Today, his works change hands for many millions. However, Jackson Pollock’s rise to fame as an abstract expressionist went through hunger, drunkenness and violence and ended in a fatal accident.
This is an overview of his career and his abrupt end. Discover why he is still considered one of the greatest painters of all time.
In August 1949, the American Life magazine an article about the painter Jackson Pollock with the headline “Is he the greatest living artist?”
The cover showed the bald artist with a cigarette in his mouth and his arms folded in front of one of his now iconic dripping paintings.
It was a jumble of colors and patterns, applied seemingly randomly and chaotically on a huge canvas.
Jackson Pollock’s radical new art form was a break with the existing and formed an entirely new style: abstract expressionism.
Inspired by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theories about the unconscious, Jackson Pollock conveyed his innermost feelings in his work as formless and colorful abstractions.
And it wasn’t always pleasant to watch.
Jackson Pollock was not only a brilliant artist, but also mentally disturbed, violent and a drinking organ. This poisonous cocktail killed him before he achieved eternal fame.
Jackson Pollock, according to friends and acquaintances, was cheerful and caring when he was sober. But when he had been drinking, he was violent and creepy.
The painter’s inner demons were already born in his childhood, when he grew up with his four brothers in Arizona and later California.
Their father was a violent drunkard with a short temper who made his sons’ childhoods hell.
His father ran away when Jackson Pollock was only eight, but the physical and psychological abuse had already left deep scars.
Jackson Pollock himself started drinking in his early 20s and struggled with binge eating throughout his life. He probably also suffered from bipolar disorder.
However, without his mental illness and alcoholism, Jackson Pollock would probably never have emerged as one of the most important post-war artists. Both elements shaped the way he expressed himself.
Jackson Pollock’s career in art began in 1930 when he entered the Art Students League in New York at the age of 18 under artist Thomas Hart Benton.
Pollock was mainly inspired by surrealist Mexican artists such as DA Siqueiros and JC Orozco, who were known for their murals.
This inspiration is clearly expressed in Pollock’s first works, which can be seen as surrealist figurative art. An example is The she-wolf from 1943 (see below).
IN The she-wolf you see the outline of an animal and the outline of some other creatures, but the figurative is clearly subordinate.
For a few years it disappeared entirely from the art of Jackson Pollock in favor of a non-figurative, highly expressive style.
Now Jackson Pollock, along with Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, is one of the most prominent representatives of the art form known as ‘Abstract Expressionism’.
That style emerged in the late 1940s, especially in New York, and made the United States the absolute epicenter of modern art for a while.
While Jackson Pollock was searching for his own style in the 1930s, America was in the midst of the Great Depression.
And it is no exaggeration to say that Jackson Pollock went hungry.
Between 1934 and 1942, he had so little to spend that he had to live in a room in his brother’s apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.
From 1937, Pollock was treated for his alcoholism by a Jungian psychoanalyst.
It introduced the tormented artist to a whole new world of dream interpretation, the subconscious and repressed feelings and urges.
A year later, Jackson Pollock spent four months in a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown.
These two experiences left a big mark on Pollock’s art in the 1940s. He increasingly focused on his own subconscious and spontaneous feelings when artistically involved.
Jackson Pollock’s new style attracted the attention of a number of New York painters, including Lee Krasner.
Lee Krasner fell under the spell of the wild artist who appeared as a curious mix between a classic cowboy and an arty New Yorker.
The feelings were mutual. Soon the two were lovers, and in 1945 they left town and moved to Springs on the outskirts of East Hampton, New York.
Pollock set up a studio in a shed behind the house, and here he made his first dripping painting, Rescue compositionin 1946.
The art world had never seen anything like it.
At first glance, the painting was nothing. There were no recognizable figures, landscapes, or objects in it—only a jumble of shapeless colors that flowed into each other like drops and blobs.
This technique was named drip and became part of the so-called action painting. The style was at least as startling as the works themselves.
Armed with buckets of paint and brushes, Jackson Pollock attacked the silver screen. It lay defenseless on the floor of his study.
He worked the canvas from every imaginable angle with an almost manic energy, alternately dripping, throwing and pouring paint onto it using wooden sticks and perforated paint cans.
Jackson Pollock also incorporated shards of glass, beads, stones and other objects into his works. Traces of coffee and cigarette butts have also been found during restorations.
Urban bohemian circles embraced Pollock’s raucous, abstract art, and the media quickly dubbed him “Jack the Dripper.”
The radical dripping style appealed especially to the so-called beatniks, who appeared in the late 1950s, and to whom writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were counted.
“We are not rebels, we are striving for a new kind of consciousness,” Allen Ginsberg once said of the beat generation.
Jackson Pollock would have it too. With his radical, abstract works, he not only set art free – he forced the public to look for a purpose behind the disorder on the canvas, which may have led to greater self-understanding.
However, not everyone was happy with Jackson Pollock’s dripping style.
Art critic Robert Coates called Jackson Pollock’s works “disorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.”
However, Pollock himself proved to be his worst enemy.
In his successful years from 1947 to 1951, Jackson Pollock began drinking heavily again, and with his violent and self-destructive behavior, the chain-smoking macho artist destroys himself, his talent and his marriage to the ever-loyal Lee Kasner.
In 1953 he replaced dripping paintings with black and white drawings in an attempt to reintroduce a more classical, figurative form.
The revolutionary spark seemed to be extinguished, and in 1956 Jackson Pollock got behind the wheel drunk and died in a tragic car accident.
However, his work lives on and his art is still worth many millions worldwide.
No one can stand in front of one of Pollock’s energy discharges without being hit by it in some way. Give it a try.