What’s the big deal with Jackson Pollock?

I will happily admit that Jackson Pollock’s paintings, while beautiful, never appealed to me all that much. And that’s okay, given how art is very subjective. What does still interest me though is why Pollock is so famous. For example, in 2016, his Number 16 sold for $32,645,000. What makes his work so prized?

Number 16, 1949 (Source)

As with most art, we cannot view Pollock’s work in a vacuum. In the context of present day, Pollock does not seem very groundbreaking. It is therefore important to look at his work in the correct historical context.

Jackson Pollock was born in Wyoming in 1912. In 1930, he moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League where he studied under Thomas Hart Benton. Benton painted images of everyday life and Pollock’s early works follow the same theme.

Threshing Wheat by Thomas Hart Benton, 1939 (Source)

How did Pollock move away from these traditional themes of art? First of all, he was drawn to “non-traditional” artists such as Mexican mural painters. He was a member of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Experimental Workshop. Siqueiros used unusual methods– he applied paint by “pouring, dripping, splattering and hurling it at the surface”– an obvious influence on Pollock’s signature work.

Collective Suicide by David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1936 (Source)

Pollock’s influences also included the Spanish artist Joan Miró, the indigenous art of Oceanic, African and Native American peoples, and Picasso.

The Birth of the World by Joan Miró, 1925 (Source)
Pollock drew inspiration from Native American sand painting. Seen above is a Navajo sand painting. (Source)

Surrealism had a clear influence on Pollock’s unique style as he moved away from traditional representational art (i.e. art representing objects and subjects in a realistic fashion). Him veering into abstract territory can also be traced back to Jungian psychology. In his twenties, Pollock experienced a mental breakdown. Suffering from depression and alcoholism, he sought treatment from a Jungian psychologist. This school of psychology centres on the unconscious mind, dreams and emotions. This focus on the “inner world” had a profound impact on Jackson Pollock’s style– a.k.a. Abstract Expressionism.

Pollock was not the first abstract artist but his approach was wholly unique. He became known for the method of action painting. Instead of working on an upright canvas, he would place it on the floor and move around it. His technique of dripping paint resulted in dynamic shapes and lines and clearly reflected how active he was while painting. He wanted the energy of his paintings to represent the energy and motion of his “inner world”.

With his unusual techniques and abstract subject matter, Jackson Pollock introduced the world to a new way of thinking about and viewing art.

Number 1 (Lavender Mist) by Jackson Pollack, 1950 (Source)

Significantly, he never planned his paintings in advance. Rather, he applied the paint directly to the plain canvas. What is remarkable about these seemingly random paint splatters is that they look more or less the same no matter where you look. There’s a consistency within each painting no matter what scale you’re viewing it at. This fractal nature of his paintings could explain why his work is appealing to so many people.

Marcus du Sautoy explains the fractal nature of Pollock’s paintings.

Looking at Pollock’s works in a vacuum, it is easy to dismiss them as just paint splatters. On closer observation we can see how there was probably a method to his madness.

From the very beginning, Pollock’s abstract expressionism attracted both admirers and critics. Whether or not Jackson Pollock was a great artist is a matter of personal opinion, but one cannot deny that he was a trailblazer.

Does knowing more about him now make me an ardent fan? Not really. But I wholeheartedly agree with the writer Rob Woodard who said, “…it’s hard to see people getting so worked up over an artist, more than 40 years after his death, unless there’s something in his work that truly matters.”

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