Jackson Pollock's Paintings (1940-56)
WORLDS BEST PAINTERS
In 1956 Willem de Kooning pointed out that "every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then in the late 1940s Jackson Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again." (As quoted by Rudi Blesh in Modern Art USA: Man, Rebellion, Conquest 1900-1956.) This was Pollock the existentialist, whose unpremeditated method of applying paint conforms to Jean-Paul Sartre's premise that "existence precedes essence." Instead of being painted according to a specific plan, the picture emerges out of the process of painting.
As early as 1942, Jackson Pollock was working at the cutting edge of abstract expressionist painting. The painter Lee Krasner, with whom he lived from 1942 until the end of his life, stated in an interview that "in front of a very good painting, he asked, me 'Is this a painting?' Not is this a good painting, or a bad one, but a painting! The degree of doubt was unbelievable at times. And then, again, at other times, he knew the painter he was."
Pollock's Male and Female (1942, Philadelphia Museum of Art) relied on the surrealist device of automatism to yield the irrationally juxtaposed and associated anatomical fragments, numbers, and geometric shapes as well as the loose autographic brushwork. The frontality and the shallowness of the space in the work reveal the influence of Cubism and of the interwar expressionism of Picasso, particularly in his masterpiece Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia, Madrid). For the figures, Pollock drew inspiration from African art as well as American Indian art and Mexican mural painting.
Yet whatever Pollock's indebtedness to preceding styles, the directness with which he permitted his unconscious to determine the form of this painting had no precedent. The picture's "reality" lies not in any reference to the phenomenal world but in the truth of the unconscious mind. Beginning in 1947 Pollock further refined the language of this radical content with the technical innovation of pouring or dripping his paint. In addition he dissolved the customary compositional focus on a central image and broke down the illusion of objects in space, arriving at an "allover" composition in which the seemingly limitless intricacy of surface texture creates a vast, pulsating environment of intense energy, completely engulfing the viewer.
Although many of the writings on Pollock have overplayed the myth of tragic heroism, the artist did affect a tough exterior: he was isolated and independent, and he gradually self-destructed in a downward spiral of emotional turmoil during his early forties, after a dozen prolific years of majestic painting. Pollock lived and worked with relentless drive, As Lee Krasner explained: "Whatever Jackson felt, he felt more intensely than anyone I've known. When he was angry, he was angrier; when he was happy, he was happier; when he was quiet, he was quieter." (Energy Made Visible, 1972, by BH Friedman.)
Paul Jackson Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming, on January 28, 1912, was the youngest of five sons in a working-class family. His mother had artistic aspirations and conveyed this sufficiently to her children that all five sons wanted to become painters. Pollock's father failed in one truck farm after another, causing an economic instability that forced the family to relocate seven times in Jackson's first twelve years. In the summer of 1927 Jackson and his 18-year-old brother, Sanford, worked on a survey team, roughing it on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Pollock discovered alcohol at this time and also dropped the name "Paul," which he thought less manly than "Jackson."
Pollock went to high school in Los Angeles with Philip Guston, who also became a major member of the New York School of painting. They were both rebellious and intellectual. After being expelled twice in two years for writing broadsides against the school's emphasis on athletics, Pollock gave up in 1930 and headed to New York, where he joined his eldest brother Charles in the classes of Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Pollock met Stuart Davis, who taught there, and Arshile Gorky, who was often to be found in the school cafeteria. Pollock stayed on at the League until Benton left in January 1933 but Benton's influence continued to dominate both the younger artist's subject matter and style until around 1938.
Inspired by Mannerism and Baroque art, the dramatic spatial composition of Benton's The Arts of the West (1932, New Britain Museum of American Art) spills headlong toward the viewer from deep in space. Benton taught and used in his own work a rhythmic system of interlocking curves and countercurves - often disposed around imaginary vertical axes - as the underlying principle for his compositions. This dynamic unfolding of the pictorial space provided an abstract metaphor for the idea of an inevitable unfolding in the evolution of history (an idea inspired by Marxist historical theories). Benton's choice of subject matter also echoed this in the sense that he attempted to show a continuity between present-day America and its ancient past. Long after his flirtation with Marxism and modernism in the early twenties, Benton retained this compositional characteristic.
