outlet in which to discuss his work.
The distinct surface rhythm so central to Pollock’s work begins to appear in the late 1930s. The combination of sinuous line, varied texture, and juxtapositions of bright, pure color creates tensions and visual energies that enliven Pollock’s surfaces, leaving little space for the eye to rest. This rhythm is further developed in later works such as Birth, painted in 1941 and currently in the Tate’s collection. Birth pushes the formal and linear suggestions of the 1930s works right to the edges of the canvas, presaging the advent of the all-over paintings. The idea of horror vacui is applicable throughout Pollock’s oeuvre, from the early works through Birth, Stenographic Figure (c. 1942, MoMA), She-Wolf, (1943, MoMA), and right on to the infamous drips and skeins of the mature paintings.
1. Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. (New York: Harper & Row), 1976.
2. F. V. O'Connor and E. V. Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, vol. 1. (New Haven: Yale UP), 1978.
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