Jackson Pollock

While Jackson Pollock has the reputation he justly deserves for being an apolitical "art for art's sake" type in his prime, it is important to understand that he did not start out this way. In many respects, his journey from radical politics to inward-looking Abstract Expressionist careerist is emblematic of 20th century American social history.

From Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's mammoth (934 pages!) and informative "Jackson Pollock: an American Saga," we learn that Roy Pollock, Jackson's father, was sympathetic to leftist causes, as well as being an artist himself. Jackson heard his father defend the IWW often, and celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Roy Pollock's favorite magazine was the Nation, which was a fairly radical publication at the turn of the century as opposed to the Clinton fan club it has become.

However, the biggest influence on young Jackson Pollock was Frederick Schwankovsky, his art teacher in Manual Arts high school in Los Angeles. Schwankovsky was a partisan of the Communist Party as well as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, whose latest avatar was Jiddu Krishna, a.k.a. Krishnamurti. This is not such an odd combination, when you examine the 19th century radical movement whose influence lingered on into the 20th century, especially in Los Angeles, where the Pollock family lived. Why California has been a magnet for such cults is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say at this point that spiritualism of the Blavatsky sort went hand in hand with woman's suffrage, anti-racism, utopian socialism, etc. in the 1870s and 80s. Victoria Woodhull, leader of the first Marxist group in the United States, and who ran for president with Frederic Douglass as her running-mate, was a professional spiritualist.

Pollock became a devotee of Krishnamurti around the same time he became a radical leftist. While his radical politics got thrown overboard en route to becoming a famous artist, it is safe to say that the mysticism of his youth only deepened with age, and only finally receded when he became a big time artist. The "New Age" has never made much of a point of challenging the corporate world. It only asked that people not be too grubby in the process, which seemed to be main message of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the sly, orange-clad, Rolls Royce-driving cult leader in Oregon during the 1980s.

After Pollock got thrown out of high school for an unruly protest against the football team, he was able to give his radical and spiritualist impulses full vent. (A fellow protestor was close friend Philip Goldstein, who later changed his name to Philip Guston and became a prominent Abstract Expressionist as well.) In 1929 he attended Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles. It was at these meetings that he probably learned something about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics, especially as expressed in the work of José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. When he wasn't hanging out at the center, he was running off to spiritualist retreats with Schwankovsky.

Pollock moved to NY in 1930 to pursue a career in art and hooked up with Thomas Hart Benton. Benton is the quintessential "regionalist" artist of the 1930s, a school that had an uneasy relationship to the "socialist realism" promoted by the Communist Party. After the Popular Front turn, the uneasiness broke down as the Communist Party became convinced almost overnight on the "progressive" character of the American ruling-class. If FDR was another Abe Lincoln, then surely it made sense to embrace the national traditions that made such exemplary politicians possible. Thomas Hart Benton, the son of a famous abolitionist (and Indian-hating) Senator, was made to order for this cultural turn. While Benton was no Marxist, his paintings did have a populist character that were more in tune with the Progressivist traditions of the turn-of-the-century than the Marxist 1930s. He did pass muster, however.

Pollock apprenticed with Benton on a set of murals for the 3rd floor of the New School for Social Research begun in 1930, and where I got my MA in philosophy in 1967. I never paid much attention to the Benton murals or the Orozco mural on the floor above it. I was too busy scheming how to get out of the war in Vietnam. Benton's theme was technology and the transformation of American society. As any good progressive would, Benton emphasized the working-class in the murals, and used Pollock as a model for a steelworker in one panel. Although this essay is really not about aesthetics, you can see Benton's influence on Pollock through the undulating forms of the various workers on girders or in steel furnaces. I couldn't find a website that had this mural, but http://www.emory.edu/CARLOS/gif/paper18A.gif has a work titled "Night Firing" that is representative of the Benton style. The circular patterns, detached from their figurative frame of reference, become a recurring image in Pollock's work.

