Pollock: An artist of the West
January 28th 2015 would have been the 103rd birthday of artist Jackson Pollock. Pollock is considered one of the giants of the modern art world. One of his paintings is currently recognized as the third most expensive ever: “No. 5, 1948” sold for $140 million in 2006. His signature drip style is instantly recognizable; he was the subject of an Academy Award winning biopic in 2000; his reputation as a surly and focused flinger of paint helped shaped the public’s conception of what an artist is like for decades.
But in many ways, Jackson Pollock represents where the art world went wrong, when the bitter fragmentation of Modernist thought gained visibility and momentum, further severing the appreciation of serious art from the general audience.
An awkward and immature individual without much conventional talent, Pollock did have passion and persistence. His original breakthrough paintings were blunt, primal depictions of archetypal imagery absorbed from Jungian therapy. But then Pollock was taken on by the radical critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg projected his materialistic ideology onto Pollack’s intuitive art, and encouraged him to emphasize the formal aspects of his work, all the better to manifest Greenberg’s agenda.
An abrasive bully, Greenberg was the leading advocate of the banal reduction of painting to a mere substance on a surface, accompanied by scads of verbose dogma. It was under his influence Jackson arrived at the drip style that came to define and limit him at the same time.
The public scoffed at this abstract art, the elitists scoffed back, and the fractures in our society deepened. But in the middle of all this, there remains Pollock the man, the artist, who struggled and suffered, and took chances; for that he deserves respect. He was driven to create, and tried to find a way to transcend his limited skills.
The drip paintings were not random accidents; analysis shows how Pollock reworked his surfaces using brushes, adding glazes, making corrections, utilizing his judgment to enhance his creations. Even in his declining years Jackson continued to make art, moving away from the drip paintings, which he found to be an ultimately unrewarding stylistic dead end, and back towards the figurative, mythic work of his original explorations. Who knows what he would have created had he survived longer.
Pollock’s end in a drunken car crash is infamous, but less known are the stories of his origins. Everybody starts somewhere, and Arizona plays a significant role in Pollock’s early years.
In September of 1913, a young family set out in a wagon hired from a stable at the corner of Van Buren and Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Roy Pollock was taking his wife Stella and his five sons to the new home he had bought for them, a 20-acre farm located about 6 miles east of the city, on the road to Tempe.
Paul Jackson Pollock, the youngest son, probably didn’t remember much of his life before this, in Cody, Wyoming; he wasn’t even 2 years old yet. But the future action painter and tragic art celebrity would spend a large part of his boyhood in the Valley of the Sun and other Arizona locations.
Roy Pollock’s farm on Sherman Street was simple; an adobe house, a barn, corral, and an outhouse. Roy planted alfalfa and many other vegetables, raised hogs, cows and chickens, and gained a reputation for producing some of the best crops and livestock in the Valley. His older sons helped out with the chores, but not Jackson. During these early years he was a sensitive child, who stayed close to the house and his mother; he was afraid of the wild desert landscape outside the borders of the irrigated farmland. Having tea parties and playing house with a little girl who lived nearby were among his favorite pursuits.
Despite his timid ways, Jackson did have his boyish adventures. He and the other kids would swim in the periodically flooded irrigation ditches. He’d hang out by the road waiting for the mailman’s car to go by; automobiles were a rarity then. He would ride into town with his father and see the Indians, Mexicans and Chinese in the marketplace, and visit Goldwater’s Department Store at the corner of First Street and Adams. Jackson idolized his oldest brother Charles, who was considered the artist of the family; Charles even received painting lessons from a neighbor.
In less happy events, Jackson managed to get his right index figure tip chopped off with an axe in a clumsy accident with another boy; the detached finger apparently got eaten by a rooster. Another time he was in a wagon wreck with his mother, when a bull charged and panicked their horse. Jackson had nightmares about the incident for the rest of his life.
Conditions were harsh in early Phoenix life. The family actually dragged their beds outside and slept for much of the year in their front yard, trying to deal with the intense heat. Stella Pollock was unhappy with the rustic lifestyle, and Roy had a hard time making money even with his skillful farming. So in May 1917 the family auctioned off their farm and belongings and moved on to California, where their situation continued to deteriorate.
Before long Roy had returned to Arizona without his family, supporting them long distance by working as a surveyor. Stella restlessly moved the family from town to town in California, never able to find a comfortable situation for her and the boys. In 1923 she moved the family back to Arizona, staying for a while at the Carr Ranch north of Globe and Miami. Eleven-year-old Jackson was no longer the fearful kid he had been before; he spent much of his free time hiking and hunting along the Salt River.
In 1924 the Pollock family, still without the father, left Arizona again, but later Jackson would return to live here one more time. In 1927 he got a job alongside his father working for a surveying crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Jackson at 15 was the youngest of the crew; he tried to fit in by drinking heavily along with the other men, the first signs of the terrible alcoholism which devastated his life. When summer was over he returned to high school in California and never lived in the state again.
When Jackson Pollock was at the height of his career as an abstract expressionist, he was called a cowboy throwing lariats of paint. His technique was compared to Native American sand paintings and tribal art. It’s hard to estimate how much his formative years in Arizona influenced the artist he became.
Recently I became aware of another unexpected facet of Pollock’s personality. When a photographer visited Pollock’s 1950’s New York home, now preserved as a museum, she noticed the kitchen was stocked with high end cookware for the era. Further research revealed Jackson and his wife artist Lee Krasner liked to cook, to host dinner parties, and they left behind an array of recipes. In addition there was documentation of various health foods and beverages Jackson used to combat his alcoholism, unfortunately without success.
The photographer, Robyn Lea, ended up collecting her detective work and anecdotes into a new book, In The Kitchen With Jackson Pollock, which is well beyond my budget. But there’s something I find moving about these nuances of character this knowledge reveals. For a little awhile at least, even during the throes of celebrity and myth making, there were moments of domesticity. Pollock and Krasner knew the humble pleasure of creating a good meal, and sharing it with friends.
Jackson Pollock, Jack the Dripper, drunken art rebel of the midcentury, was also a foodie who enjoyed baking.
This simple activity humanizes him more than anything else I’ve learned about him.
A Jackson Pollock recipe that kind of resembles his paintings
An earlier version of this article was previously featured in The Western Free Press.