Artists Who Died Before 50: Jackson Pollock
The Abstract Expressionist
Artists are memory makers… or rather, memory keepers. What we do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, or a person in a portrait. It is why the public is still fascinated with a little known lady captured in the Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years and dancers who only danced 2 years at best, are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. It is why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. This is the artist who was a major player in the direction of the artists’ movement that has remained an enigma even today. He captured feelings and emotions people did not think were there but when discovered they captured the imagination and jokes of the world.
I have to say it’s sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. That’s what happened to most of the artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done. Some just couldn’t take the rejection and short-lived popularity that comes with art and artist’s movements, like this one: abstract expressionist movement. This is the story of Jackson Pollock.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)
He was born Paul Jackson Pollock. The major figure of American Abstract Expressionism, Pollock created his best works, his famous drips, between 1947 and 1950. After those fascinating years, comparable to Picasso’s blue period or van Gogh’s final month in Auvers, he abandoned the drip, and his last works are often bold, unexciting works. When the fame dies, the crowds thin and no one seems to want you anymore, it must be a very bitter pill to swallow. He died in an alcohol related car accident where he was the driver.
Volatile and Reclusive
He was regarded as reclusive and volatile, and he struggled with alcoholism for most of his life. The youngest son of five, his parents grew up in Iowa, but Jackson grew up mostly in California. Typical of many artists and creative types, he wasn’t very good at school and was expelled from two high schools. In 1930, he and his brother Charles went to New York City and studied art at the Art Students League under Thomas Hart Benton, a famous American artist. Later during the depression he worked for the WPA Federal Art Project.
Do you think Abstract Art should make sense?
Friends and Therapies
He tried many therapies available at that time to deal with his ever growing alcoholism problem and one encouraged him to engage through his drawings and painting. Although this seems to have helped, it is believed today that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder as well.
Through work done for Peggy Guggenheim and others, Pollock was able to marry and buy a wood-frame house and barn on the south shore of Long Island. He converted the barn into a studio, a place where he perfected his big “drip” technique of working with paint that gained him so much attention and fame.
If you have never seen anything more than a photo of his work in a book or on the Internet, then you can’t fully get the impact of the “drip” paintings. It looks like the paint was “thrown at the canvas” but that’s not true. It was dangled over the canvas an allowed to drip in layers of color and texture. What you can’t see from a photo is the depth. The paint is so thick that in places it stands away from the canvas more like a relief sculpture than just a painting. It has a feel a little more like a root system in the ground than a flat painting.
Everyone should see the movie, Mona Lisa Smiles with Julia Roberts. In the movie as an art history teacher, the Julia Roberts character takes some of her students to the unveiling of a Jackson Pollock painting. The students aren’t very impressed until she has them get closer and there they stand, with noses near the canvas, admiring the depth of layers. I got to see a small Pollock myself in a museum in Dallas a couple years ago. I will never be the same. The photos cannot do it justice. Just as in the movie, I moved in close; as close as the sensors would allow without going off and sending security guards my way. And there it was: layer upon layer of threads of paint in colors and textures you cannot imagine.
How to look at abstract art.
My daughter-in-law was with me and watched me with interest. She later said to me that she just didn’t “get it” and couldn’t admire something that was completely abstract. She wanted to find an image in the chaos. I think most of us are like that. We want to make order where there is no order, to find hidden messages where there is no hidden message. It is gestalt. We want to see a flying eagle in the inkblot, when in fact, it is only an inkblot. With Abstract Expressionism, you aren’t supposed to find anything beyond the joy of color and the freedom to create chaos with wild abandon.
I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.— Jackson Pollock
"My kindergartener could do that."
Abstract art isn’t supposed to mean “impossible to understand.” Just as the Impressionists were painting the mere impression of a landscape or sunset, the Abstract Expressionists were focusing on the expression of the paint, and not any subject. There is an emotion and feeling to just plain paint and color. They do have that “my kindergartener could do that” look about them but when you look closer you can see that there is planning and skill involved in the execution of these works, as well as the real emotions of the tortured personal lives of the artists. When you ask the question, “What’s it about,” the answer can be simply it’s about the paint itself, about the artist’s feeling about the paint, or even about the artist’s feeling about abstract art itself. The question is, “How does it make you feel?” It is just as honest to say, “confused” as it is to say “sad” or “happy” or “hypnotized.”
My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more 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
Synthetic Resin-based Paints
It was all because Pollock started using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, instead of the more common thinner acrylics. These enamels allowed for the build up of thin threads of line; instead of spreading out and thinning out, the paints stayed thick and round. It was at the peak of his fame that he abandoned the “drip” method of painting. After that his work became darker, using mainly black in something referred to as “black pourings.” However these didn’t sell. They weren’t what the public wanted. He stopped using names in his paintings and just gave them numbers so that the public wouldn’t be clued into anything and would see the paintings for what they were—pure painting.
Died at 44.
It was during this time that his alcoholism deepened and for a year he gave up on painting, turning to sculpture instead. He died in a single-car crash while driving under the influence of alcohol. He was just 44 years old. One other passenger with him also perished in the crash.
When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of 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. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.— Jackson Pollock
I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who have no more talent than others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time. In Jackson Pollock’s case, he did know some famous people who helped him along the way, including Peggy Guggenheim, but even she couldn’t help save him from his own alcoholism, which eventually ended his career and life.
In 2002, about 30 paintings were “discovered” by the children of deceased parents cleaning out a storage area. They found what appeared to be Jackson Pollack paintings, before unseen. It seemed likely that these could be actual Pollack paintings. For one, he rarely signed his paintings and these were unsigned. They looked very much like his style. Second, the parents were known to be friends of Pollack and it was not uncommon for Pollack to give paintings away to friends without recording the transactions anywhere. Third, they appeared the right age and style for his work. If authentic, these paintings were potentially worth many millions of dollars. If fake, they were basically worthless.
The problem is that Jackson Pollack paintings are among the easiest to fake. He has become of the most faked contemporary artists. On top of that, these friends of Pollack were also artists in their own right. Authorities and a leading Pollock expert declared the works to be authentic. But many were baffled because these could actually be real Pollack paintings but how to prove it. Thank goodness, we have Mass Spectrometry on our side.
After examining the paint in 10 of the paintings, they were found to contain “Ferrari red” which was a pigment, which wasn’t available on the market until 1983. Another paint pigment present was a brown known to be unavailable until 1986. Since Pollack died in a car crash in 1956, it is unlikely that he used Ferrari red or the brown in question on any of his authentic paintings. All the paintings in the trove were looked at as suspicious then. Still the owners claim them to be authentic and the fight continues. Unless you love the style, I wouldn’t buy one of these suspicious works thinking it would appreciate over time like an authentic Pollack would. The chances are that they are NOT real Pollack paintings.