Benton attempted to formulate a uniquely "American" style through the exploration of the country's historical subject matter and its contemporary life. His adulation of "American" frontier masculinity must have appealed to Pollock. Benton's American Scene painting, reinforced by the example of the Mexican muralists sowed the seeds for the emergence of a grand scale and an epic quality in Pollock's painting of the forties. But large size also suited Pollock's grand subject matter, which concerned universals in the human psyche, and the powerful instinctual forces that acted on his consciousness.
Like so many others at the time, the Mexicans held a Marxist view of historical evolution, and they hoped to incite their countrymen to social change by educating them about their heritage and about the relentless progress of history. The visit of David Siqueiros to Los Angeles in 1928 and reproductions of Mexican murals had already captured Pollock's interest before he left California. As a high-school student he had seen the work of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco through some communist meetings he attended. In 1936 Pollock took a job in Siqueiros's Union Square workshop, where he experimented with unorthodox materials and novel techniques of application, including the spraying, splattering, and dripping of paint.
As Pollock moved away from Benton's influence and from representation as a whole, he focused increasingly on inner content. He found encouragement for this approach in an article by John Graham in 1937 called "Primitive Art and Picasso" (Magazine of Art 30, No 4, April 1937). In it Graham wrote that primitives, exteriorized their taboos in order to understand them better and deal with them successfully. He said that primitive art typically has a highly evocative quality, which allows it to bring to our consciousness the clarities of the unconscious mind.
Graham's belief that the unconscious mind provided essential knowledge and creative powers for the artist and that primitive art offered more direct access to this material impressed Pollock so profoundly that he wrote to Graham asking to meet him. The ensuing friendship greatly emboldened Pollock in his search for universal mythic images in his own unconscious, while at the same time enlarging his understanding of recent European art (especially Analytical Cubism and Surrealism).
The Europeans who arrived in New York around 1940 further sharpened Pollock's focus on unconscious imagery. Indeed, he said "I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious." But he was quick to add that the most important Europeans were Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, who did not come to the United States. It was to Picasso above all that Pollock returned again and again in his art. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York) was bought by MOMA in 1938, while Guernica, which arrived in New York in 1939, was especially significant. This period of Picasso's work inspired the fragmentation of expressionist images in the shallow space of Pollock's drawings of the late thirties, and it also provided Pollock and his contemporaries with a profoundly moving example of painting with a social conscience that was at the same time at the forefront of formal innovation. The social imperative - already inherent in American art and greatly heightened by the two world wars and by the Depression - weighed heavily on Pollock and his contemporaries.
In 1935 Pollock went on to the easel-painting division of the Federal Art Project, which provided him with a modicum of financial stability. Burgoyne Diller was his supervisor and covered for him when he could not supply his quota of paintings. In addition to its economic benefits the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) put Pollock into a community of painters, including the nascent New York School, who were all trying to digest the same disparate influences of the Mexican muralists, abstract cubism, abstract surrealism, and Picasso's expressionist painting of the thirties, especially Guernica.
Pollock struggled with acute depression and alcoholism in the late thirties and in 1939 he entered into Jungian psychoanalysis. In addition to whatever the treatment did for his emotional crises, it profoundly affected his art by encouraging his search for totemic images with universal, unconscious meaning. Between 1942 and 1948 he gave many of his compositions (including some of the early drip pictures) mythic titles with overtones of primitive forces: Guardians of the Secret, Male and Female, Moon Woman, Totem Lesson, Night Ceremony, The She-Wolf and Enchanted Forest. Many of the early action paintings, such as Galaxy and Cathedral, were given titles that evoked a sense of spirituality or the sublime in nature. From 1948 through 1952 Pollock mostly numbered, rather than titled, his paintings, but totemic associations still lingered on. Indeed by not naming his pictures, Pollock sought to make their spiritual content more universal. Nevertheless in 1951 Pollock reintroduced legible totemic figures and in 1953 he resumed the mythic titles.
