Jackson Pollack
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Jackson Pollack

Meaning And Significance

Claude Cernuschi

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eBook - ePub

Jackson Pollack

Meaning And Significance

Claude Cernuschi

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Designed to help students and interested general readers to interpret the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, this survey of Pollock's life and art provides insight into the origins and meanings of individual works and analyzes the influences upon Pollock. Also included are discussions of the many issues raised by Pollock's work above and beyond his intentions, and how they intersected with the work of his contemporaries as well as other intellectual currents of the time.

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DOI: 10.4324/9780429034862-2


DOI: 10.4324/9780429034862-3
When reviewing the development of (and interrelationships between) an artist's life and work, particularly those of an important artist, it is tempting, with the hindsight of history, to see early experiences and experiments as anticipations of later achievements. But Pollock's beginnings were modest. He was born Paul Jackson Pollock on January 28, 1912, on a sheep ranch in Cody, Wyoming—the fifth and youngest son of a Presbyterian couple of Scotch-Irish descent.1 His father, LeRoy Pollock, never led a financially secure existence. Shortly after Jackson's birth, he left Cody with his family, never to return. Looking for opportunity, they moved six times in ten years: from Cody to San Diego (California) to Phoenix (Arizona) to Chico (California) to Janesville (California) to Orland (California) and finally to Los Angeles. Jackson never saw his birthplace again.
Nothing in this itinerant life-style, nothing, indeed, in Pollock's parents' profession, interests, and education would explain why all five brothers chose careers in the arts: Charles Cecil Pollock (born 1902) was a painter and teacher, Marvin Jay Pollock (born 1904) was a rotogravure etcher, Frank Leslie Pollock (born 1907) was a writer and commercial rose grower, and Sanford LeRoy Pollock (born 1909) was involved in painting, graphic arts, and silk-screening. Young Jackson, therefore, grew up in an environment where his brothers, if not his parents, were directly involved with art and with the issue of creativity.
In 1922 the eldest brother, Charles, left home to enroll at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Four years later, in September of 1926, Charles left again to study at the Art Students League in New York with one of the most prominent American artists of the day: Thomas Hart Benton. Jackson would later follow his older brother's footsteps by moving to New York in 1930, joining him at the League, and studying under the same man. But before acquiring formal training in art, Pollock, as a youth, was in constant trouble. In 1927 he enrolled at Riverside High School but left a year later as the result of an argument with an ROTC officer. When the Pollocks moved to Los Angeles in 1928, Jackson entered Manual Arts High School and met Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, a teacher who introduced him to mysticism, theosophy, and modern art. But if Pollock found a sympathetic personality or a possible mentor in Schwankovsky, the discipline of school life and the stress on athletics proved too oppressive for him. During the 1928-29 academic year, Pollock was expelled for his part in writing and distributing a pamphlet attacking the faculty and the school's emphasis on sports.2
Out of school, in the summer of 1929, Jackson worked at land surveying and road construction with his father. Working outdoors in the vast expanse of the western landscape probably gave the young Pollock a sensitivity to the natural environment—a feeling he would later speak of and a quality that, arguably, he attempted to re-create in his mature work. In the fall Pollock managed to re-enroll at Manual Arts but was expelled again. On October 22, he wrote his brothers Charles and Frank about his personal problems and his ambition to be an artist:
This letter reveals the social and academic frustrations of a sensitive yet rebellious young man, whose ambition, at seventeen years of age, was to devote his life to art. His leftist political sympathies probably drew him to the art of the Mexican Muralists, whose work would later play an important role in American art of the 1930s—particularly Pollock's, as will be shown later. But since none of Pollock's work of this period survives, it is impossible to determine whether he was influenced by the Mexicans as early as 1929 or what the nature and degree of this influence may have been.
In the spring of 1930, Schwankovsky helped Pollock return to Manual Arts, if only at part-time status. He took drawing and modeling classes in the morning and worked at home in the afternoon. This flexible arrangement may have been more agreeable to a youth hostile to authority, but, writing to his brother Charles on January 31, Pollock expressed his continuing difficulties with art and with finding a philosophy of life:
Pollock's study of modern literature is reflected in the liberties he takes with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But more important are the psychological implications of this letter. Nothing in the early biographical information about Pollock suggests he would become one of the most important artists of the later twentieth century. Unlike Picasso, with whom he is often compared, he was no prodigy. He was restless and bored and a slow learner. He found social intercourse difficult and must have greatly missed his eldest brother's encouragement during the latter's extended trips to New York.
That June Charles returned to Los Angeles for the summer. He and Jackson took this opportunity to travel to Pomona College to see Jose Clemente Orozco's fresco Prometheus. Charles's presence had a positive impact on his troubled younger brother. Not only could he encourage young Jackson, but, at that time, the two must have decided that, to relieve Jackson's dissatisfaction with himself and his work, he had to leave Manual Arts altogether. Thus when Charles returned to New York in the fall, Jackson accompanied him. On September 29 Pollock registered at the Art Students League in Thomas Hart Benton's class: "Life Drawing, Painting, and Composition." Thomas Hart Benton, with John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, were among the most important practitioners of Regionalism—what may be interpreted as an artistic equivalent to America's policy of isolationism during the 1930s. Benton defined his intentions as the promotion of "an indigenous art with its own aesthetics [as] a growing reality in America."5 He claimed that reality must be the artist's only inspiration; and to Benton reality was specifically American. This is not to imply that Benton was ignorant of European art. On the contrary, he himself studied in Europe and returned in the 1910s deeply influenced by the American abstractionist Stanton McDonald Wright's paraphrases of Robert Delaunay's Orphism. But the experimental phase of Benton's career was short-lived; indeed, he later said of this period, "I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along and it took me ten years to get all that modernist dirt out of my system."6 Typical of Benton's constant diatribes against modern art, moreover, was his condemnation of the Alfred Stieglitz circle as "an intellectually diseased lot, victims of sickly rationalization, psychic inversions, and God-awful self-cultivations."7
In place of European modernism, Benton offered a realistic art that celebrated the values of rural America. He urged his students to travel through the United States, and often did so himself, to discover the local color of native American subject matter. Pollock took his teacher's advice and made two such sketching trips in 1931.
Despite his rather dogmatic personality, Benton took to Pollock almost immediately. Perhaps Pollock, a boy from Wyoming, personified some of the very qualities Benton was striving to invest in his own work. And, in spite of Pollock's later embrace of abstraction and repudiation of his teacher's style, the two men remained friends and corresponded until Pollock's death in 1956. Benton's influence on Pollock's formative work was strong in both style and content. Pollock's early paintings [1] reveal his interest in Benton's curvilinear undulating rhythms and in rural American subject matte...