Jackson Pollock: Superstar and Supernova


A view of the art of Jackson Pollock,  1912-1956, American



All the works are MOMA’s unless otherwise noted. They were shown in an exhibition, A Collection Survey, 1934-1954,  there in the Spring of 2016:


I have noted what MOMA said about these paintings in their collection.  



One, Number, 31, 1950




One, Number 31, 1950, oil and enamel paint on canvas


MOMA noted that this is a masterpiece of the drip method of painting.  The canvas was placed on the floor to be worked.


The artist said:  “On the floor I feel more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting since this way I can work around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”




Jackson Pollack, unknown date




I love this Abstract Expressionist painting created at the height of Jackson Pollock’s confidence.



Ever since I first saw it in a large retrospective in 1998 it has emitted a faint light somewhere behind me. 




As above


Unlike figuration, colour was not forbidden to the Abstract Expressionists.  And yet the colours here are extraordinarily restrained.


The painting emits a low-intensity, diffuse light.  A light like that of a pulsar.

This on-off-on light has long survived the artist’s death not so much as a beacon than as a warning.    




As above



This painting is a backlight which has accompanied my American sojourn.

Explosive and restrained at the same time, you can see the emotional fervour of the artist’s movements; and his discipline.



The artist would want us to focus on the painting itself.  But the work came from somewhere and points to something.



Its vastness recalls the the world and the universe:  tension and energy, fragmented but with a surprisingly coherent surface and internal equilibrium. 

A disciplined containment, a balance between lines and dots and smudges, complementarity of and competition between black and white lines




As above


The soft blue-grey which in some places shadows the lines of black and white and in others provides little oases. And all on a grounding of earth and sand. 


Having removed all figuration from his work,

the artist’s body figures in it in ways more complex than could have been achieved in a figurative work


because here are the clear traces of the movements of his hand and eye and body, poised and dancing above the canvas which was placed on the ground.



This was 1950. 


The atom bomb had been exploded twice to end a world war.  I take it that the memory of those bombs is here.  

And that the muted palette of this composition is a recognition of the deprivations and deaths of war. 

Before yet another expansion of the country’s economy and influence in the world in an explosion of energy, effort and imagination.



And this explosion of a painting, this description of our modern world as it is from a man who had the nerve to break open this world to our view;

a man born in Cody, Wyoming, the least populated state in the nation.



Jackson Pollock, one of the most influential artists of the American century and of the New York school,

died a violent, desolate death in 1956 at the age of 44 in a crash which killed one other person.





The Deep1953

Centre Pompidou, Paris from whose website this photo.  




He had gone through a period of artistic block and, starting in 1953, was burning himself up with alcohol. 


The Deep, a rare named painting,  is a recollection of the artist’s foot on the ground of One, Number 31, 1950.


Now, the colours are leached out of the canvas.  The sun remains in pale dots. And the ground has given way under the artist’s foot  and become cloud and he is stepping into the void. 





The Deep1953

Centre Pompidou, Paris from whose website this photo. 





The hegemony of Abstract Expressionism itself continued until Robert Rauschenberg and his friends, including Andy Warhol, took it down, with  respectful panache. 



Given the misogyny of the Abstract Expressionist establishment, it is worth remembering




Lee Krasner, Whitney June 2015-3

The Seasons,1957, oil and house paint on canvas. 

Lee Krasner,  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art, NY




this act of  emotional and artistic survival of Lee Krasner  (1908-1984, American), wife of Jackson Pollock. 


She also managed the artist’s legacy such that much of it has entered our museums and is safeguarded there.





Self-Portrait, oil on linen, 1930.

Lee Krasner, 1908-1984, American.  The Jewish Museum, NY



She called this painting The Seasons. 




It is so close in size to her husband’s One, 31, 1950 as makes no difference.  It dates from the year following her husband’s death.

Its beckoning and encompassing beauty and its balance;





its rolling hot blood pink energy rocking backwards and forwards; 




Detail of The Seasons, 1957, oil and house paint on canvas. 



the seeds and the green of the artist’s life just beginning to push out (again) from the margins of the painting towards the sun and into our view……..all but stop your heart.




Lee Krasner, Whitney June 2015-1

The Seasons,1957, oil and house paint on canvas. 

Lee Krasner,  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art




Lee Krasner reprised the forms of this painting nine years later, in darker, more volcanic form on a smaller canvas against which she said she had struggled. 





Krasner, 2002, woodcut.  Dan Miller, American born 1928.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art, Philadelphia




So long do grief and anger and regret linger with us, as we know.







Gaea, 1966, oil on canvas.  Lee Krasner, 1908-1984, American.  MOMA, NY




As is known, Jackson Pollock underwent conventional artistic training at the hands especially of the regional realist, Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975, American), after he reached New York at the age of 18. 