In November 1941 John Graham selected works by both Krasner and Pollock for a joint show. From this, Krasner discovered that Pollock lived around the corner from her, so she looked him up. The following fall they moved in together and, through Krasner, Pollock greatly widened his circle of artistic friends; in particular she introduced him to the gesturalists de Kooning and Hans Hofmann, as well as critics Harold Rosenberg, and Clement Greenberg. Krasner also appears to have been more successful than the psychotherapists in stabilizing Pollock, who entered the most innovative and productive decade of his life.
In Male and Female (1942), one of Pollock's first great pictures, the totemic quality and the stabilizing symmetry remained from the works of the previous two years, but the images poured forth in a freer, more disconnnected way. The eyes at top left, the numbers, the impulsive gestures and spills come together, as if randomly, out of a dense chaos of active elements. The totemic figures superimposed on the two black vertical strips reinforce the geometry and stabilize the otherwise free play of gestures and small images.
In the works of the early forties. Pollock transformed the influence of Benton's dramatic compositions and of the Mexicans' Marxist faith in the relentless evolution of history into the idea of a dynamic and inevitable unfolding of the content of the unconscious mind. Over the next four years this idea increasingly dominated not only the content of Pollock's work but the evolution of his style; as the gestures grew more genuinely automatic, it became necessary to devise some new means of balancing the composition. In Male and Female the geometry serves that purpose; later, Pollock developed the "allover" composition to solve this structural problem.
Although it was the surrealist artists who helped to legitimize the unconscious as a subject for Pollock, as early as 1942, he already seems to have begun using psychic automatism in a wholly different way. The surrealist maintained an experimental distance, analyzing his or her automatist expressions, discovering their content through free association, and then going back into the picture to enhance these discoveries. Pollock worked impulsively and directly on the canvas to capture the unconscious images as they tumbled out. In Male and Female the occasional areas of dripped and splattered paint were not springboards for free association, as in surrealism, but an effort to record the spontaneity of his unconscious thought processes. As such this technique proved the ideological precursor for Pollock's great stylistic breakthrough in the "allover" drip pictures of 1947, such as Cathedral (1947, Dallas Museum of Art).
In addition, the paramount concern with immediacy among Pollock and his friends led them to conclude that sketching was not "modern." This differentiated them from their mentors Picasso and Miro and from their friend Gorky. Since they believed that important painting, by definition, addressed the issues of its time, you had to be "modern" and therefore to work spontaneously on the canvas.
In 1942 Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes introduced the 30-year old Pollock to Peggy Guggenheim, who asked him to participate in a group show of collage art at her new Art of This Century gallery. Pollock, Motherwell, and Baziotes all made their first collages in preparation for that show and wrote automatist poetry together. Then in November 1943 Pollock had a one-man show at the Art of This Century, for which James Johnson Sweeney (an important curator at the Museum of Modern Art) wrote the catalog. Alfred Barr bought Pollock's The She-Wolf (1943) for the Museum of Modern Art out of the exhibition, and the San Francisco Museum bought Guardians of the Secret (1943). In a review of the show, Clement Greenberg championed Pollock as the greatest painter of his time, and shortly after that Peggy Guggenheim put Pollock on a retainer. This provided Pollock with a regular income, just as the Federal Art Project was shutting down. Guggenheim not only gave him a $300 monthly stipend but a link to the recently arrived surrealist artists who showed in her gallery.
In the early forties Pollock balanced the scattered automatist doodles in his work against a persistent totemic imagery. The totemic figures carried over from Pollock's expressionistic work, which had been heavily influenced by Orozco and Picasso. The looser automatist brushwork and the freer issuing forth of small spontaneous forms and symbols represented the newer influence of surrealism. In these works Pollock began to reconcile the two, using automatism to break down the formal isolation of the totemic images. The dissolution of these images as discrete entities enabled them to interact more fluidly with the free associations in a style of painting that was becoming increasingly oriented toward process.
