Jackson Pollack – Artist Number One

May 13, 2014
For days, week, months, the inspiration wouldn't come. He just stared at it, the huge 23ft by 6ft canvas looming over him – so large, he had to demolish a wall in his Eighth Street apartment to hang it. He drank. He smoked. He got more depressed. He sent his wife away to the country, hoping her absence would engender a rush of creativity. It didn't. She returned to find the sprawling blank space still untouched. Then, suddenly and without warning, he erupted, launching a six-hour assault on the canvas. Mural 1943 was finally complete. A blazing, undulating cacophony of colour – abstract figures cloaked in red and blue, white and yellow, drenched in black house paint. A masterpiece. The mural was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim, socialite and art collector, for the entrance to her East River townhouse. It was here, during a party hosted by Guggenheim's roommate, that the artist who created it got drunk, stripped naked and urinated in the living room fireplace. The artist was Jackson Pollock: a depressive and alcoholic, capricious and destructive. A genius. His demons finally got the better of him, in 1956, when he crashed his Oldsmobile convertible near Springs, Long Island, killing himself and a young female passenger. He was drunk. He was still only 44. [gallery link="none" ids="1120,1121,1122,1123"] Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, but grew up in Arizona and California. After being expelled from a couple of high schools, he followed his brother, Charles, to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League of New York. Pollock had a nervous breakdown in 1938 while living and working in lower Manhattan, supported by the WPA Federal Art Project, and was hospitalised for depression. In 1943, he landed his first solo show at Guggenheim's Art of this Century gallery. The following year, he married artist Lee Krasner, who influenced his career and legacy immeasurably Guggenheim once said that Pollock was “like a trapped animal” in New York. It was for the sake of his sanity and his liver that he moved out to the more remote Springs with his new wife. Around 1947, he began experimenting with style that critics would label abstract expressionism. It would make him a celebrity in art circles and beyond. “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Time magazine would later ask.
He would insult his friends and start fights in bars. He was a wife-beater and a philanderer.
His early work was more representational – influenced by Picasso and the 20th-century muralists of Mexico – but it was his unique technique of dripping, splashing and pouring paint onto the canvas that made him famous. This was action painting. “On the floor I am more at ease,” Pollock said.” 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.” The tools of his trade were unconventional, too. He would use sticks, trowels and knives instead of easels, palettes and brushes. The result – his output from in the late 1940s and early 1950s – was some of the most thrilling artwork of the 20th century, spawning a thousand imitators, dividing critics the world over. While he had dry spells, Pollock ultimately succumbed to the booze – though it wasn't his only tormentor. He was a strange man, prone to fits of violence and tears. He would insult his friends and start fights in bars. He was a wife-beater and a philanderer. But, like so many prodigious talents who came before him, the flaws in his character fuelled his art. Curator and art writer James Johnson Sweeney summed it up best when he said: “Pollock's talent is volcanic. It has fire. It is unpredictable. It is undisciplined. Lavish. Explosive. Untidy.”