20th Century Benton and Pollock

Jackson Pollock 

Thomas Hart Benton. 
Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. 1934
oil and tempera on canvas
American Regionalism
Jackson Pollock. Going West. 1934
Form: This early work of Pollocks is often compared to the wok of Thomas Hart Benton, titled Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. Though the palette is somewhat monochromatic, the scene is traditional.Iconography and Context:

Paul Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming on 28 January 1912. He was the fifth and youngest son of LeRoy McCoy Pollock and Stella McClure Pollock. The family left Cody when Pollock was less than a year old, and he was raised in Arizona and California. After a series of unsuccessful farming ventures, his father became a surveyor and worked on road crews at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere in the Southwest. Pollock, who sometimes joined his father on these jobs, later remarked that memories of the panoramic landscape influenced his artistic vision.While attending Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, Pollock was encouraged to pursue his early interest in art. Two of his brothers, Charles and Sanford (known as Sande), were also developing as artists. Charles, the eldest, went to New York to study with the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League, and he suggested that Jackson should join him. In 1930 Pollock went east and enrolled in Benton's class at the League. It was at about this time that he dropped his first name, Paul, and began using his middle name.
Under Benton's guidance, Pollock analyzed Old Master paintings and learned the rudiments of drawing and composition. He also studied mural painting with Benton and posed for his teacher's 1930-31 murals at the New School for Social Research, where the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco was at work on frescoes. Pollock's first-hand experience of contemporary mural painting is thought to have sparked his ambition to paint large scale works of his own, although he would not realize that aim until 12 years later.
During the 1930s, Pollock's work reflected Benton's "American Scene" aesthetic, although enriched by a brooding, almost mystical quality reminiscent of the work of the visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom Pollock admired. Orozco's influence also made itself felt, especially after Pollock saw him at work on his dynamic frescoes for Dartmouth College (1932-34).

Jackson Pollock.
Birth. 1938
oil on canvas mounted on plywood.
Abstract Expressionism
Form: Jackson Pollock started to veer away from his more traditional style of painting at this point.Iconography: Pollock was an extremely agitated and upset man. As an artist he was unable to achieve the degree of proficiency with the paint that his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, had and could never get over his envy of artists such as Picasso and Miro. In writing about the biographical movie of his life, Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post puts it rather succinctly, "Rather than a sudden epi-phany, Pollock's arrival at the new approach to painting is depicted as a difficult birth following a long series of artistic contractions. It's sometime in the late 1940s and Pollock -- after more than a decade of wrestling with his own crippling Picasso envy, his unwillingness to imitate his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, and failed experiments with cubism, surrealism and automatism -- has just stumbled on his signature style after accidentally spilling paint on the floor." ( It may be said that his work is his struggle in trying to reach that 'birth;, to get to the place where he would eventually feel that his paintings had as much value as those of the artists he looked up to.


"With the advent of the New Deal's work-relief projects, Pollock and many of his contemporaries were able to work as artists on the federal payroll. Under government aegis, Pollock enrolled in the easel division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which provided him with a source of income for nearly eight years and enabled him to devote himself to artistic development. Some of Pollock's WPA paintings are now lost, but those that survive--together with other canvases, drawings and prints made during this period--illustrate his complex synthesis of source material and the gradual emergence of a deeply personal pictorial language. By the early 1940s, Native American motifs and other pictographic imagery played a central role in his compositions, marking the beginnings of a mature style.Even as his art was gaining in assurance and originality, Pollock was experiencing personal turmoil and recurring bouts of depression. He was also struggling to control his alcoholism, which would continue to plague him throughout his life. His brothers Charles and Sande, with whom he shared living quarters at 46 East 8th Street in Manhattan, encouraged him to seek treatment, including psychoanalysis. Although therapy was not successful in curbing Pollock's drinking or relieving his depression, it introduced him to Jungian concepts that validated the subjective, symbolic direction his art was taking. In late 1941, Sande wrote to Charles, who had left New York, that if Jackson could "hold himself together his work will become of real significance. His painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality."

The Moon Woman 1942
Abstract Expressionism
Male and Female. 1942.
oil on canvas, 6'x4'
Abstract Expressionism
Form: Still in the stages before he created the works he would eventually become famous for, it is easy to see the Picasso-inspired style of these two oil paintings. However, he was also influenced strongly by the work of the Native Americans. In Male and Female, it is evident that he was influenced by the Southwest culture, such as navajo rugs and Indian sand paintings.Iconography:  "It has been suggested that Pollock was influenced by Native American sand paintings, made by trickling thin lines of colored sand onto a horizontal surface. It was not until 1947 that Pollock began his "action'' paintings, influenced by
Surrealist ideas of "psychic automatism'' (direct expression of the unconscious). Pollock would fix his canvas to the
floor and drip paint from a can using a variety of objects to manipulate the paint.