Some critics have argued that a programmatic Jungian symbolism underlies the images, but no one has succeeded in providing a consistent reading of any such iconography in any paintings by Pollock. Pollock did believe in the collective unconscious and in the course of free association he may have called up and used individual images from material he read or heard about during his Jungian analysis. In the same way Pollock occasionally referred to specific myths in his titles, as in Pasiphae of 1943, but they were never more than a means of enriching or deepening the associations. Pollock created out of his own unconscious, using automatism to transform his psychic experience into gestures and forms. In some instances he then found affirming similarities in known legends, but he avoided systematic referents from external sources.
In Mural (1943, University of Iowa Museum of Art) the gesture itself carried the expressive content. But even in this work certain specific associations can be traced. In particular, it has been convincingly argued that on one level the dark curving verticals in Mural had a figural reference, influenced by Native American pictographs. Demonstrations of Indian sand painting, which the artist saw in 1941 at the Natural History Museum in New York, also seem to have later encouraged the free gestural pouring technique that Pollock developed at the beginning of 1947. In a February 1944 interview, Pollock stated that his paintings contained no intentional references to images from Native American art, although he conceded that when working intuitively images might emerge from one's unconscious, but via free association not as a deliberate iconography. Similarly, the shamanistic intentions of the sand painters, who regarded such work as a healing act, may have figured obliquely in Pollock's thinking, even though he does not seem to have explicitly set out to emulate them.
Peggy Guggenheim had commissioned Pollock to paint the 8-by-20-foot Mural for her home in July 1943. The grand scale of the picture, like the large works of Benton and the Mexicans, transforms the canvas into an engulfing environment, a whole wall of paint rather than a small object that one can both visually and physically dominate. In this way it set a precedent for the scale of Pollock's celebrated drip paintings. It also forced the artist to work on the floor (like the Navajo sand painters he saw in New York) so that he could move around all sides of the picture and reach every part of it.
If the abstract, rhythmic gestures which supplanted the totemic images in Mural (and in several other paintings of 1943 and 1944) grew out of figural signs, the final effect was nevertheless one of a gestural style. In this respect Pollock not only anticipated his work of 1947 to 1950, but in some canvases or parts of canvases during 1942 and 1943 he also tentatively explored dripping and pouring, as we have seen in Male and Female. Despite this, these works remain conceptually linked to the imagistic works in that they were self-consciously "composed"; in the case of Mural, Pollock deliberately organized the composition around Benton's system of curves and countercurves.
The even distribution of compositional interest across the entire surface of Mural was its most revolutionary feature. This anticipated the idea of the "allover" composition as a solution to the problem of how to organize a picture generated by automatist gesturing. As each of Pollock's painterly brushstrokes grew increasingly unique and individually formed, they became more and more adequate as replacements for the totemic images. In 1946 and 1947 Pollock finally abandoned imagery and structural systems for an "allover" composition and a completely gestural style. In this respect he went even further than Piet Mondrian or Joan Miro, who always maintained an underlying compositional structure though both had painted evenly dispersed compositions.
Pollock and Krasner spent the summer of 1944 in Provincetown and in 1945 they went to The Springs in East Hampton, Long Island, where they bought a farmhouse with 5 acres. As unceremoniously as possible Pollock and Krasner married in late October and moved out to The Springs permanently (albeit with frequent trips to New York). "It was hell on Long Island" in the beginning, Krasner later recalled. Pollock's studio had no heat or electric light, they had no hot water at first, and they couldn't afford heating fuel for the house, much less an automobile. Yet Pollock did begin having annual exhibitions at this time - at Art of This Century, then at the Betty Parsons Gallery - and finally by 1949 he began selling enough to afford some modest comforts.
