Before They Were Famous: Jackson Pollock


Jackson Pollock is best known for his famous drip paintings, a technique whereby he dripped, flung, or swirled paint onto a canvas fixed to the floor.  Whether looking at Lavender Mist: Number 1 (1950) (below) or another “I could have done that myself”-dripping mess canvases, I’d venture to say that most people recognize a Pollock by said drip style that he began developing circa 1947.  But before he became famous for this technique, his paintings ranged from landscapes to cryptic subjects aligned with Jungian psychology.  Let’s pull back the veil and browse two Pollock paintings from a period before the famous drip style.

Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950, 1950 oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950, 1950 oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This entry will be the first in a series entitled “Before They Were Famous.”  With these entries, I hope to introduce readers to the early careers of several household-name artists – Leonardo, Rubens, Monet, Pollock, etc. – by showing works of art that don’t quite make it into survey texts.  Many of the images might seem shockingly out of place with whatever idea one has about a certain artist, period, or style (the classic WTF?!? moment).  We might call these works “non-canonical,” in that they do not enter the canon of art history, that artificial measuring rod against which all works of art are judged, categorized or excluded. 

Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1 (1950) is in almost all survey books and would be generally recognized by those with a basic interest in or knowledge of art (if not by title but certainly in image).  Works like Going West and Guardians of the Secret, while covered in monographs about the artist or books specifically on Modern Art, at first glance appear “so different” from Lavender Mist that one could easily overlook these early Pollocks in a museum.

Jackson Pollock, Going West, c. 1934-35, oil on fiberboard.  Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.Jackson Pollock, Going West, c. 1934-35, oil on fiberboard.  Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

My first reaction to seeing Going West in person eons ago was to give it a passing glance.  When a friend of mine said, “Hey, that’s a Jackson Pollock over there,” I quickly turned, read the label, and looked at the painting with suspicion (not in a Thomas Hoving way à la Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock).  How, I thought, could my art history profs have neglected to give me the proper tools to recognize this undulating landscape with settlers and the moon as a Pollock?!?  Alas, the coming of age of an art historian can be rather tumultuous.  But indeed, Going West is a Pollock whose style is reminiscent of his teacher and mentor, Thomas Hart Benton (check out hisWikipedia page of a Google image search and you’ll instantly see the similarities).  [You can see the painting at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.@AmericanArt]

Now that I was “in the know,” so to speak, I wanted to know more about Pollock’s work before the drip phase.  Years later when I encountered Guardians of the Secret at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (@SFMOMA), I was immediately spellbound.  Take a look at the painting below and I think you’ll know why.

Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943, oil on canvas.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San FranciscoJackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943, oil on canvas.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

The above painting is quickly approaching the total abstraction of Pollock’s drip technique (I know some of you are probably thinking, “What do you mean approaching, it looks totally bonkers to me!”).  Really the only easily recognizable figural element in the painting – that is, something that looks like a recognizable figure/object/thing – is the “dog/wolf” at the bottom of the canvas.  The scholarly interpretation of this canvas runs the gamut from making connections to Jungian psychology (through a look at the dog/wolf as an archetype for a primal struggle/existence) to seeing a male and female figure joined at a table to finding enigmatic hieroglyphic-like symbols strewn across the central white-ish rectangle and so on.  The best quick analysis of the painting is on the SFMOMA website through their interactive “Making Sense of Modern Art.”

In any case, there’s plenty more to write about Pollock but I hope that today’s entry has been revealing.  My advice to anyone interested in art is that when you are attracted to a particular artist’s style, delve into the larger body of his/her work and see what you discover.  You’re bound to be surprised along the way.

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