The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle (1943; 109.5 x 104 cm (43 x 41 in)) is an early Pollock, but it shows the passionate intensity with which he pursued his personal vision. This painting is based on a North American Indian myth. It connects the moon with the feminine and shows the creative, slashing power of the female psyche. It is not easy to say what we are actually looking at: a face rises before us, vibrant with power, though perhaps the image does not benefit from labored explanations. If we can respond to this art at a fairly primitive level, then we can also respond to a great abstract work such as Lavender Mist. If we cannot, at least we can appreciate the fusion of colors and the Expressionist feeling of urgency that is communicated. Moon-Woman may be a feathered harridan or a great abstract pattern; the point is that it works on both levels."
( And, for Male and Female,
"This article demonstrates that Pollock drew his inspiration for Male and Female not from a wellspring of psychic urges, but from a roll-out drawing of a relatively obscure stela from Chavín de Huántar, Peru. With the skill of a shaman, Pollock transformed this monument's  two-thousand-year-old iconography into a modern idiom, preserving the original motifs in the outlines of his "violent automatism." Even the organization of the stela is retained, providing ample clues to the origin of Pollock's stylized male and female caimans. There exists well-documented evidence that Pollock drew heavily from Native American sources. His admiration of Navajo sand paintings, Northwest Coast masks, and pre-Columbian Mexican imagery are all evident in his work before 1940. What remains undisclosed are the striking parallels between Pollock's early "nonobjective"  paintings and native Peruvian bas-reliefs. Clear stylistic and iconographical affinities characterize not only in Male and Female but also other paintings of the critical period from 1942 through the mid-forties. Documentary evidence further buttresses this observable relationship. Both Robert Motherwell and Lee Krasner distinctly remember Pollock's stated goal in the early forties "to create a 'parallel' version of Picasso." Judging from the evidence, it seems likely that Pollock intended to conjure up the native spirits of the New World, just as Picasso had summoned forth African genies from the Old World."
"Jackson Pollock's painting Male and Female has long been recognized as a pivotal work in the artist's career. Completed around 1942 shortly after Pollock underwent Jungian analysis, the painting's imagery is generally attributed to the autonomic manifestation of Jungian archetypes. Consequently, Male and Female is reproduced in numerous scholarly publications, and is acclaimed as a significant step in Pollock's search for prelogical expression—one which eventually culminates in his drip paintings." 

Full Fathom 5. 1947
Oil on canvas with nails,
tacks, buttons, coins, cigarettes, etc,
129 x 76.5 cm (50 7/8 x 30 1/8 in)
Abstract Expressionism

 Form: Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, coins, cigarettes, etc. At this time Pollock was standing over the canvas he was painting on, and allowing the detritus that fell onto it to become a part of the artwork itself.
Form, Iconography, and Context:

"Full Fathom Five is one of the earliest masterpieces of Pollock's drip technique. The actual origins and initial development of this technique have never been fully explained, except by reading back from fuller photographic evidence produced about 1950, two or three years after this work was painted. Like other practical breakthroughs in twentieth-century painting, 'creative accident' seems likely to have played an important part, as Pollock probed and tested methods of paint application which promote the continuousness of line rather than the broken lines inevitable in the constant reloadings and readjustments of conventional brushwork. His solution was to pour from a can of domestic paint along a stick resting inside the container, so that a constant 'beam' of pigment came into contact with the canvas (which he left unstretched on the studio floor). The character of the line was determined by certain physical and material variables that could be combined in almost infinite permutations: the viscosity of the paint (controlled by thinning and dilution); the angle and hence speed of the pouring; and the dynamics of Pollock's bodily gestures, his sweep and rhythm, especially in the wrist, arm and shoulder. 'Like a seismograph', noted writer Wemer Haftmann 'the painting recorded the energies and states of the man who drew it.' In addition Pollock would flick, splatter and dab subsidiary colors on to the dominant linear configuration." (
Context: It is most probable that Pollock was thinking of this Shakespeare sonnet as he worked; note the tempest-like appearance and feel of the paint, both in texture and color.

Full Fathom Five
The Tempest (I, II, 329)
by William ShakespeareFERDINAND.
Where should this music be? i'the air or the earth?
It sounds no more: - and, sure, it waits upon
Some god o'the island.  Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the king my father's wrack,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have follow'd it,
Or hath it drawn me rather: - but 'tis gone.
No, it begins again.
ARIEL, sings.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
     Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
     Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
          [Burden within. Ding-dong.]
Hark! now I hear them, - Ding-dong, bell.
The ditty does remember my drown'd father: -
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes: - I hear it now above me.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) 1950
oil on canvas 8'x17'
Abstract Expressionism
Form: "Action" or "drip" painting on canvas.Iconography and Context:

