Call it an accident recorded on canvas, call it the work of a pretentious toddler, but the artist behind it all, will always be able to hold out a justified middle finger, because you will call it a Jackson Pollock forevermore. ‘Shouldn’t art have a point? Shouldn’t it be something that my dog wouldn’t be able to do with enough time on its paws?’ the detractors might yell, but the fact of the matter is, that when the musician Courtney Barnett describes a passing roadkill as a possum Jackson Pollock, even someone who has never stepped foot in an art gallery knows exactly what she means. In this here age of individualism, that may well be merit-worthy enough?
The man who would later become known as ‘Jack the Dripper’ and find himself embroiled in a CIA scandal, had a fairly conventional childhood. Growing up with his mother and five siblings in Los Angeles and attending excursions with his land-surveying father, his life far from hinted at the polarising Pollock we now know and love/hate. He was, however, an unruly child and succumbed to two separate high school expulsions, which perhaps offered the first glimpse at the iconoclasm on canvas to come.
By 1930, he had seen enough of the world with his father – thanks to the Native American art and Mexican murals he witnessed along the way – to know that his life lay in colour. Thus, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Charles, he headed to New York City to join the Art Student League. His teacher was Thomas Hart Benton. He didn’t make much of his teacher’s rural American pictures, but he did like the wild way he went about them.
After that, Pollock went quiet for a while. He studied away and painted but remained unremarkable. Then in 1936, at an experimental workshop, he was introduced to the use of liquid paints by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. This eye-opening moment sadly coincided with the onset of staunch alcoholism and soon after his life would reflect the daring mystique of the oddities that were both laughed at and lauded on gallery walls; as he said himself, “Every good artist paints what he is.” When it comes to Pollock, you can read into that what you will.
In 1943, as he was developing his dripping technique and alcoholism, he was commissioned by the socialite Peggy Guggenheim to create a giant eight by 20-foot mural for her townhouse. When the critic Clement Greenberg laid eyes on it, he proudly proclaimed: “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.” Those were bold words indeed. Many would agree, but many others would say there was more to Pollock than meets the eye… and not in an interpretive sense either.
This much is proven: The Congress for Cultural Freedom was an anti-communist advocacy group founded in 1950. This group promoted American ideals. It promoted Jackson Pollock exhibitions as part of those ideals. This group was also a funded offshoot of the CIA. Thus, it has been argued that the CIA purposefully elevated Pollock’s art both in terms of value and acclaim as a way to diminish socialist realism. In other words, those daft Commies are still doling out drab pictures of bushes for pennies, whereas Pollock is quite literally extolling the freedom of the human soul on canvas and his bright new world deserves to be handsomely rewarded.
This creates a paradox in the life and work of Pollock forevermore. As Kurt Vonnegut once put it in his novel Bluebeard: “Modern art is a conspiracy between shysters and the rich to make poor people feel stupid!” In other words, ‘let say that there is life and death contained in all these scribbles and those who don’t see it have to either go along with it or squark from their lowly perch.
Thus, you have two sides of the coin: those who champion Pollock as an evocative master, and those who dub him a hoax. Lingering somewhere underneath it all is the second, and perhaps most pertinent debate: he was a revolutionary innovator in the arts, but do all revolutionary artistic innovations deserve praise? Sit beneath a Pollock in all its grandeur and perhaps your opinion will be made.
Throughout all this ‘drip period’ mayhem, when his prices rocketed and his alcoholism plummeted, his wife, the painter Lenore ‘Lee’ Krasner remained a constant stabilising force and source of inspiration. Life for Pollock, however, was like the famous Phillip Larkin poem that reads: “In times when nothing stood / but worsened, or grew strange / there was one constant good / She did not change.”
Although he was in a loving relationship and he was being celebrated as America’s greatest artist in some circles, dissenting voices reared doubt in him. Whether Pollock was aware of his arts Congress for Cultural Freedom associations or not is disputed to this day, but he did loath the self-promotion he had to embark upon to sustain his success and often gave scripted interviews.
Rebelling against his own creation he abandoned his drip technique and began painting in a blocky black and white fashion. This style proved unsuccessful and that only deepened his despair, which wasn’t helped all that much when he began painting once more and the acclaim returned. During this time, he began drinking and fighting at the local Cedar Bar.
In 1956, he had quit painting and his life was a shambles. His wife left for Paris one evening, in the hopes that time and space could repair their marriage. However, on August 11th, he drove home drunk at a tremendous speed. He lost control and ploughed into a birch tree. The accident sent Pollock 50 feet into the air, and Pollock was no more. In the process, he also killed a passenger by the name of Edith Metzger and severely injured his then-girlfriend, Ruth Kligman.
This dark and tragic end is beyond reconciliation. The life that went before, however, is one of mystique that remains to this day. His art is unmistakable, as is its influence. From free jazz to fashion his singularity is celebrated everywhere in a meta sense, but if you exclude the most fateful denizens of MoMA, then albeit the folks on the street undoubtedly know his work, you’ll find opinions that wildly differ and theories to go along with them to boot.