Jackson Pollock: The Misunderstood Cowboy


The Jackson Pollock myth was of a cowboy born and raised in Wyoming who became a star in the new modern art world until his death in 1956. To his detractors, Pollock represented a negative American stereotype – the brash, brawling, uncouth cowboy.

Paul Jackson Pollock was born on the 28th January 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, and he grew up in Arizona and California. He moved to New York and studied from 1929 to 1931 with Thomas Benton at the Art Students League. His eldest brother Charles Pollock displayed an early interest in art and surprisingly, given the family’s working class background, his mother Stella Jackson was sympathetic. She was also supportive when Jackson decided to become an artist. Their father did not approve of the Jackson brother’s artistic endeavours.

Initially, Jackson wasn’t sure what sort of artistic endeavor he wanted to pursue. He chose sculpture, not painting. Even after he had been studying drawing and painting for a couple of years, Pollock told his father in 1932: “Sculpturing I think is my medium. I’ll never be satisfied until I’m able to mould a mountain of stone, with the aid of a jack-hammer, to fit my will.”

Carved Bone Sculpture by Jackson Pollock (possibly left over from a steak dinner)
Carved Bone Sculpture, c.1943 (possibly left over from a steak dinner)

One of Pollock’s earliest surviving oils is a small canvas that has often been viewed as concrete evidence of Pollock’s troubled personality. Photographs from this time show a round-faced young man with attractive, regular features. Yet this portrait, with its wild staring eyes, pinched cheeks and clenched jaw, reveals the anxiety beneath that surface. It reflects the emotional intensity of his commitment to art. As he wrote to his mother at the time, ‘painting and sculpturing is life itself.’

Pollock was influenced by Benton’s style and by Ryder, and later by the Mexican mural painters and Picasso. Pollock worked as an easel painter on the government funded WPA Art project from 1938 to 1942. These were paintings that depicted ritual violence or sexuality and turbulent clashes of movement and fragmentary imagery. Jackson Pollock was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism is a style of painting that developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It depicts forms not drawn from the visible world and emphasizes free, spontaneous and personal emotional expression.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas
Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, c.1930

In the mid-twentieth century the art of Jackson Pollock embodies the dynamism that permeated American culture. Artists were profoundly influenced by Pollock’s radical way of working. At first sight, Pollock’s vigorous method seems to produce chaotic labyrinths, but upon closer inspection his strong rhythmic structures become evident, revealing a fascinating complexity and deeper significance.

Not only did Pollock find success at home but, crucially, he was the first American painter to be taken seriously in Europe without having been to Europe. Alongside other artists of his generation, who were grouped together in the abstract expressionism movement, Pollock, with his audacity and imagination, led a breakthrough against European traditions-confronting such masters as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Joan Miro.

Pollock’s patron, Peggy Guggenheim, acknowledged his successful challenge to their supremacy calling him ‘the greatest painter since Picasso’. Pollock had broken the ice and was the first American artist to capture the popular imagination.

During his lifetime Pollock enjoyed considerable notoriety and fame. He was regarded as a reclusive, had a volatile personality and he struggled with alcoholism for most of his years. In 1945, he wedded the artist Lee Krasner, who became a vital influence on Pollock’s career and on his legacy. Pollock tragically died in a car accident at the age of 44. His death at East Hampton was ascertained as an alcohol-related single-car accident.



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