Jackson Pollock paintings are some of the most recognisable and thrilling images produced in the 20th century. Pollock was dubbed ‘Jack the Dripper’ by Time magazine due to the unusual way he liked to drip and splatter paint onto his canvas. Some of the inspiration for his paintings came from the Native American sand art he saw as a child and his own method of working resembled a form of ritualised dance around the canvas which was laid out flat on the floor.
Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming in January 1912, the youngest of five brothers, and grew up in Arizona and California. He went to school at the Manual Arts High School in California and at the age of 18, moved to New York City to study under the American Regionalist painter, Thomas Hart Benton, at the Art Students’ League. The main subject matter for his work during this period was the life in rural America he had known as a boy. During the 1930s, Pollock was relatively unknown and struggled to survive during the years of the Depression. He succeeded in getting a place on the Federal Art Project which gave him a small income and enabled him to continue painting.
In 1936 Pollock took part in the Experimental Workshop run by the Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siquieros who encouraged the splattering, hurling and dripping of paint and who introduced Pollock to the idea of ‘controlled accident’. The dripping and pouring method of painting adopted by Pollock in the 1940s also had roots in Surrealist automatism of that time, a technique which enabled the unconscious mind to express itself freely. Pollock also said of his work that it was ‘akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West’ , a reference to the American Indian custom of making sand paintings on the floor as part of a religious ritual. Pollock borrowed ideas from all three sources to develop his own radical style of painting.
In 1942, Pollock had a breakthrough when he exhibited a painting at the McMillen Gallery in New York alongside artists such as Picasso, Bonnard and Braque and the young American artist, Lee Krasner. Krasner introduced Pollock to a wider art scene which then led to an introduction to Peggy Guggenheim who had just opened the Art of This Century Gallery. She liked his work and offered him a contract.
In 1945, Pollock married Lee Krasner and they moved to a farmhouse on Long Island where he continued to develop his radical style of painting. In 1947 he discarded the paint brush and began the process of dripping and pouring the paint from the can or from a stick directly onto a canvas spread on the floor. These Jackson Pollock paintings, he said, had ‘no beginning and no end’. Films made in the early 1950s show Pollock engaged in a ritualised dance around the canvas.
Jackson Pollock paintings executed by the "drip" method established his reputation. By the late 1940s, Pollock was a major celebrity and was featured in Time and Life magazines. Time magazine dubbed him ‘Jack the Dripper’ and Life magazine, albeit somewhat cynically, ran the headline ‘Is this the greatest living painter in the United States?’ This exposure turned Pollock into a household name and, for the general public, he symbolised what was incomprehensible yet hugely exciting about modern art.
Pollock abandoned his drip style in 1951 and began to paint more figuratively again but his painting output started to decline and then ceased altogether. He held his last one-man show in 1954.
He was a hard-drinker all his life and had a tendency to live recklessly. He began an affair in 1956 which led to separation from his wife. On 10 August 1956, he was killed instantly when the car he was driving crashed on the road near his home. Another passenger in the car also died but his girlfriend survived.
Willem de Kooning said of Pollock, ‘he broke the ice’, meaning that he was part of something that brought about the recognition of Abstract Expressionist artists and created a market for their work. Shortly after Pollock’s death, his painting, Autumn Rhythm was sold to the Metropolitan Museum for $30,000. This was unprecedented for an abstract work and had a knock-on effect on the prices dealers could command for the work of the other Abstract Expressionists. As Pollock’s dealer Sidney Janis recalled later, ‘we had a little less trouble selling a de Kooning for $10,000 than we had a month earlier trying to sell one for $5,000.’
In late 1956, The Museum of Modern Art held a memorial retrospective of Pollock’s work comprising thirty-five Jackson Pollock paintings and nine watercolours and drawings from 1938-1956.