Pollock stayed in touch with the Los Angeles art scene through frequent reunions with an old friend and fellow painter Reuben Kadish. When Pollock spent the summer of 1931 in Los Angeles, Kadish filled him in on Siqueiros, who had been exiled from Mexico and had started a workshop there. Kadish had helped Siqueiros on several murals, just as Pollock had assisted Benton. One, Crucifixion, depicted the Latin American peoples bound to a cross and above them, vulture-like, was the eagle of US capitalism.

Four years later Siqueiros moved to NY, where he threw himself in the middle of the radical art movement of 1936. By this time, Pollock had moved beyond Benton's formalism and was consciously imitating the Mexican mural style, as well as being on the WPA payroll. Thus he eagerly applied for membership in Siqueiros's workshop and became a part of the inner circle. Their collaboration for a May Day float that year should give you some idea of Jackson Pollock's enthusiasms for the left, according to the Naifeh/Smith biography:

Throughout April. as preparations for the May Day celebrations accelerated and the workshop staff swelled with volunteers, Jackson spent most of his time on the wood-frame armature for the chicken-wire and papier-maché float. The design, conceived by Siqueiros and his entourage, called for a large central figure representing a Wall Street capitalist holding in his outstretched hands a donkey and an elephant--indicating that "as far as the working class was concerned, both political parties were controlled by enemies of the people" and a large ticker-tape machine which, when struck by a giant, movable hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle, would break apart and spew tape over the capitalist figure. Siqueiros called it "an essay of polychromed monumental sculpture in motion" and intended it to represent both the enormous political power of Wall Street and the unity of the North American peoples in their determination to overthrow the capitalist system.

While Pollock was evolving politically and artistically, he was constantly gripped by bouts of depression that only alcohol could relieve. By the mid-1930s, he had been diagnosed as an alcoholic and hospitalized. In a last-ditch effort to exorcise his demons, he hooked up with a Jungian therapist who would have a major impact on his development as an artist.

Dr. Joseph Henderson decided that the key to Pollock's recovery was through the exploration of his artwork, which would serve as a periscope into his unconscious, like dreams in Freudian therapy. (Yes, I know all this sounds fairly nutty, but this was before medications like prozac were introduced and when the medical profession was clutching at straws.) Since the therapist beckoned Pollock to dig deeper and deeper into his subconscious, the artist found himself creating more and more dreamlike and abstruse images to satisfy the inquisitive therapist.

The real creative breakthrough came completely by accident. As a child, Henderson had a Navajo nanny and had become obsessed with American Indian culture. Also, since Jungian theory posited the notion that a colonizing people "inherit" the racial memory of the natives they displace, the therapist assumed that Pollock's unconscious contained American Indian imagery and ordered him to "dredge it up." (Yes, this is extremely bizarre. Try to imagine someone like Teddy Roosevelt "inheriting" the racial memory of all the dead Apaches...)

While poor Pollock could not come up with anything that vaguely resembled indigenous art, he did begin to explore native art on his own. Influenced by Henderson, he began to study Navajo sand paintings. He also began to haunt the Museum of Natural History and was fixated on the artwork of the Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit tribes. Pollock came to the realization that he was yearning for the same kind of shamanic power that these artists had achieved and began to think of his artwork as the analogy of that of tribal artists. By digging into his own subconscious and by seeking oneness with nature, he would achieve the same kind of power that he saw in the museum pieces.

It is singularly ironic that Pollock would gravitate toward American Indian artists, since fame or fortune were the last things on their mind. Pollock was simply looking for a technique that could elevate his work to a higher plane. The obsession with American Indian artwork was based on almost total ignorance about their way of life, characteristic not only of Pollock but other big-time artists and critics as well. Abstract Expressionist superstar Barnett Newman wrote in the 1947 essay "The Ideographic Picture":

"The Kwakiutl artist painting on a hide did not concern himself with ... inconsequentials...The abstract shape he used, his entire plastic language, was directed by a ritualistic will towards metaphysical understanding. The everyday realities he left to the toy-makers; the pleasant play of non-objective pattern basket weavers. To him a shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings he felt before the terror of the unknowable."

