Jackson Pollock images and biography
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Jackson Pollock
(1912-1956)

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See also: Abstract Expressionism; Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock: American painter. He was an important practitioner of Abstract Expressionism. He was born in Cody, Wyoming, into a poor sheep farming family and was originally interested in sculpture, but joined the Art Students' League of New York in 1929 and was taught painting by Thomas Hart Benton. He developed a romantic Regionalist style influenced by Ryder during the 1930s. As a member of the Federal Art project 1938-42, he met a number of avant garde artists (he exhibited with de Kooning in 1940) and discovered Picasso's work and Surrealism (he was part of the New York Surrealist exhibition in 1942 and wrote automatic poetry). In 1939, he underwent psychiatric counselling and came into contact with the ideas of Jung. He began a series of semi figurative pieces, using symbolism from Native American culture (Navajo sand painting) and primitive art, influenced by the Mexican Rivera and incorporating a heavily applied technique which suggested violent spontaneity (e.g. She-Wolf 1943, New York).

Pollock was already experimenting with Surrealist automatism, but after the War he settled in Long Island and began to develop the Action techniques for which he is best known, dripping and throwing paint onto large canvases which were laid on the studio floor and only cut once the work was completed. He produced his first such abstraction in 1945. The intention was to avoid a focus for the work, to be part of it during creation (actually walking over it), to treat it as an object and to work semi automatically ('painting has a life of its own'). His attitude was later influential to Performance artists and happenings.

Despite his abstraction, Pollock used evocative, descriptive titles for many of these works (e.g. Cathedral, 1947, Dallas). The mesh of drips and dashes, often textured by the addition of sand and other materials, created a floating spatial rhythm. In 1951, suffering from alcoholic depression, he reduced his colours and began to work with black enamels of unprimed canvas. Dreamlike figures began to creep back into his work (e.g. Portrait and Dream, 1953, private collection). Pollock died in a car crash in 1956.

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History


The following review of the Jackson Pollock retrospective held in 1998/99 was written by Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, Editor, O’CONNOR’S PAGE.

Review No. 9
JACKSON POLLOCK

At The Museum of Modern Art, NY (Nov. 1, ‘98-Feb. 2, ‘99);
The Tate Gallery, London, (March 11-June 6 ’99)
and
Kirk Varnedoe with Pepe Karmel, Jackson Pollock, New York: The Museum of Modern Art / Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1998
and
Related Events
and
Pollock Watch Commentaries Nos. 1A to 1Q

What follows are the Introductions to the Reviews and Commentaries I published on the occasion of The Museum of Modern Art’s Jackson Pollock exhibition. These will explain what is available on O’CONNOR’S PAGE about Pollock. The substance of this material can be accessed through the following link --

http://members.aol.com/FVOC

Introduction to Reviews 9, 9A and 9B

The Jackson Pollock Exhibition at MoMA

Let me say at the start that this was a spectacular exhibition. In my experience it has only been equaled at MoMA by William Rubin’s retrospective of Pablo Picasso in 1980. Its curators, Kirk Varnedoe [hereafter KV] and Pepe Karmel [hereafter PK], whatever I may say later about the details of this show’s selection and interpretation, are here congratulated for bringing Pollock’s art before the public in so splendid and spacious an environment.

The exhibition, and the ancillary shows elsewhere in the museum, provide access to nearly 200 representative works by Pollock in all media. For most ordinary art lovers in this country, Pollock’s work has been sparsely available. There are only about a dozen visible examples in New York at any given time. Most of these, it must be said, are at MoMA, where William Lieberman, the curator of the first Pollock retrospective there in 1967, and William Rubin, a vociferous enthusiast for his work, collected Pollock in depth. That number just about doubles when considering the visible Pollock holdings of the other museums between Boston and Washington. While these museums’ holdings of other paintings, drawings and prints greatly expand these numbers, they are seldom on public view. It would also take an intrepid Pollock lover of heroic stamina to ferret out the rest in our nation’s other museums -- say in Buffalo, Utica, Iowa City, Omaha, St Louis, Seattle, etc. (Indeed, it is easier to see Vermeer; nearly a third of his oeuvre is visible on the east coast of this country!)

Several friends, long aware of my interest in Pollock, have told me that for the first time, after viewing the current MoMA exhibit, they had come to understand just what Pollock had achieved. (It is unclear if they thought me crazy earlier. . . .) Further, it is to be hoped that several new generations of art lovers -- all of whom seemed to have left their discos to crash MoMA on the night of its formal opening -- will have similar epiphanies. So all praise and thanks to the curators, their staff and the sponsors of this exhibition, for making it possible, and bringing it off with such glorious visual panache.