In 1946, Pollock's first full year on Long Island, his work underwent another dramatic change. During the first half of the year a mixture of gestural and totemic images dominated his painting, as in The Key (1946, Art Institute of Chicago). In the latter part of the year he abandoned the overt images entirely and embarked on the "Sounds of the Grass" series, which culminated in such extraordinary canvases as Shimmering Substance (1946, Museum of Modern Art, New York). In these works the artist handled the entire surface as an even field of gestural strokes, sensuously applied, rich in colour, and devoid of any overt imagery.
In The Key, even in the 1943 Mural, one may read some elements as figures or objects in space. Shimmering Substance has only the actual depth of the heavily sculptured paint surface and a subtle illusion of shallow space behind the woven plane of surface texture. The freedom of the gestural painting in Shimmering Substance is made possible by the evenness of the distribution of visual activity (Pollock's "allover" structure), which avoids compositional anarchy. The stress on the physical quality of the action on the surface shows Pollock using automatist gesturing in an even more direct way than in such works as Mural.
Pollock's dripped and poured canvases, which followed immediately after the "Sounds in the Grass" series at the end of 1946 or early 1947, have still more gestural freedom than Shimmering Substance. In creating works like Cathedral and Number 1 1948 (1948, MOMA, New York), Pollock laid his canvas on the floor and used his brushes like sticks, hovering just above the surface but never touching it. This permitted an easier, more spontaneous movement of the arm and body than he could achieve while still having to press the paint on to the canvas with a brush or knife, as in Shimmering Substance. Pollock also generally made his drip paintings bigger. Thus by working directly on the floor he was not only able to use gravity to facilitate his method of application but he was also able to walk around the compositions, reaching every part by literally stepping into them.
In the drip paintings Pollock eliminated all symbols and signs; only the gesture itself remained as a mythic metaphor. This summed up what was radically new about Pollock's application of automatism: he used the technique to express rather than to excavate; he translated the act of painting itself into an adventure of self-realization. When Pollock told Hofmann in 1942 "I am nature,"" he meant that to him the central subject matter of painting derived from this direct, introspective exploration instead of from the external world.
Intuitively the viewer can feel the process by which Pollock made the drip compositions and imagine the sensation of moving freely across the canvas along with the gestures of paint. Indeed, the viewer must re-create the feeling of this process in order to experience the deeper meaning of the work, because the painting is "about" the introspective content recorded in those gestures. Pollock's drip paintings demand that the viewer surrender intellectual control while freely empathizing with the energetic colour and movement. One "should not look for," Pollock explained, "but look passively - and try to receive what the painting has to offer." This state of willing suspension of control is the only possible way of tapping into the emotions which the painter was recording.
As compositions, each of Pollock's drip pictures simultaneously dissolves into a chaotic jumble of individual lines while also coming together as a structurally uniform, whole field. They have no "correct" viewing position as do examples of High Renaissance painting; indeed the viewer must move across them. They draw their audience in to inspect the details closely, passage by passage, and at the same time overwhelm the viewer with their monumental size. Their colouristic and textural richness emphasizes the expansive surface, yet the elaborate and totally visible overlay of multiple layers of paint (and sand, cigarette butts, glass, and other materials) creates a very real depth and space.
The transparency of the process - the way in which the viewer can so readily reconstruct the act of creation - gives the drip paintings an extraordinary immediacy. This highlights the present as the fixed reference point in the painting, and that emphasis is one of the hallmarks of modernism. The brilliance of its fulfillment in these pictures accounts in part for why so many of Pollock's contemporaries saw the drip paintings as an existential watershed in the history of modern art.
The painters of the New York School were exceptionally conscious of wanting to carry on the legacy of modernism. The collapse of time into the present is a central issue in modernism; the past exists only in its real bearing on the present. Pollock himself (in the New Yorker, August 5, 1950) confirmed the deliberateness of this characteristic in 1950 when he commented on "a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was."