Although I think Freud is pretty silly most of the time, I will state that Newman's remarks are a clear example of what Freud called "projection". Newman projects onto Indian artists--and only men, at that--the sort of romantic individualism that had no place in Indian society. Indian artists were part of a collective. Everything they did was part of a sacred circle, which made no distinction between painting or basket-weaving. Nobody got paid. Their only reward was having their basic needs--shelter, food, companionship--met in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

The Abstract Expressionists were interested in one thing and one thing only: success. Whether the means to get there were American Indian artistic techniques, Jungian subconscious images or splattering paint across a canvas, the end was what counted. These artists, just like the working class who had discovered wartime prosperity, were reconciling with American society and all its blandishments. If the workers would stop messing around with Communist politics, they could enjoy a shiny new automobile and a house in the suburbs. As far as the radical artists were concerned, there was a place at the table for them as well. All they needed to do was behave themselves and stay free of the Communist Party. If they wanted to be rebellious, then the proper avenue would be the artistic avant-garde stripped of all political associations. Pollock exemplified this turn by breaking his ties with the left and concentrating on turning out one drip painting after another. He was a hot commodity in the late 1940s as the Cold War shifted into high gear.

Pollock's drive to "make it" was legendary. The audio tour at the current major exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art mentions that he sought to displace Picasso as the foremost artist of the age. (Doesn't this sound a bit Oedipal? Who knows, that Freud might not be totally screwed up after all.) Long before the time he reached the top of the mountain, all pretensions to embodying spiritual or shamanic or Jungian archtypal values had been dropped. Pollock had become a businessman whose main product were drip paintings. Naifeh/Smith describe Pollock's profit-making initiatives:

Inevitably, Jackson's preoccupation with new buyers and marketing strategies followed him into the studio. There, despite Greenberg's rhetoric and Tony Smith's encouragement, he eschewed mural-size projects like Pasiphae (5' by 8') and Lucifer (3½' by 9') and concentrated instead on producing a number of smaller, more accessible works. It was a marketing lesson first learned from Howard Putzel, who had constantly badgered his artists to produce "smaller works for timid collectors." Peggy [Guggenheim] herself had often complained about the difficulty of selling Jackson's giant canvases.

Like any other businessman, Pollock had competitors. In the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, it was possible for one artist to leapfrog over another in terms of fame and fortune. Pollock's 1950 show was neither a financial or critical success. In the March 1, 1951 Vogue Magazine he allowed his paintings to be used as a backdrop for a fashion shoot by Cecil Beaton, the Richard Avedon of the time. Pollock had come a long way from working on May Day floats.

In his waning years, he became more and more desperate to protect his turf, although renewed drinking weakened his competitive edge. In no time at all, Jackson Pollock had fallen out of fashion and he had become a pathetic figure by 1952 as Naifeh/Smith relate:

The search was growing increasingly desperate. Whether out of spite, incompetence. or circumstance, Parsons had sold virtually nothing during the second half of the season. In a last-ditch effort to prevent other artists from bolting, she had borrowed $5,000 from a childhood friend and bought three Rothkos and three Stills--but no Pollocks... For the first time since the forties. Jackson considered designing textiles to supplement his income. He talked vaguely about finding a teaching job and asked Jeffrey Potter if he needed an extra hand around the farm. For a while. be even toyed with an offer from the Armstrong Rubber Company to create designs for a new line of linoleum. The combination of uncertainty over a dealer and perilous finances left him, according to one of his few guests that spring. "exhausted and fatigued." And obsessed. Galleries and dealers were all he could think about. Tony Smith. who still visited occasionally, complained that "Jackson spent the whole damn day talking about galleries.... 'Which one would be the best one for me?' and 'What are they doing?' and so on and so on like he was making a shopping list... .It was just a lot of ambitious, selfserving nonsense.

Capitalism will do that to you. Three years later Jackson Pollock was killed in an automobile accident along with a woman he had just had a weekend tryst with. He was driving while drunk. In my next post, I will examine the work of Ben Shahn, who came from a similar place socially and politically as Jackson Pollock but who stayed true to his roots.

(A cyber-version of the Jackson Pollock exhibition is at http://www.moma.org and I encourage everybody to examine it.)