Jackson Pollock

Featured in Critical Response Lessons
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Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956), Number 4, 1950, oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Gift of Frank R. S. Kaplan, 1954

In 1946 Jackson Pollock’s artwork went through dramatic changes with the emergence of his dripped and poured canvases. These “drip” paintings consisted of layered swirls of color on black ground in which the artist’s process and movements can be seen in how the colors are layered on top of one another. Pollock became on of the most famous painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement and/or style for his gestural paint application: pouring, flicking and dripping onto canvas laid out on the floor.  He used sticks, brushes and chicken-basters to apply the paint to the canvas.  Pollock believed that the “action” of the artist tapped into the subconscious – automatism. He was primarily interested in the dramatic unfolding of the unconscious on the painting’s surface and the creation of an allover surface.  He believed that dripped and poured canvases eliminated all recognizable imagery and that an act of painting was an act of self-realization heavily influenced by existentialism – which draws on their principle of state of being is defined by action. 

Historical and Cultural Context:

In the early '50s the Abstract Expressionist movement became increasingly more popular in New York as well as in Europe. The artists working in this style sought to express inner feelings, spiritual ideas and universal concepts through abstract forms. In an effort to move away from World War II, the Holocaust in Europe, the threat of the atomic bomb and McCarthyism in America, Abstract Expressionist artists transformed the activity of painting into an almost spiritual practice. Formal elements such as line, shape and color became the means to express universal feelings, spirituality and even sometimes the psyche of the artist.

Quotes:

 

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

Jackson Pollock, 1947. 
 

I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Other wise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Jackson Pollock.
 

The method of painting is the natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.... I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.

Jackson Pollock, U.S. artist. repr. Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock (1960). Narrative for film by Hans Nemuth and Paul Falkenberg (1951).  
 

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or "express" an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," Art News (December 1952): 25. 

Research: 

  • Action Painting
  • Automatism
  • Surrealism
  • Psychology (Jung, Archetypes)
  • Collective Unconscious
 

Questions:

  1. Look at No.4 and try to retrace Jackson Pollock's painting gestures by moving your arm in the air.
  2. What was Jackson Pollock trying to reveal in his paintings?
  3. What do you think Jackson Pollock meant when he said "the painting has a life of its own ..."?
  4. Why do you think Jackson Pollock experimented with new materials and techniques in his art? What other professions use experimentation in their work?