Is Jackson Pollock the Most Famous American Artist We Know Nothing About?

Was Jackson Pollock more than just “Jack the Dripper”?

For a long time, the stereotypical idea of the famous American painter was Jackson Pollock, king of the Abstract Expressionists. Opinionated, belligerent, iconoclastic, and inventive, Pollock and his drip paintings ushered in a new, uniquely American school of art that drew the attention and often derision of the art world and the merely “art curious.” Yet, love him or hate him, everyone had a clear picture of the man who came to be known as “Jack the Dripper.” However, a new retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York hopes to educate the public on how Pollock was much more than just his signature style and to wonder at what might have been if he hadn’t been so self-destructive. 


  • Image: Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). One: Number 31, 1950. 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ (269.5 x 530.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange), 1968. © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • For many, Pollock is the American version of Vincent Van Gogh in terms of the tortured genius archetype. Pollock struggled for years not only for recognition, but also for a style worthy of recognition. Pollock didn’t invent drip painting. (Janet Sobel, whose paintings Pollock saw in 1946, may have invented it, if you don’t count the paint-pouring experiments of Dadaists such as Max Ernst decades before Sobel.) But Pollock took drip painting to new heights, helped in no small part by the championing of Clement Greenberg, who hitched his critical fame to Pollock’s ascendance through works such as One: Number 31, 1950 (shown above), a classic drip, all-over work that sets a kind of stylistic baseline in the MoMA exhibition Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954.

  • Image: Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). The Flame. c. 1934-38. Oil on canvas, mounted on fiberboard, 20 1/2” x 30” (51.1 x 76.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Enid A. Haupt Fund, 1980 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • Before the “Jack the Dripper” reign of stylistic terror, however, Pollock wandered in a stylistic wilderness, searching for that signature approach that fit his vision and temperament. We’re so used to classic, confident Pollock that works such as The Flame (shown above) seem not just pre-mastery works, but works by an entirely different artist. There’s certainly a beauty and energy in such works, but without the Pollock signature, they would have been entirely forgotten today. But even these early works are known as part of the Pollock canon if only as early misfires before the full barrage of genius.

     

  • Image: Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Untitled. c. 1943-44. Screenprint, composition: 8 7/16 x 5 1/2″ (21.5 x 14 cm); sheet: 11 7/16 x 8 3/4″ (29 x 22.3 cm). Publisher: unpublished. Printer: the artist. Edition: unique proof. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, in honor of Lily Auchincloss, 1996 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • But among those early misfires are some interesting shots in the dark. Seemingly every documentary ever done about Pollock features at one point or another Hans Namuth’s 1951 film capturing Pollock in the act of painting. (Even the 2000 biopic Pollock starring Ed Harris refers to Namuth’s film as a film-within-a-film.) What a different picture we would have if we could see Pollock screen printing (as in the example shown above), a medium more associated with Andy Warhol, perhaps the prime candidate for an anti-Pollock. The MoMA show features screen prints, engravings, lithographs, and drawings in addition to the typical classic drip and non-drip paintings. For a long time even the MoMA kept these Pollock items out of the public eye and, therefore, outside the art historical narrative, as if they would muddy the waters of a clearer perception of Pollock. Now, finally, even the MoMA sees that the truly clearer picture of Pollock is a muddier, messier, more human one of restless invention rather than one-note genius.

     

  • Image: Jackson Pollock. Portrait and a Dream. 1953. © Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Tate Liverpool.
  • The Tate Liverpool recently closed a similar exhibition titled Jackson Pollock: Blind SpotsBlind Spots focused on “black pouring” paintings by Pollock made between 1951 and 1953, when he felt personally and creatively trapped by the drip painting style he had adopted and struggled to move beyond. Already labeled as a genius for that genius style, Pollock feared what awaited him if he ventured too far. The “black pouring” works in many ways represent Pollock peering into the dark abyss of a future of downward failure even bleaker than his youthful struggle upward. In Portrait and a Dream (shown above), painted just three years before his alcohol-fueled, fatal car accident, we see Pollock drip away on the left, but now freed of color, as if he wanted to strip away the style one layer at a time. 

    On the right, another outpouring of black suggested a face (perhaps his own) to Pollock, so he indulged in some portraiture. For me, Portrait and a Dream embodies Pollock’s dream portrait of himself as an all-around, enduring artist and not just a master of a faddish style. Perhaps the time has come for us to indulge in similar dreaming and picture the Pollock that could have been, the artist that wanted to shed the style that shot him to fame, but quickly became imprisoning. With Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954, the “real” Pollock is free at last, just as we the public are free at last to recognize that we really didn’t know his art at all, but can now enjoy these new lessons. 

    --

  • [Image at top of post: Jackson Pollock. Portrait and a Dream. 1953. © Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of Tate Liverpool.]
  • [Many thanks to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for providing me with the images indicated above from and other materials related to the exhibition Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954, which runs through March 13, 2016. Many thanks also to the Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, UK, for providing me with the image indicated above and other materials related to the exhibition Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, which ended October 18, 2015.]
  • [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]
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    • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
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    The Great Smog of 1952

    London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

    All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

    Invisible, but still deadly

    Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

    London Mayor Sadiq Khan

    After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

    The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

    Image: Transport for London

    ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

    Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

    • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
    • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
    • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
    • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
    • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
    • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
    • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
    • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

    Central London's worst places for breathing

    Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

    Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

    What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

    It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

    One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

    Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

    Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

    Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

    On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

    Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

    Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

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    Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

    Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

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    However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

    As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

    Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

    By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

    By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

    The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

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    Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

    Elephant & Castle, London.

    Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

    Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

    It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

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