- LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2022
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0035
- LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2022
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0035
There is a critical consensus that Jackson Pollock was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but there is surprisingly little agreement about what makes his work important. As a rule, critics find in Pollock whatever it is that interests them about modern art. The two best-known approaches to Pollock’s work are probably those of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg; the former saw Pollock’s pictures as examples of “all-over” composition, the latter as examples of “action painting.” Pollock’s classic “drip” paintings were mostly done within the brief time span of the years 1947–1950. Some critics have looked for a key to these paintings in Pollock’s earlier work, which reflects the influence of his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, the Mexican muralists, and Pablo Picasso. Other critics have vigorously disputed the relevance of these figurative works to his later abstractions. Similarly, the heads and figures that reemerge in his paintings of 1951–1953 have been the subjects of heated dispute. His meteoric rise to fame, his “cowboy” persona, and his self-destructive behavior, leading to his early death in 1956, have also attracted much attention. In recent decades, however, scholarly attention has shifted away from Pollock’s personal biography toward the cultural contexts of his work. His paintings have been interpreted in terms of totemism, Jungian imagery, the cultural context of postwar America, gender roles, and many other topics. Much Pollock criticism focuses on a mere handful of works, principally those in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It is often assumed that the technique is the important thing about Pollock’s work and that the results of that technique are relatively homogenous; therefore, any one Pollock serves to illustrate his work as well as any other. In fact, Pollock’s paintings are strikingly different from one another, and, ideally, the study of his work should begin with a review of as many of his pictures as possible, with attention to the specific characteristics of each one.
Pollock’s work is often interpreted as an abstract but dramatic form of self-expression (see Self-Expression and Performance, especially Rosenberg 1952), so his biography would seem to hold particular value for the interpretation of his work. He was a deeply troubled personality—rebellious, alcoholic, and possibly schizophrenic—and it is tempting to read his drips and spatters as the visual expression of his emotional turmoil, much as Van Gogh’s staccato brushstrokes and distorted outlines are seen (particularly by non-art-historians) as expressions of his madness. However, those close to Pollock describe him as a man of uncommon sensitivity and intelligence, and his best work was made during periods of calm and sobriety. So the relation between his life and his work remains a conundrum. Friedman 1972, by a contemporary of the artist, provides an idealized portrait but superbly evokes the worldview and ethos of his artistic era. Potter 1985 compiles a glittering mosaic of different impressions of Pollock. Solomon 1987 offers a more objective review of his life and career but was soon overtaken in Naifeh and Smith 1989: here, extraordinary research and vivid writing lights up every corner of Pollock’s life, but the vividness of the life threatens to obscure the importance of the work. Harrison 2000 includes biographical information, critical evaluations, and creative responses to Pollock and his work. Pollock and Pollock 2011 evokes the complexity of the family environment that shaped the artist.
Friedman, Bernard H. Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.
Friedman was a friend of Pollock’s, a collector, and a novelist. His short, subjective biography evokes Pollock’s milieu and worldview more vividly than other, more scholarly works.
Harrison, Helen A., ed. Such Desperate Joy: Imagining Jackson Pollock. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2000.
Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, gathers a remarkable range of statements, memoirs, and commentaries into four groups: “The Life and Death,” “Personal Responses: The Art,” “Personal Responses: The Man,” and “Creative Responses.” The last two sections are particularly fresh and illuminating.
Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. New York: Potter, 1989.
Incredibly detailed, dramatic, and full of juicy revelations about Pollock’s private life, this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography manages to be both an essential reference and a great read. The source for the film biography, Pollock (2000), directed by and starring Ed Harris, screenplay by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, based on Naifeh and Smith.
Pollock, Francesca, and Sylvia Winter Pollock, eds. American Letters: Jackson Pollock & Family, 1927–1947. Malden, MA: Polity, 2011.
Shattering the clichéd image of Pollock’s background as hardscrabble, uneducated, and uninteresting, this selection of letters depicts the artist as a member of a family whose members were exceptionally intelligent and sophisticated despite their poverty. Introduction by Michael Leja.
Potter, Jeffrey, ed. To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock. New York: Putnam, 1985.
Potter’s book is based on interviews with dozens of Pollock’s friends and contemporaries, which have been cut up and spliced together to form a chronological account. Despite its choppiness, this work is a gripping narrative, full of pithy quotes.
Solomon, Deborah. Jackson Pollock: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
A concise, thoughtful overview of the artist’s life and career.
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