Paul Jackson Pollock was born on January 28, 1912, in Cody, Wyoming. He grew up in Arizona and California and in 1928 began to study painting at the Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles. During the Autumn of 1930 Pollock moved to New York and studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Benton encouraged him throughout the succeeding decade.
By the early 1930s Pollock knew and admired the murals of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Although he travelled widely throughout the United States during the 1930s, much of Pollock’s time was spent in New York, where he settled permanently in 1934 and worked on the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (1935–42) and in David Alfaro Siqueiros’s experimental workshop in New York (1936).
In 1943, Pollock briefly worked as a maintenance man at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (forerunner to the Guggenheim Museum). Later that year, Peggy Guggenheim gave him a contract that lasted through 1947, permitting him to devote all his time to painting. His first solo show was held at Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century”, New York (1943). Prior to 1947 Pollock’s work reflected the influence of Pablo Picasso and Surrealism. During the early 1940s he contributed paintings to several exhibitions of Surrealist and abstract art, including “Natural”, “Insane”, “Surrealist Art” (1943) at “Art of This Century”, and “Abstract and Surrealist Art in America” (1944), organised by Sidney Janis at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, New York.
By the mid-1940s, Pollock was painting in a completely abstract manner, liberating himself from the vertical constraints of an easel by affixing unstretched raw canvas to the floor. In 1947, his “drip style,” marked by the use of sticks, trowels, or knives to drip and splatter paint, as well as pouring paint directly from the can, emerged. Reminiscent of the Surrealist notions of the subconscious and automatic painting, Pollock’s drips, also called “action paintings,” revolutionised the potential for contemporary art and furthered the development of Abstract Expressionism.
From the Autumn of 1945, when artist Lee Krasner and Pollock were married, they lived in the Springs, East Hampton, New York. Peggy Guggenheim organised his first European solo exhibition at the Museo Correr, Venice, in 1950. In 1952 Pollock’s first solo show in Paris opened at the Studio Paul Facchetti, and critic Clement Greenberg organised his first retrospective at Bennington College, Vermont. He was included in many group exhibitions, including the Whitney Annual (later Whitney Biennial) from 1946 and the Venice Biennale in 1950. Although his work was widely known and exhibited internationally, the artist never travelled outside the United States. He was killed in a car accident on August 11, 1956, in East Hampton.
In 1973, “Blue Poles” (Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 – shown above), was purchased by the Australian Whitlam Government for the National Gallery of Australia for US $2 million (A$1.3 million at the time of payment). At the time, this was the highest price ever paid for a modern painting. The painting is now one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery. It was a centrepiece of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 retrospective in New York, the first time the painting had been shown in America since its purchase.
Pollock’s work has polarised art critics and public, with vehemently expressed opinions both for and against the paintings of this artist. The critic Robert Coates once derided a number of Pollock’s works as “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.” In a famous 1952 article in ARTnews, Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting”, and wrote that “what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The big moment came when it was decided to paint ‘just to paint’. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral.”
Clement Greenberg supported Pollock’s work on formalistic grounds. It fitted well with Greenberg’s view of art history as a progressive purification in form and elimination of historical content. He considered Pollock’s work to be the best painting of its day and the culmination of the Western tradition via Cubism and Cézanne to Manet. Reynold’s News in a 1959 headline said: “This is not art – it’s a joke in bad taste.”
The Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organisation to promote American culture and values, backed by the CIA, sponsored exhibitions of Pollock’s work. Certain left-wing scholars, most prominently Eva Cockcroft, have argued that the U.S. government and wealthy elite embraced Pollock and abstract expressionism in order to place the United States in the forefront of global art and devalue socialist realism. Cockcroft wrote that Pollock became a “weapon of the Cold War”…