The originality of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings

Jackson Pollock's ‘Mural’ at the University of Iowa. (Image credit: Phil Roeder on Flickr.)

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were one of the most original bodies of art of the last century. In life as on canvas, he was a force of nature. Pollock redefined the limits of radical abstract expressionism with his revolutionary style of drip paintings that would make him famous for how he applied pigment to canvases. In so doing, he introduced the world to a new way of thinking about and viewing art.  

Portrait of Jackson Pollock in 1928

Portrait of Jackson Pollock in 1928 (Wikimedia Commons).

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing… I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own,” Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, The Blue Unconscious (1946).

Jackson Pollock, The Blue Unconscious (1946). Sold for $20,885,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2013)

 

 

 

Some artists are happy to excel within their own specialism, but that wasn’t enough for Jackson Pollock. Fusing Impressionism, Surrealism, and Cubism, Pollock created the concept of the drip painting, which would catapult him to fame in post-war America with a radical abstract style that enraptured many critics and divided a sceptical public unfamiliar with such wild expression.

In a period of intense creativity from 1947 to 1950 that would serve as a significant part of Pollock’s legacy, the Wyoming-born artist created his own history by taking the canvas from the easel, laying it on the floor and pouring or splashing household paint to allow him access from all angles. And so it was that drip painting was born.

Considered frighteningly modern by some, he left in his wake the conventions of any pre-war artistic ideology. He rejected influence in favor of redefining the categories of drawing and painting in modern art, creating works that are not only immediately identifiable as Jackson Pollock’s, but frenetically original pieces that still demand attention today.

“Now that’s great art”

The evolution of Pollock’s era-defining style started at the Art Students League of New York in 1930. He moved there under the guidance of Thomas Hart Benton, who pioneered the American Regionalism movement of modern realist art. However it was Benton’s rhythmic use of paint, and his fierce independence, that left the greatest impression on the young Pollock.

Jackson Pollock, Number 12 (1949).

Jackson Pollock, Number 12 (1949). Sold for $11,655,500 via Christie’s (May 2004).

It was the irrepressible Peggy Guggenheim that would change the course of Pollock’s career. She gave him an early commission to create his 8×20 foot mural for the long entrance hall of her New York townhouse in July 1943. (Mural is now in the collection of the University of Iowa and can be seen at the top of this page.) After a period feeling creatively blocked, Pollock is said to have worked feverishly on the piece and completed it in its entirety in one day (although this may just be legend).

What wasn’t in any doubt was the critical response, as the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: “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.” The painting would prove important to Pollock in more than one way; restoration work in the 1970s revealed that while the flow of the thickly-applied paint suggested it was mostly painted upright with a brush, thin strands of pink show that some paint was applied using Pollock’s drip technique – paving the way for future influential work.

LIFE magazine

Jackson Pollock Rare Signed 1949 LIFE Magazine.

Rare 1949 LIFE Magazine signed by Jackson Pollock. Sold for $4,700 via Goldberg Coins & Collectibles (December 2015).

If Pollock had enjoyed critical success following his Guggenheim commission, a four-page feature within LIFE magazine on August 8, 1949 would elevate him from critic’s darling to household name upon its release under the headline, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

The bombastic title was intended to encourage debate, although it was clear from the article that the uncredited author (likely Clement Greenberg) was a fan of Pollock’s searing originality. Three of his paintings featured in LIFE’s pages, including Number 12A (below). The article also drew praise from Pollock’s contemporaries as it threw abstract expressionism into the mainstream limelight. Willem de Kooning famously said that Pollock in LIFE “broke the ice” for abstract painting.

Jackson Pollock, Number 12A (1948).

Jackson Pollock: Number 12A (1948). Sold for $8,762,500 via Sotheby’s (May 2010).

Performance process 

Jackson Pollock, Number 17 (1949).

Jackson Pollock, Number 17 (1949). Sold $22,930,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2015).

“On the floor I am more at ease… I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” Jackson Pollock

As the 1940s came to an end Pollock’s free-form style and wild personality encapsulated the Beat Generation of the early 1950s. He’d ascended to become one of the first celebrity painters of the post-war era in the USA, as famous for the process behind his paintings, as the originality of the artwork itself. The art process was a kind of performance and one that Pollock would only sustain for a four year period, as his health deteriorated and his alcoholism that had kept from being drafted during WWII became more pronounced. 

Substance to the style

Jackson Pollock, Number 16 (1949).

Jackson Pollock, Number 16 (1949). Passed. Est: $18,000,000 – $25,000,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2017).

Dominating any wall, Pollock’s works weren’t obviously American. They weren’t obviously a part of any particular school of art. Instead, they were distinctly and defiantly Pollock. However, while his process and artwork brimmed with originality, he wasn’t without influence, as the art critic Clement Greenberg claimed that Pollock “admitted” to him that Janet Sobel’s work influenced his drip paintings and that they “had made an impression on him.”

Pollock’s artwork also invoked debate as to the meaning and substance behind the frenetic style that shot him to worldwide fame. Many theories have evolved over the years, including the suggestion – perhaps with the benefit of hindsight and greater understanding of his illness and potential mental health struggles – that his artwork spoke of entrapment in the body, as well as in the anxious mind, and even represented a reflection on the new, frightening post-war modern world.

Black pourings

Pollock was given his first exhibition from 1948. By 1951 he had abandoned the style that had brought fame. His artwork, which he referred to as ‘black pourings’ became darker in color. It didn’t match his earlier work in terms of popularity. Despite this, he was still in demand as an artist; in response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his alcoholism deepened. 

Jackson Pollock’s greatness cannot be underestimated, despite his downturn in fortunes and health. His legacy continues to burn as brightly today as it did for that brief mid-century period in which he developed one of the most radical abstract styles in the history of modern art. In addition, he’s also recognized for redefining the categories of drawing and painting, and even finding new ways to describe pictorial space with his vibrant and expressive style.

Pollock died at the age of 44 in an alcohol-related single-car accident near his house when he was driving.