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

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

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

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. 

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  • [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.]
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  • A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

    An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

    Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
    • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
    • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

    The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

    Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

    "It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

    The Barry Arm Fjord

    Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

    Image source: Matt Zimmerman

    The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

    Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

    Image source: whrc.org

    There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

    The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

    "This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

    Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

    What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

    Moving slowly at first...

    Image source: whrc.org

    "The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

    The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

    Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

    Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

    While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

    Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

    How do you prepare for something like this?

    Image source: whrc.org

    The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

    "To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

    In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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