MoMA’s Pollock exhibition opened late in October 1998. I followed this important event in some detail, primarily because I have been involved with Pollock as a scholar since my dissertation at The Johns Hopkins University in 1965. Two years later, I wrote the text for the catalogue of MoMA’s first Pollock retrospective--whose curator was William S. Lieberman (now head of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum). In 1978, I co-edited the catalogue raisonné of Pollock’s work with the art dealer, Eugene Victor Thaw, and in 1995, edited a supplement to that catalogue for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. I have also been a member of the several committees that decided on the authenticity of works attributed to Pollock since about 1973. So this exhibition and its scholarly, curatorial, critical and cultural ramifications shall be watched here with special interest.

Review No. 9 was posted on November 1, 1998.


Review No. 9A (excerpt) --

Pollock in Utopia: A Tour of the Exhibition

Introduction

Blue is the color of this exhibition, its photo logo being a shot of Pollock painting, taken from below by Hans Namuth through a sheet of plate glass in the fall of 1950. The artist is seen against the sky, pouring elegant black lines. This image is on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue, and the CD of Pollock’s top seventeen jazz classics, that can be seen in serried rows in the shop just outside the entrance as you ascend the escalator. When you open the catalogue, its endpapers continue Pollock’s pouring process with two more stills from the film -- that show him obscuring his face behind a dense web of poured lines.

That is exactly what, in a sense, the show achieves. The exhibition’s point is clear: To show the development of Pollock’s pouring technique. When you read the catalogue, you soon realize that its curators are really interested in nothing else, the early work through c. 1946 being disparaged; the late work from 1951 on scanted. But curators do exhibitions from a point of view, the view here is legitimate if limited -- and the catalogue shall be reviewed at 9B in respect to what it contributes to our knowledge of the artist this exhibition both reveals and conceals.

As you approach the entrance to the exhibition, that occupies seventeen galleries on MoMA’s entire third floor, you see beyond a blue title wall an Orozco-influenced naked man wielding a knife. His arm is seemingly bitten by a second figure, while a third sprawls (safely?) below them. Whether a curatorial point, or a vista’s accident, it sets a certain tone of arrested violence that pervades all that is to follow in MoMA’s elegantly designed, brilliantly illuminated and extravagantly spacious installation. The surrounding luxury somehow insulates the senses and makes you forget the rage implicit in these works and the essentialism that informs them -- and their “impurity” of facture that even Varnedoe admits (VK: 52).

Kirk Varnedoe, the curator of this exhibition, addresses the matter of Pollock’s essentialism in an interview by Sarah Greenberg in The Art Newspaper (November 1998, p. 31). There, he makes the point that Pollock’s art “seems utterly unironic. It has no trace of cynicism.” I agree. Pollock’s essentialism -- that I have discussed in the interpretive essays (Pollock Watch Commentaries Nos. 1D to 1K) -- is the opposite of irony -- even that which pervades this paradoxical installation. Life for Pollock was too puzzling, hard, and chthonic to beat around the bush with tangentially clever takes on anything. The instinctive tenor of his mind was that of Occam’s razor: Get to the essential point and cut the bullshit. When Hans Hofmann, that future Abstract Expressionist manqué, suggested Pollock study “nature” from a studio set-up, he replied that he “was Nature.” When a woman asked him how he knew when a poured painting was finished, he asked how she knew when sex was over. His bluntness -- his arrogant disregard of others -- his impatience with anything that did not get to the heart of art or life could be as sharp as a knife -- even if art or life bit back -- and the essential point remained irretrievable.

POLLOCK WATCH
COMMENTARIES NOS. 1A TO 1Q

Introduction -- Going Down to the Weave:

The Pollock Watch will offer a series of interpretive essays on individual works by Jackson Pollock. These are derived from a lecture I gave in the summer of 1998: the eleventh annual Pollock-Krasner Lecture, sponsored by the State University of New York’s Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center, that is housed in the Pollocks’ home at East Hampton, New York. It was given on August 16th at the Guild Hall in East Hampton, and titled JACKSON POLLOCK: DOWN TO THE WEAVE - A COMMENTARY ON A SELECTION OF KEY WORKS. This was, in turn derived from the draft manuscript of a book I have been writing about Pollock of the same title.

All references to works by Jackson Pollock will mainly be to the following two publications:

-- Francis V. O'Connor, and Eugene V. Thaw, Co-editors, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works. New Haven: Yale University Press, 4 Volumes, 1978. [Hereafter: JPCR. This is the standard illustrated inventory of Pollock works, with a handlist to his library and a documentary chronology.]

-- See also Francis V. O'Connor, Editor, Supplement Number One - Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works. New York: The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, 1995. [Hereafter JPCR-Sup1. This adds 48 newly discovered works by Pollock to the published oeuvre, includes new documents and photographs, and a section of additions and corrections to the JPCR]

Other publications shall be cited in the text either in full, or by author, date and page. For the latter, see the annotated bibliography in the Comment section’s Pollock Watch at No. 1C for full citations -- and other books where reproductions can be found.

