Just as Dada and surrealism had been the art world’s mocking response to the world’s failed progressive pretensions in response to the anti-human horror of World War I, the art movement that blew up in the wake of World War II’s repeat performance was “abstract expressionism.”
It was deliberatively non-figurative. It told the viewer no story. It was not meant to “mean” anything. It was no more than evidence of the artist still alive, surviving, still creating art in the wake of the second devastation of everything modernist and human. It’s bold declaration of art now being detached from meaning, narrative, historical perspective or progressive purpose made New York the new center of the art world. It’s boldest representative was Jackson Pollock.
Some critics complained about Pollock’s process of “drip painting” on canvases spread out on warehouse floors. He “attacked” the canvas from all four sides until he was satisfied with the composition. This, said critics, was “performance art” and that the finished artworks were of little value, as they were just souvenirs of the “art event.” Pollock replied that all his art only had value and meaning for him in the moment of completion. This did not make the “old school” critics happy.
What should have been Jackson Pollock’s moment of vindication as an artist was also the beginning of the end of everything he was trying to express about art.
Pollock’s moment in the sun was four pages in the August 8, 1949 edition of Life (Magazine) headlined “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
Pollock’s greatest works, his drip paintings, were created between 1947 and 1950. The Life (Magazine) article brought fame and celebrity into Pollock’s life. After 1951, he dumped the drip method and began experimenting with what were arguably more salable paintings, perhaps not coincidentally unrelated with his move to a more commercial high profile gallery. He may have sensed that the new demand from collectors was forcing him to make artistic compromises. Or he may have just been being crushed under the pressure to produce. But for whatever reason, this is when his severe, eventually fatal, alcoholism began.
In 1955, Pollock created his last two paintings
He spent 1956 making sculptures constructed of wire and plaster. On August 11, 1956, a drunken Pollock crashed his car less than a mile from his house, killing himself and Edith Metzger. Pollock’s mistress, the artist Ruth Kligman, survived the crash.
Jackson Pollock was a brilliant artist whose life is a study of complex and ironic contradictions. He championed the abstract expressionist cause of art being free of any “meaning” and artists being the anonymous creators of that “meaningless” art. And yet, his brilliant drip paintings still inspire art lovers’ lives and he was made a shining star of the “new art” despite his preferring to remain in the shadows. He fought to be a revolutionary artist struggling against all official academic maxims about the meaning and value of art. He sought to be a “pure” artist, true to his ideals, yet he began cutting artistic corners once the title of Abstract King had been bequeathed to him and needed to be defended.
Pollock hated the commercial aspects of art and the false values that defined any artwork’s worth, e.g. the fame and notoriety of the artist vs. the art itself. And yet he fell into the trap of living up to his hype once the money started finally coming in. How sadly common it is that the battering the egos of young artists sustain in their struggle for success leaves them too weakened to defend their most cherished personal convictions when success finally does arrive.
- Do you feel an artist should be trying to express a meaning, or even just evoke a mood or feeling, with the art he or she creates? Or should art, as much as possible, be simply a stimulant or prompt for the viewer’s own unique personal response?
- Should art be “used” by the viewer as an inspirational aid in their work, or should it be a message to be deciphered or understood? Or are both “consumer uses” of art acceptable.
- Is it ever possible for an abstract piece of art to be completely purely “meaningless?”
- What do you like or dislike about Pollock’s drip paintings?
- Who is your favorite abstract artist? Can you explain why?