He traveled in the 1930s through the United States and did not settle in New York until he was 34.



He met David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974, Mexican)  in Los Angeles in 1932 and worked in his NY workshop in 1936. 


There he observed the use of non-traditional materials such as enamel paint, and the practices of dripping, pouring, and airbrushing.






The Fire;  oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard







Landscape with Steer; lithograph with airbrushed lacquer additions




The monumental size of Pollock’s paintings are thought to be derived from the study of the work of Mexican muralists.     


MOMA pointed to the influence of the muralist, Jose Clemente Orozco 1883-1949, Mexican, whose works Jackson Pollock was studying intensively during the 1930s.  


He watched Orozco paint a mural at MOMA in 1940.






Untitled; pencil and coloured pencil on paper




Hospitalized for four months in 1938 for alcoholism, Jackson Pollock was introduced to Jungian psychotherapy and Symbolism.  From which grew his interest in the symbols of the indigenous American population.







Untitled; screen print with ink and gouache additions.


MOMA noted that the artist experimented with different techniques and media in order to figure out their expressive possibilities.



Jackson Pollock took an active interest in the work of the Surrealists and came to know Andre Masson, arrived in New York in 1941.  He co-operated briefly with Masson’s effort to break away from the European Surrealists.







Bird; oil and sand on canvas




Inevitably, he  mixed with other artists in New York: all giants of the Abstract Expressionism decades.

William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell ,  Roberto Matta, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning.  







Untitled (Animals and Figures);  gouache and ink on paper.



Stenographic figure; oil on linen







The She-Wolf; oil, casein and gouache on canvas.




The museum noted that the artist refused to identify the source of this representation (the She-Wolf), the first of the artist’s paintings the Museum acquired.


As to technique: the artist covered the canvas with multi-coloured splashes, drips and washes.  He superimposed the black outline of the wolf.  He then added thick white lines to outline her shape further and also patches of blue-gray for further relief.





Water Birds, oil on canvas, 1943. 

Baltimore Museum of Art




From the early 1940s onwards, Jackson Pollock came into the largesse of Peggy Guggenheim, 1898-1979, American.   She gave him his first solo show of 15 paintings in 1943 at her New York gallery.


Earlier in the year she had included him in a group show and was actively encouraged in her attention to him by Marcel Duchamp and Piet Mondrian. 







Mural, 1943, oil on casein on canvas. 

Gift of Peggy Guggenheim to the University of Iowa Museum of Art.  On exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 2018




Jackson Pollock received this commission – Mural – from Peggy Guggenheim for her New York apartment. 

The artist was still 3 years away from dripping and pouring onto a canvas laid flat.  This painting is considered a fore-runner.








Gothic; oil on canvas




MOMA’s notes indicated that the artist said that this painting, which contains figurative elements, was based on the 1907  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of Pablo Picasso.





Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907,oil on canvas.  Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, MOMA, New York




As the 1940s progressed and Pollock’s work was shown in Chicago and became more and more known outside New York, he received the strong support of the influential critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-94, American).







Untitled; crayon, ink, coloured pencil, watercolour on paper




c. 1945





There were Seven in Eight; oil, casein and enamel paint on canvas



MOMA noted that it is this painting – There Were Seven in Eight – that shows how the artist began to abandon the idea of a symbolic vocabulary and move to non-representational form. 

At the base here is figurative imagery. He then ‘veiled the image’ with a network of black lines, covering the surface such that there is no focus point. Snakes, eyes and faces are still recognizable through the veil.



Late in 1945, with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock bought a farm house on Long Island.  This marked a change in his work towards the inclusion of some naturalistic forms and a lighter palette.


She also held three more solo exhibitions of the artist between 1945 and 1947.






Detail of Shimmering Substance; 1946, oil on canvas.

The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.  Photo credit: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times




One of seven canvases, painted after his move to Long Island,  included in Sounds in the Grass, this palette is paler than the artist’s older ones.


The artist expressed the paint directly onto the canvas from the tube and then manipulated it to the edges.  






Untitled, gouache and pastel on paper. 

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY in the spring of 2017





Detail of Free Form; oil on canvas




The museum believes this –  Free Form –  to be the artist’s first drip painting

The artist painted the entire canvas red and then flung oil paint onto the service using a brush or a stick.





Circumcision, 1946, oil on canvas. 

Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem, NY in the spring of 2017.








Alchemy, 1947, oil, aluminum, alkyd enamel paint, with sand, pebbles, fibers and wood on commercially printed fabric. 

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem, NY in the spring of 2017.







Full Fathom Five, and detail; oil on canvas with tacks, keys, coins, nails, buttons, cigarettes, matches etc.




The museum noted that this painting – Full Fathom Five – whose title about a shipwreck is from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is an early drip painting in which the crust is paint applied with a knife and palette. 