At this point in hs career, Pollock was begininng to truly come into his own with his new style of 'action' painting. He began to get into the rhythm of the movement inherent in painting and allowed music to influence him, "New York painter Jackson Pollock(1912-1956) was an unquestionable leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His above 1950 work Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), exemplifies the careful balance between accident and control that characterizes both his art and the improvisational jazz of the period. Pollock himself was an avowed jazz fan, often attending live performance's at New York's Five Spot club. Critic Ellen Landau notes the influence of jazz on Pollock's painting: As early as prescient critic compared the "flare, spatter and fury" of Pollock's paintings to modern music...Pollock loved jazz..."rocking and rolling" for days on end to Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, Dixieland, and bebop. What undoubtedly attracted him to this type of sound was not just its rhythm and tempo, but its naked presentation of honest and deeply felt emotion...Pollock could tell his wife that jazz was "the only other creative thing happening in the country."
Context: (culled directly from an interview on
JIM LEHRER: Now a painter who changed American art.
Senior Producer Jeffrey Brown reports.JEFFREY BROWN: The painting is violent, like a boxing match.
 KIRK VARNEDOE, Museum of Modern Art: The way that things are flung against the canvas -- the splat, the splatter-- there's a sense of aggression in the picture.
 JEFFREY BROWN: It's lyrical , like a ballet. (music in background)
KIRK VARNEDOE: There's something extremely fine and delicate about a lot of these lines that is choreographed on some level of ecstasy.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's dense, like a dream --.
 KIRK VARNEDOE: There's no foreground, there's no background, there's no tree, there's no dog, there's no recognizable anything in this picture. And yet there's a sense of very complex space that's poised between opposites.
JEFFREY BROWN: That is the view from curator Kirk Varnadoe of "Autumn Rhythm," dripped, poured, and flung into existence by Jackson Pollock in 1950, and now part of a Pollock retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The music is from a CD put out by the museum, the jazz Pollock listened to for days on end, from his own collection.
JACKSON POLLOCK: Sometimes I use a brush but often prefer using a stick. Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can.

Pollock was invited to participate in a group exhibition of work by French and American painters, including Picasso, Braque, Matisse and other established masters. Among the virtually unknown Americans in the group was Lenore Krassner--later known as Lee Krasner--who became Pollock's lover and later his wife. The work she saw in Pollock's studio convinced her of his extraordinary talent, and it was not long before influential members of New York's avant-garde intellegensia began to share her opinion. His work came to the attention of Peggy Guggenheim, whose gallery, Art of This Century, showed the most challenging new work by American and European abstractionists and Surrealists. Guggenheim became Pollock's dealer and patron, introducing his work to the small but avid audience for vanguard painting. In 1945 Guggenheim lent Pollock the down payment on a small homestead in The Springs, a rural hamlet near East Hampton, Long Island. This property, now the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, would be Pollock's home for the rest of his life and the site of his most innovative and influential work. Before moving to The Springs, his imagery had been congested, his colors somber, and the general mood of his paintings anxious and conflicted. Soon after establishing his studio in the country, however, his colors brightened, his compositions opened up, and his imagery reflected a new responsiveness to nature. Soon he would pioneer the spontaneous pouring technique for which he became world-renowned.

Although Pollock had first experimented with liquid paint at the Siqueiros workshop in 1936, it would not become his primary medium until more than ten years later. By 1947 he was creating densely layered all-over compositions that earned both praise and scorn from the critics. Some dismissed them as meaningless and chaotic, while others saw them as superbly organized, visually fascinating and psychologically compelling. Clement Greenberg, one of Pollock's most ardent supporters, maintained that he was "the most powerful painter in contemporary America and the only one who promises to be a major one." With several one-person exhibitions to his credit and work included in important group shows, Pollock was receiving significant attention. A profile in the 8 August 1949 issue of Life magazine introduced his challenging art to a nationwide audience and cemented his growing reputation as the foremost modern painter of his generation.
Pollock's radical breakthrough was accompanied by a period of sobriety lasting two years, during which he created some of his most beautiful masterpieces. In his barn studio, he spread his canvas on the floor and developed his compositions by working from all four sides, allowing the imagery to evolve spontaneously, without preconceptions. Pollock described this technique as "direct" painting and likened it to American Indian sand painting. He maintained, however, that the method was "a natural growth out of a need," and that its only importance was as "a means of arriving at a statement." The character and content of that statement were then and remain controversial, subject to widely varying interpretations--which is why Pollock's art has retained its vitality in spite of changing tastes.
In 1951 Pollock's aesthetic underwent a shift in emphasis as he abandoned non-objective imagery in favor of abstracted references to human and animal forms. "When you're working out of your unconscious," he explained, "figures are bound to emerge." He also gave up color to create a series of stark black paintings on unprimed canvas. Many of his admirers were ambivalent about his new direction, which may account at least in part for Pollock's inability to remain sober. For the next five years he would struggle unsuccessfully to solve his drinking problem, while his art underwent a series of revisions, some more successful than others. Color returned, gesture became richer and more various, and Pollock once again veiled his imagery in layers that obscured as much as they revealed.
By 1955, however, Pollock's personal demons had triumphed over his artistic drive, and he stopped painting altogether. Ironically, his work had begun to earn a respectable income for him and Krasner, who was becoming increasingly estranged from her troubled, alcoholic husband. In the summer of 1956 she took the opportunity of a trip to Europe to re-evaluate their relationship, while Pollock remained at home with a young mistress to distract him from the agonies of self-doubt and inaction that plagued him. In Paris, on the morning of 12 August, Krasner received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had died the night before in an automobile accident. Driving drunk, he had overturned his convertible, killing himself and an acquaintance and seriously injuring his other passenger.

Bio written by Helen Harrison; Director, Pollock-Krasner House

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