In painting, Kandinsky pioneered the disintegration of narrative time, and his work must have encouraged Pollock to paint in a manner that seems to swallow up the viewer, physically and temporally. To Pollock's generation, Kandinsky's work stood for spontaneity and spiritual content in abstract art. In May 1943 Pollock worked as a janitor in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which had the world's greatest collection of paintings by Kandinsky, and he undoubtedly saw the museum's 1945 Kandinsky memorial exhibition. In addition to displaying some 200 Kandinskys in the show, the museum published translations of his important writings, including the Text Artista (which Pollock owned) and his theoretical treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In one passage of the Text Artista Kandinsky wrote about learning, "not to look at a picture only from the outside, but to 'enter' it, to move around in it, and mingle with its very life."
Pollock echoed this advice when he spoke about his new painting process, in 1947, saying that he could walk around a canvas, see it from all four sides and literally be inside the painting: a method vividly illustrated by the photographer Hans Namuth in his series of photographs (1950) of Pollock in his Long Island studio. He said he had moved away from the usual studio tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. Instead he preferred trowels, sticks, knives, and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, bits of glass and other foreign matter added. Revealingly, he admitted that he was not aware of what he was doing. It was only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I saw what he had been doing. The painting, in other words, had a life of its own.
The genius of Pollock's drip style is not of course a technical discovery, nor is it reducible to its sources; Siqueiros, Hofmann, and even Pollock himself had experimented with the technique in the early forties or before. The loose, continuous drawing techniques of the surrealists often yielded networks of lines that resembled the complexity of Pollock's poured and dripped paint surfaces too. As early as the middle twenties the surrealists experimented with pouring and spattering paint, and Pollock certainly knew these works. But Pollock only started using the technique regularly when it became relevant for exploring the implications of Mural and certain other works of the middle forties.
One of the remarkable aspects of the drip pictures is the unerring control that Pollock maintained over the gestural marks, the colour, and the overall visual evenness of the field using this freer technique of application. It seems that having physically to apply the paint to the canvas in Pollock's earlier work actually obstructed the continuity of the gestures; by contrast, dripping and pouring gave the artist more control, not less. In this sense the new technique offered a greater accuracy of rendering.
Despite the initially anarchic appearance of the drip pictures, Pollock built up the lush, coloured surfaces gradually, giving every line and spot a unique character, full of expression. As early as 1943 each of Pollock's abstract paintings is remarkably complete in itself and distinct from the others. In view of the technique, particularly after 1946, it is striking how unique and unrepetitive each of these compositions is.
The critic Harold Rosenberg, in his 1952 essay "The American Action Painters" - a review of American avant-garde art in which he first coined the term "action painting" - provided the definitive description of Pollock's position. He explained that American painters had recently started to view the canvas as an area or arena in which to act - instead of a space in which to reproduce, display, or express an object, real or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not an image but an event. In other words, every picture created in this "manner" was revelatory if not biographical. Rosenberg was thus comparing Pollock's abstract expressionism with the 19th-century works of Van Gogh, whose emotions and feelings appear in all his canvases.
Also, in this account, Pollock the action painter is portrayed as the artist-existentialist, whose unpremeditated act of painting conforms to Jean-Paul Sartre's main premise that "existence precedes essence." There is no precise plan for what the artist is going to do: rather, the picture emerges out of the process of painting. Thus, when it was put to him that "you don't really have a preconceived image of a picture in your mind?" Pollock replied No. Although he did have a general notion of what the picture would look like.
Pollock's work exposes directly, in the process of painting, the changing facts of his creative experience. He transformed the obligation for social relevance, a pervasive current between the wars, into an unrelenting moral commitment to a search for the "self." The multiple impressions of the artist's own hand in the upper right corner of Number 1 (1948) emphasize the immediacy of the artist's personal presence and, by contrast, emphasize the vastness of the canvas as measured against them. A number of painters of the New York School used handprints in this way.
According to Lee Krasner, Pollock took some cues from jazz. Like the improvisations of Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker, Pollock's drip paintings render form and content inseparable.