These interpretive essays will not be illustrated for technical reasons, so I shall provide a reference to the Pollock catalogue raisonné. In general, the works discussed shall be sufficiently described in the text so the reader can understand what is being said clearly enough. Where a good color reproduction is available in one of the readily available monographs in the bibliography, I shall give a reference to that also.

Before discussing other works by Pollock, let me describe the method I am employing.

The phrase “down to the weave” came to me spontaneously when writing a sonnet about Pollock that was ultimately published in the Art Journal’s fall issue in 1988. (I follow the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire’s notion that only poets should write art criticism.) It is published here with a few slight revisions:

The others cozen a space to grope --
mess and measure the colored mud
till it tells. Given his rope,
he throws chance to knowing blood.
You can see the ages of his eye
down to the weave. To enthrall
monsters is to testify --
to reenact the primal brawl.
Unravel his skeins in space:
tease them out like DNA,
feature by feature's trace
down to the weave -- where they stay
oneiromancy’s vote
on spectra from young Joseph's coat.

Pollock was an individual impatient with anything other than the most direct route to a goal. This is typical of someone severely injured early on by life. Pollock was born strangled by the cord, an event that left him with mild learning and motor disabilities, and most probably, a precocious vulnerability to alcohol. Such persons tend always to be seeking, at least unconsciously, the reasons for their affliction. The outward manifestation of this is what I call an aggressive essentialism. It is the psychological equivalent of political radicalization: that is, when a person is so afflicted by injustice that life is meaningless until equity is restored. Restoring equity, for Pollock then, was to get to the bottom of things at the cost of all intervening superficialities. In Pollock's art, this is symbolized by the laying bare of the historical process by which each work was created. Its stages are clearly visible, most often literally "down to the weave" of the canvas -- thus the title of the lecture, and the book I am writing.

No artist among the Abstract Expressionists is more open about revealing the stages that led up to the surface we see. This vertical directionality down to the weave, distinct from any device of perspective (though at times contributing to the spatial drama of the work), is the hallmark of the way Pollock painted.

But people want to know what Pollock’s works mean? This begs the question of what "meaning" means when interpreting Pollock. Here, I would suggest, meaning is the sum total of three things:

  1. what you feel on first encountering the work,

  2. what you can see of the qualities of the work that made you feel as you did,

  3. what you can know about the work’s imagery and intent, and the historical origins and context from which, and in which, it was created.

The point to stress here is that the first levels of relevant information in the quest for meaning are visceral and visual, not verbal. These are the realities that I think have been forgotten in the current "literature" on Pollock -- and most serious art. Indeed, one must come to the sad conclusion that for many historians, biographers and critics today, the works of art are not real as objects -- only the theory of explanation is real. This lack of empathy -- this inability to share in another's emotions or feelings -- this inability to see, and through perception, to feel through what is actually there in the art work, but instead to assert only what theory requires to be there -- makes all too much recent art commentary tendentiously distortive, unenlightening, and ultimately useless.

What follows applies the method just described in the reviews of the show and its catalogue, and in the commentaries on specific works.

GO TO
O’CONNOR’S PAGE
FOR FULL TEXTS OF REVIEWS 9A and 9B
and
POLLOCK WATCH COMMENTARIES 1A to 1Q

[First published between July 6, 1998 and February 22, 1999]

- ©1998, Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, Editor, O’CONNOR’S PAGE. Reproduced by permission.

Books on Jackson Pollock:


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Jackson Pollock Images

* Links to other Pollock images online can be found at Artcyclopedia.

1942 Male and Female
1942 The Moon-Woman
1942 Stenographic Figure
c. 1943 Pasiphäe
c. 1943 The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle
c. 1943 Blue (Moby Dick)
1943 Guardians of the Secret
1943 Guardians of the Secret (Detail)
1943 The She-Wolf
1946 Eyes in the Heat
1946 The Key
1946 Shimmering Substance
1946 The Tea Cup
1947 Cathedral
1947 Cathedral (Detail)
1947 Full Fathom Five
1947 Full Fathom Five (Detail)
1948 Number 1A, 1948
1948 Number 1A, 1948 (Detail)
1948 Number 26A, 1948: Black and White
1949 Number 1, 1949
1949 Number 8, 1949
1949 Number 8, 1949 (Detail)
1950 Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950
1950 Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 (Detail)
1950 Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950
1950 Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 (Detail)
1950 One: Number 31, 1950
1950 One: Number 31, 1950 (Detail)
1950 Number 32, 1950
1950 Number 32, 1950 (Detail)
1952 Convergence: Number 10, 1952
1952 Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952
1952 Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 (Detail)
1953 The Deep
1953 Easter and the Totem




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