‘It seems to me,’ Jackson Pollock, once said, ‘that the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture.’ Pollock’s deeply personal quest to remove the barriers of traditional technique between inner experience and outward expression would radically reinvent abstraction and create some of the most important works of 20th-century art. But his career was continuously troubled by alcoholism and was to be tragically cut short at the height of his powers.
Born in Wyoming, by the late 1920s Pollock was in Los Angeles, studying at the Manual Arts High School, before he moved to New York to train at the Art Students League. As America slid into the Great Depression the young Pollock managed to find employment as a mural assistant on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Federal Art Project, and later studied under the great Mexican muralist, David Siqueiros. But in 1938, he was hospitalised for his alcoholism. It proved to be a turning point. His time in Jungian analysis marked a shift away from the influence of the folk-inflected expressionism of the Mexican muralists in his work. His paintings began to lean towards abstraction, as in Male and Female (c.1942), and he became interested in surrealist ideas of automation and the unconscious.
By 1943 – having met his future wife and fellow painter Lee Krasner the year before – he had come to the attention of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in New York. His first great Abstract Expressionist works began to appear in 1947 with paintings such as Alchemy (1947). Over the next seven years, working with the canvas laid on the floor and dripping or pouring paint, or using sticks, trowels or paint thickened with sand or crushed glass, Pollock produced some of the greatest Abstract Expressionism works ever made. It was an extraordinary period that created paintings like Blue Poles (1952) and ended with his death in an alcohol-related car accident in 1954 after a period of mounting depression.
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