Detritus of all kinds is caught and held in this crust.








Number 1A, 1948




MOMA’s notes indicated that this drip painting  – Number 1A, 1948, was one of the earliest whose canvas was worked lying on the floor of a studio.  All figures and symbols have been eliminated. 


The subject of the painting is painting itself and it is numbered, rather than named to focus the mind on the painting and not any putative subject.



From 1946 for several years, Pollock’s star did nothing but rise. 


From inclusion at the Whitney’s review of (North) American art in 1946/47 to his representation of the US at the Venice Biennale in 1950,

to a fifth one-man show (for his drip paintings) in New York , to repeated exhibitions after 1950 in Europe,

to the positioning of his life and work as heroic in American popular media from 1949 onwards,


Jackson Pollock reached international superstar status.  






One, Number 31, 1950, oil and enamel paint on canvas






Number 1, 1950, Lavender Mist, and detail, 1950, oil, enamel and aluminum on canvas. 

 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC








Echo: Number 25, 1951, 1951, enamel on canvas




MOMA noted that this painting – Echo: Number 25, 1951 – departs from the drip paintings of the year before. 

This begins to approach figuration and has an energy which is much gentler and more lyrical. 


The artist wrote in a letter:  “I’ve had a period of drawing on canvas on black – with some of my early images coming through – think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing – and the kids who think it simple to splash a Pollock out.”







Easter and the Totem; oil on canvas




1952 was the last of the four year period in which the artist experimented with the drip method.  


Dripping and pouring were no longer the artist’s primary method of painting after 1952.


The artist said: “I am very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.” 


MOMA noted that the artist wove his way between figuration and abstraction all his creative life.


Throughout the 4-year period to 1952,  the artist was on tranquilizers for depression.  In 1953, however, he returned to drinking alcohol.


He began to use a brush and reverted to quasi-figurative figures. 





1953, Ritual, oil on canvas. 

Private collection loan to the National Gallery of Art in 2018




In the early 1950s, poles began to feature prominently in Jackson Pollock’s paintings.  As though the creation needed support and a containing framework. 

This kind of upholding structure appeared, also, earlier but somewhat masked, in his work, notably in his 1943 Mural for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment in New York.







White Light; oil, enamel and aluminum paint on canvas



The museum noted that this is one of the last paintings the artist completed and the only one he finished in 1954.

The darkness can be seen beneath the dense layer of thick, squeezed paint.

Pollock squeezed paint directly onto the canvas and used a brush also. He purged whole tubes of paint.  Purged, Squeezed the life out of. Voided.

Jackson Pollock died in 1956. 





Of the four innovators of the North American art firmament in the 20th century – Marcel Duchamp (American born France), Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, it is Jackson Pollock who has touched me the most. 

Not for his art – whose primary legacy, as far as I can see – is not in the graphic arts so much as in performance art;

But for an aspect of this work which points up the intense focus placed on individualism in North American culture.


This focus is, of course, a feature of ‘Western’ life from the Enlightenment onwards and is not merely North American.

But it is at its most extreme form in North American, part and parcel of the American myth of the way to be. 

Abstract Expressionism one of its clearest elaborations. 

The work of practitioners usually grouped with Jackson Pollock is so different that they cannot be compared one with another. 


It goes without saying that women were only grudgingly included in this group and an African American practitioner with the immense skills and dedication of Norman Lewis was barely recognized either.


The consequences of this extreme individualism played out in the life and work of  Jackson Pollock.  Depression and alcoholism cannot, however, be underestimated for their negative effects in his life also.



Pollock’s adventure was his own.  He took up and exhausted the possibilities of the drip method.



Asked in 1942 if he drew from nature, “I am nature” was his response.


His experimentation up to One Number 31, 1950 was to investigate methods of self-expression.  

After the soft and tense, balanced, cradling tango of One, Number 31, 1950







exhaustion of this artist’s venture sets in. 

This painting caught a moment in the history of his country, still at that time ascendant economically etc.



Artists after him moved on to minimalism – the exfiltration of all emotion, humour and cultural expression out of the graphic arts.  Only form remained.





Ultimate Painting, 1963, oil on canvas. 

Ad Reinhardt, 1913-1967, American.  Collection of Virginia Dwan on exhibition in 2016 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



And here comes to mind the contrary trajectory of Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American  born Canada.   An exact contemporary of Jackson Pollock.

An Abstract Expressionist and very highly regarded, Guston abandoned the solitary venture of self-expression without figuration and without representation because, as he said, he wanted to tell stories.


He was derided and persecuted by the Abstract Expressionist establishment for this and driven from New York city.






Talking, oil on canvas, 1979, and detail. 

Philip Guston, 1913-1980,  American born Canada. MOMA, NY




Sounding, talking:  what we need to live and flourish.  In company.  Even if the conversation is charged.