In 1947 Peggy Guggenheim closed her gallery and returned to Europe. Betty Parsons agreed to take on Pollock in her gallery, although she could not afford the monthly stipend that Guggenheim had been paying. The latter continued that herself for a short time until Pollock's sales became sufficiently buoyant to make him a meagre living. He premiered his drip pictures in his first Betty Parsons exhibition of January 1948. They were widely ridiculed and continued to be until his death, even though the recognition of his genius within the art world grew rapidly.
With the help of a local physician, Pollock stayed away completely from alcohol between 1948 and 1950, and the work of these years is calmer and freer. He got national attention in the press after 1948, even if it was often unsympathetic; in 1949 Life even ran an article entitled, "Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" and in 1950 the photographer Hans Namuth made a short film of Pollock working.
Pollock's drip pictures of 1950, like Number 27 (1950, Whitney Museum of American Art), are larger, less probative, and more wistful. They tend to have a more open weave of lines and seem more contained within themselves as they reach the outer edges of the canvas. By contrast, the denser works of 1949 continue at the same level of intensity edge to edge. The most monumental works of 1950 also have a soft, diffuse light, like the late Impressionist paintings of lilies by Claude Monet. These large compositions represent at once a summation of this phase of Pollock's development and a creative dead end.
In late 1950 Pollock started drinking again, and his creativity took a sharp turn toward purely black-and-white pictures, many with figures or totemic images, as in Echo (Number 25, 1951, Museum of Modern Art, NY). He did a few drip pictures, too, but his productivity trailed off and he seemed to have lost confidence in the direction of his development. Several of the paintings from 1951 to 1953 are still of a high quality, like Echo and Blue Poles Number 11 (1952, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), but they also have a more anxious and groping feel; some works of these years seem faltering.
In Blue Poles Pollock introduced the cadence of strong blue diagonals (painted against the edge of a two-by-four) as if he were seeking some stability. It may also imply a yearning to return to the security of his roots, since the idea of the poles resembles the compositional device that Benton taught Pollock in the early 1930s and that Pollock used in 1943 for Mural (though Benton meant for such poles to be hypothetical, not visible).
Soon after Blue Poles Pollock made the extremely different Portrait and a Dream (1953, Dallas Museum of Art), which returned in spirit to his point of departure in the early forties - himself (the "portrait," painted in colour) and images from the unconscious (the "dream," in black and white). But rather than having the space brimming over with a myriad of unconscious images, the head is a solitary form and the freer automatist forms at the left seem as though contained within a frame. Next Pollock did a few dense, intricately tangled paintings like Grayed Rainbow (1953, Art Institute of Chicago), and White Light (1954, MOMA, NY), and Scent (1955, Private Collection), which relate more closely to his style of 1946, although they have a brooding darkness that is new.
In 1954 and 1955 Pollock's painting nearly ground to a halt as his drinking got heavier and his depression deeper. The public still joked about his work: In 1956 Time magazine flippantly christened him "Jack the Dripper." By this time he had stopped painting entirely and, on the night of August 10th, he drove his car off the road near his home in The Springs, killing himself and one of the two young women he had with him.
Pollock's legacy to subsequent abstract painters is profound but often not readily visible. His drip style did not inspire imitators precisely because it was so strikingly unique; whereas the gestural painters of the fifties could try out the autographic brushwork of Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline, or Philip Guston without necessarily producing a baldly derivative work, no one could paint a drip composition that did not look like a weak Pollock. Yet Pollock's radical reorientation of time in painting - his concentration on the instant at which the paint hit the canvas, purging references to past time or previous painting - was the central inspiration for the immediacy in the gestural painting of the fifties as well as in the "happenings" that began at the end of the decade. The directness with which the materials are expressed in the process art and the minimalism of the sixties is also indebted to Pollock, as is the detachment from historical time in the work of Jasper Johns and of the Pop Art movement in general, even though Pop artists rejected Pollock's vehement assertion of romantic individuality. In any event, what makes Pollock one of the greatest of 20th-century painters is the verdict of art collectors, one of whom (David Martinez), paid $140 million for Pollock's No 5 (1948) in a private sale in 2006.
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