On this day in 1956, Jackson Pollock died. He was forty-four. This morning, I’m reflecting on his legacy.
I am nature, he said, challenging ideas of Man. They said, of his work, it filled out space, going on and on, with no beginning and no end. The drip paintings are what people remember most, his whole-body dance with color on canvas.
Critics divided into camps, either praising the immediacy of the “action paintings” or categorically dismissing what appeared at first to be a random composition. I was sympathetic to both camps until I stood in LACMA before one of these paintings (No. 15, 1950, oil on Masonite) and it wasn’t even a large one. As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness. From where I stood, at an intimate conversational distance, the intricacy, balance and depth of the composition was immediately clear in ways that it hadn’t been in any of the photographs I’d seen in books.
Before he was known as The Artist, he was expelled from two high schools. Before he was widely known, he married Lee Krasner. She introduced him to principles of modernism, and also to those responsible for his career as we know it. She meant to define her own work as separate from his, but most struggled to see the distinction, except as the othered Pollock. The idea, I suppose, was that she had sprung somehow from his rib, this man who had claimed to be nature. Extending the logic, they called her only nurture, even though she was a serious artist herself.
As nature, who did he admire? The sand painters he loved, and the muralists. His favorite was Orozco’s Prometheus, the muscular embodiment of the liberator who saw man’s terrestrial plodding and envisioned a shift in being, stealing fire from Olympus to offer the earthbound. It changed them. They could cook, gather around, watch the smoke rise, and from this came wonder and religion, science and art, song––and yes, dance. For this, he was sentenced for life, in accordance with customs regarding the official treatment of visionaries–– those forces of nature who, by virtue of knowing how to look, defy the smug authority of the keepers of knowledge, the armed guards at the borders between us.