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Jackson Pollock
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He was the youngest of five sons and in his first 16 years moved 9 times with his family between California and Arizona. In 1928 he settled in Los Angeles, where he studied at the Manual Arts High School under the painter and illustrator Frederick John de St Vrain Schwankowsky. He learnt the rudiments of art and learnt about European and Mexican modernism. His teacher introduced him to the doctrines of Theosophy and of its former messiah, Jiddu Krishnamurti, which prepared Pollock, who had been brought up as an agnostic, to be open to contemporary spiritual concepts: the unconscious, Carl Gustav Jung’s analytical psychology and Surrealist automatism.

Like his brother Charles, who had left home in 1922 to study art, Pollock went to New York in 1930. He studied at the Art Students League with the Regionalist mural painter Thomas Hart Benton. He lived in poverty from 1933 until 1935, when he worked as a mural assistant and later easel painter on the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). This provided a subsistence wage and the opportunity to experiment until 1943. During the Depression he often depended on his brothers, living in Greenwich Village first with Charles and then from 1934 to 1942 with his brother Sanford. In 1936 he joined David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Experimental Workshop and observed the aleatoric application of industrial enamels such as duco, which he later used in his poured paintings.

Pollock’s work before 1938 displays the influence of Benton, Albert Pinkham Ryder and the Mexicans Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. The painting Going West (1934–5; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Amer. A.) is typical of this period. Set in a nocturnal landscape where the dynamic compositional vortex is a synthesis of Ryder’s atmospheres and Benton’s terrains, mules draw two wagons along a road in front of a rickety-looking general store. A full moon dominates the sky, the brightest portion of which reads as a human profile looking toward the lone muleteer. This small painting contains many of the characteristics of Pollock’s later Abstract Expressionist style and symbolism (see Abstract expressionism): a vital linearity; emphasis on the four-footed animal, which appears throughout his work; dependence on motifs drawn from his personal history—here the team and wagons can be found in a family photograph of Cody—and the image of the Moon-woman, a theme of many subsequent works.

In 1938 Pollock spent four months in hospital undergoing psychiatric treatment for his alcoholism, which had begun in his adolescence. As a result he worked with two Jungian analysts, who used his drawings in the therapeutic process until 1941. This resulted in an obsessive exploration of his unconscious symbolism, mediated through the stylistic influence of Picasso, Orozco, Joan Miró and the theories of John Graham. The works he created parallel to his psychotherapy contain the elements of what became a personal iconography. A key painting in the Jungian process, Male and Female (c. 1942, Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.; see fig. 1), reveals the central conflict of Pollock’s personality at this time. To the left, a weak male figure with a bestial face below its breast, its eyes inverted and with a phallic snake curled between its legs, stands before a tower that erupts with freely poured pigment (the first appearance of this technique in Pollock’s work). Confronting the male is a female totemic figure consisting of a dominant column of mathematical calculations, a baleful maw and sensuous pink breasts and belly below. In 1942 the painter Lee Krasner moved into Pollock’s studio and they married in 1945.

When the WPA ended in 1943 Pollock’s first one-man exhibition was held at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery, New York, and was followed by exhibitions there nearly every year until 1947. Between 1944 and 1945 he made engraving experiments at Atelier 17 under Stanley William Hayter’s supervision. Few of these were titled and their style was abstract, but the experience greatly influenced the linear quality of his mature painting style (see O’Connor and Thaw, iv, pp. 142–52). By 1948 Pollock had achieved a certain notoriety with the critics. His style evolved from the idiosyncratic surrealism of Male and Female and Moon-woman Cuts the Circle (c. 1943; Paris, Pompidou), through the revisionist cubistic facture of Gothic (1944; New York, MOMA) and Totem Lesson 1 (1944; Atherton, CA, Harry W. Anderson priv. col.) and the lyrical colour of Water Bull (c. 1946; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), to the densely painted Eyes in the Heat (1946; Venice, Guggenheim) and to the first major poured paintings of 1947. The stylistic turning-point coincided chronologically with his marriage and move to East Hampton late in 1945. The rural setting enabled a more direct observation of nature, bringing a new freedom and vitality to his method of working while ‘veiling the image’, which had previously dominated his work.

From 1947 to 1952 Pollock created his most famous poured paintings, which he gave numbers rather than titles to avoid distracting the viewer with associations extraneous to the work. These works were also larger in scale. By 1950 he had painted such works as One: Number 31, 1950 (2.69 x 5.3 m; New York, MOMA) and Number 32, 1950 (Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein-Westfalen). During these years of intense creativity he was treated by a doctor who allayed his drinking with tranquillizers, but he began to drink heavily again in 1951. From this date Pollock painted in black on unprimed canvas, returning to his earlier symbolic imagery. Number 23, 1951/‘Frogman’ (1.05 x 1.42 m; Norfolk, VA, Chrysler Mus.), for instance, echoes a motif that can be traced to the drawings used in his Jungian therapy.
By late 1952 Pollock was searching for new breakthroughs, Convergence: Number 10, 1952 (3.96 x 2.37 m; Buffalo, NY, Albright-Knox A.G.) and Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 (4.87 x 2.1 m; Canberra, N.G.) being the results of this effort. His work of 1953, such as Portrait and a Dream (Dallas, TX, Mus. F.A.; see fig. 2) and Ocean Greyness (1.46 x 2.29 m; New York, Guggenheim) recapitulated earlier styles and motifs with new power. The former contrasts a black pouring, which contains a portrait of his wife as Moon-woman, with a flamboyant self-portrait; the latter returns to the grey masking first used in She-wolf (1.7 x 1.06 m; 1943; New York, MOMA).

Pollock’s health, however, began to fail. Although he created a few strong paintings and drawings he was, by his last years, physically and mentally debilitated, unable to endure the pressures of life or the demands of an art world that claimed him as a leader, while he felt, with more or less justification, that it misunderstood and undervalued his achievements. During the summer of 1956 he was killed in a car accident.

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