“This is not art–it’s a joke in bad taste” read the 1959 Reynold’s News headline.
That “joke” was Jackson Pollock’s artwork. Described as “degenerate” and “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless,” Pollock’s art was ever the subject of savage criticism. Even at the height of his career in August of 1949, LIFE magazine cheekily asked, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
And when his most famous work, Blue Poles, was sold to the Australian government in 1973, the cover of The Herald in Melbourne, Australia read “Would you pay $1.3 million [Australian Dollars] for this?” Australian taxpayers were livid toward their Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who viewed Blue Poles as a “masterpiece,” especially because in the same year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York paid the then equivalent - $2 million USD - for a Rembrandt. To Australians, a Rembrandt was a masterpiece and worth $2 million USD, not the newer and lesser known abstract expressionist Pollock.
Ultimately, the joke was on Australian taxpayers. Blue Poles, which still hangs in the National Gallery of Australia, is now valued at $500 million USD.
Peggy Guggenheim was the niece of Solomon Guggenheim, who established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1959 to be a bastion to the Modern Art he collected. Prior to 1959, however, the Guggenheim Museum was known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. And in 1943, Pollock was hired there as a maintenance man.
Everything changed for Pollock in 1943.
In the spring of 1943, Peggy Guggenheim hosted Pollock’s first solo show at the gallery she owned, The Art of This Century Gallery. Dutch painter Piet Mondrian visited Pollock’s exhibition and relayed to Guggenheim, “I have the feeling I’m looking at some of the most exciting art that I’ve seen so far in America.” With validation for her support of Pollock, Guggenheim was emboldened to financially support him with a monthly stipend.
By the fall, Pollock had quit his maintenance man job at the Museum of Non-Objective Thinking and focused solely on his art. Guggenheim also commissioned Pollock to paint a mural to hang in the entryway to her house. And upon inviting her socialite friend and famed art critic Clement Greenberg to see her new mural, Greenberg exclaimed, “Now that’s great art!” As an essayist for renowned publications such as The Nation, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue, Greenberg’s writings praised and immortalized Pollock’s work.
1943 was several years before Pollock incorporated drips and drizzles into his work, and though he became famous for it, he wasn’t the first artist to employ the drip technique.
Pollock’s early works were heavily influenced by his youth in the Western United States and the American Indigenous art that was common in the region. Additionally, as an adult, Pollock was attracted to the anti-facist Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros - all of whom had painted murals around the United States.
Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros were all known for being anti-facist and creating paintings that portrayed social and political messages. Only Siqueiros, however, employed unusual mediums and techniques. Siqueiros believed that revolutionary messaging required radical techniques. Instead of the traditional fresco method of using water-based pigments on fresh plaster, Siqueiros used a commercial spray gun to shoot automobile lacquer onto quick-drying cement.
Among Siqueiros’s unconventional methods was the drip technique he pioneered, known as the “all-over” method.
Pollock’s first “all-over” drip painting is said to be Free Form, which he painted in 1946 - a decade after attending Siqueiros’s 1936 experimental art workshop in New York City. Siqueiros’s workshop encouraged artists to break away from classic, euro-centric painting techniques and to implement radical ones. Yet Siqueiros’s workshop wasn’t what inspired Pollock to apply drips and drizzles. The work of another abstract expressionist and student of Siqueiros, Janet Sobel, moved Pollock to start.
In 1945, a year before Pollock created Free Form, Pollock saw Sobel’s work in a show curated by Guggenheim. Greenberg - who attended the show with Pollock and admired Sobel’s work alongside him - later wrote, “Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impact on him.”
Even Pollock’s wife and fellow Abstract Expressionist, Lee Krasner, incorporated drips and drizzles into her paintings. Some art critics argue that Krasner exercised the technique before Pollock did. But like Sobel and Siqueiros before her, Krasner also faded into obscurity behind Pollock’s shadow of fame.
So what, exactly, is it about Pollock’s art that surpassed the works of others in his time?
Pollock took his work to the floor. He abandoned the conventional practice of using an upright easel, canvas, and paint brush and instead immersed himself in his painting. Positioning himself over his work eliminated the limitations of the propped-up canvas. Pollock could move freely around and across the canvas or even remain on it, working from within.
Instead of brushes, Pollock applied paint with tools. Using sticks and trowels and the paint buckets themselves - whatever was within reach in his barn-turned-studio. Each medium rendered a different effect.
And while Pollock’s paintings appear chaotic, there was a method to his seeming madness. The repetitive drizzles, blobs, and splatters of color seemed to create geometric fractal patterns reminiscent of those occurring in nature. Physicist and Art Historian Richard Taylor noticed the potential fractals and set out to mathematically prove their presence.
Taylor spent years studying the dimensions of fractals that humans are most drawn to. He also examined and calculated the complexity of patterns in each of Pollock’s drip paintings, finding that they all possessed a dimensional complexity congruent with that of fractals. Establishing that every Pollock drip painting contained fractals also meant the art world was better equipped to distinguish a real Pollock from a fake.
Snowflakes, tree branches, forks in a river, blood vessels, and foam are all examples of naturally occurring kaleidoscopic effects that seem completely random but are actually fractals. The human brain is wired to recognize and distinguish fractals and, as Taylor found, even favor fractals of a certain scale. Pollock’s fractals happened to fall within the scale of fractals people find aesthetically pleasing, meaning that on a subconscious level, one cannot help but be drawn to the organized chaos of Pollock’s paintings.
Pollock rebelled against the European traditions that most Americans understood as art at the time. He changed what Americans defined as ‘fine art,’ and he paved the way for the avant-garde. As fellow Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning stated of Pollock’s legacy, “Pollock broke the ice.”
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