Jackson Pollock: Fiction vs. Fact

To celebrate what would have been Jackson Pollock's birthday today, Helen A. Harrison, Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, takes a look at the myths associated with the legendary artist and shares some fascinating facts about his life and work.
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To celebrate what would have been Jackson Pollock's birthday today, Helen A. Harrison, Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, takes a look at the myths associated with the legendary artist and shares some fascinating facts about his life and work.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art. He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism. His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today. His works hang in major museums around the world, and his life has been examined in biographies, documentary films, and an eponymous Oscar-winning motion picture, starring Ed Harris as Pollock and Marcia Gay Harden as his wife and fellow painter Lee Krasner

Like many celebrities with enormous talent and troubled personalities who died young—think of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley—Pollock is surrounded by an aura of myth. The reality is often very different, and much more interesting. Here we separate some of the fiction from the facts.

Fiction: Pollock was a cowboy from the Wild West.

Fact: Although he sometimes wore cowboy boots and played up his Western background, Pollock never roped steers or rode on a cattle drive—in fact he was afraid of horses. He was born on January 28, 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, but the town wasn’t exactly wild. It was a real estate development, founded in 1901 and billed as the gateway to Yellowstone Park. Buffalo Bill Cody, one of the investors, lent his famous name to help promote the venture. The Pollock family moved out of Cody when Jackson was less than a year old. They lived in five different towns in Arizona and California before finally settling in Los Angeles in 1928.

Fiction: Pollock became an abstract artist because he couldn’t draw.

Fact: When he was 18, Pollock moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League. His figure drawings from those days are no better or worse than those of many art students, and his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, was impressed by them. He said Pollock “got things out of proportion but found the essential rhythms.” Those essential rhythms later formed the basis of Pollock’s abstract paintings.

Fiction: Pollock painted a 20-foot mural in one night.

Fact: The painting took weeks to complete. Pollock’s patron, the eccentric art collector Peggy Guggenheim, commissioned it for the hallway of her Manhattan town house. In the Ed Harris movie, there’s a wonderful scene of the all-night painting marathon, now known to be fictional. Recent analysis by the Getty Conservation Institute confirms that some layers of paint dried before others were applied, a process that takes time. The Getty project revealed much fascinating new information about the mural and its creation.

Jackson Pollock Mural

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. Oil and casein on canvas, 8 x 20 feet. University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959.6. Reproduced with permission from the University of Iowa. © 2015 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Fiction: Pollock discovered so-called drip painting by accident in 1947.

Fact: This is another misconception enshrined in the Pollock movie. For dramatic purposes, Pollock’s years of experimentation with liquid paint were condensed into a single “eureka moment.” He first tried it in 1936, in a New York workshop run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. He also knew about the Surrealists’ experiments with spontaneously applied paint, and used it himself off and on throughout the early to mid 1940s. By 1947 he had perfected the technique of pouring, flinging and spattering liquid paint, and could control its flow to achieve the effects he was after. He explained his method when he narrated a film of himself at work, made by Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg, released in 1951.

Fiction: Pollock got drunk in order to paint.

Fact: He did have a serious drinking problem, but instead of stimulating his creativity, alcohol interfered with it. Far from being a drunken paint-slinger, he was not able to work when he was intoxicated. To get away from what he called the “wear and tear” of New York City, in late 1945 he and Krasner moved to eastern Long Island. There he was able to quit drinking for two years, 1949-50, and he became very productive. For example, in 1945 he painted only 20 canvases, but in 1949, when he was on the wagon, he painted twice as many. In 1950, his most productive year, he painted nearly 50. Many people also think that all his paintings are large, but the really big ones, like Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)  and Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 (National Gallery of Australia) are the exceptions. Most of his paintings are small to medium size. He preferred to paint on large canvases, but he admitted that they were impractical. He had to live on the sale of his work, and smaller pictures were much easier to sell. 

Jackson Pollock (Photo by Tony Vaccarro/Getty Images)

Jackson Pollock (Photo by Tony Vaccarro/Getty Images)

Fiction: Pollock listened to jazz music while he painted.

Fact: He loved jazz, and had a big collection of 78 rpm phonograph records, but he never played them in the studio. His paintings have often been compared to improvisational jazz, and the two art forms do have a lot in common, but Pollock was not dancing around the canvas to the beat of a Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington tune. The studio had no electricity until late in his life, so he couldn’t plug in a record player or radio, and there’s no evidence of a wind-up phonograph in the many photos of the converted barn where he worked. That studio, and the house that contains his record collection and his hi-fi record player, vintage 1954, are now a museum, the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, in East Hampton New York. Pollock and Krasner lived there from November 1945 until their deaths. There’s an inventory of the record collection on the website, under the Study Center’s research library tab.

Fiction: Pollock never made much money from his art.

Fact: By 1952, smart collectors had decided to bet on Pollock, and he started to earn real money. He had a respected art dealer, Sidney Janis, who knew how to promote him. When the average annual wage was $2,100, Pollock was taking home more than five times that much. Compared to the prices for his work today, when a small Pollock painting can sell for tens of millions, getting one for $6,000 seems like a steal, but in the mid 1950s it was a lot to pay for a contemporary American painting. That’s what the collector Ben Heller paid for One: Number 31, 1950, which is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Krasner benefitted greatly from the rising prices after Pollock’s death. As his widow and sole heir, she managed his legacy very shrewdly. When she died in 1984, her estate established the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which gives grants to artists around the world.

Helen A. Harrison is the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. Her latest book, a monograph on Jackson Pollock in Phaidon’s Focus series, is available from Amazon. Please visit the author’s website for the book’s source notes.