frontline 18.

Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism.

In our regular look at art, Kenny McEwan looks at the work of one of the most original painters of the Twentieth Century – Jackson Pollock.

The name Jackson Pollock conjures up many responses in different people: genius, drunk. innovator, misogynist, socialist, CIA front. All responses have an element of truth in them though, as is usually the case, the truth is much more complicated. Born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming he was one of five brothers’, two of whom became political activists with one joining the Communist Party whilst Jackson and his brother Charles become painters.

The introduction to left wing politics came through his father. His parents were of Irish/Scottish stock, and his father was a supporter of American Socialist Party leader and Presidential candidate Eugene V Debs and a member of the syndicalist trade-union movement the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Even after moving to New York in 1930 where he studied with the regionalist painter Benton, he was very impressed with the Mexican muralists Rivera and Siqueiros, in fact in 1936 he helped Siquerios to prepare a float for May Day.

Politically this was an important period for the left in New York as elsewhere. Stalin had won the battle for control of the Soviet Union and Trotsky was fighting a rearguard action, as best as he could, to try and to win the political hearts and minds of the left. The art world was also a battleground in this war. Siqueiros for example was a Stalinist loyalist who was implicated in an assassination attempt on Trotsky, whilst many others sided with Trotsky. In truth this was for many more out of a reaction to the Socialist Realist dictate emanating from Stalin and his cohorts.

Into this political melee came artistic refugees from fascist Europe bringing with them many new and exciting artistic developments. Among those individuals were many surrealists and abstract artists who Pollock now turned to for inspiration.

The 1930s /40s were pivotal decades for Pollock in many respects. First of all his drinking became a real problem, one that would plague him for the rest of his life and lead to many periods of hospitalisation and his eventual death. Secondly he got the opportunity to paint through Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project which not only fed him but also allowed him to develop as an artist. And thirdly he met his wife Lee Krassner a fellow artist and according to some a Trotskyist.

This last event would become the most important in the development of Pollock as an artist, however, at a high cost to Krassner both emotionally and artistically.

Abstract Expressionism

Pollock’s style had been developing along abstract lines along with artists such as De Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. Abstraction (see Frontline no 7) is non representational art where shape, line and colour define the painting in a similar way to that in which musical notes define a symphony. Through his wife he met his future benefactor and abstract enthusiast Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim, one of the richest women in the world, could well afford to indulge in her hobby, the promotion of abstract art, which at this time was still not particularly well known or liked. She gave Pollock a commission and a stipend for a year as well as an exhibition. This meant that he could indulge in painting without the need to constantly worry about money. He also moved from New York to Long Island, which seemed to free Pollock from a lot of the stress and strain of city living and for a period here he stopped drinking.

It was also at Long Island, however, that Pollock underwent his transformation from abstract artist to abstract expressionist, though in truth it had already started in New York with his Guggenheim commission. For this Pollock moved to a large ‘mural’ sized painting taking up a whole wall and produced a fully abstract expressionist painting, however, he had not yet developed his famous drip technique.

Abstract Expressionism has been described as a truly American art form, however, like most art forms it did not appear out of thin air nor were its antecedents American. Abstract art, as we have already seen, had its origins in the painting’s of the Russian Kandinsky who developed it along with other European and US artists. Similarly expressionism had its origins in German and northern European art of the late 18th early 19th Century. Expressionism as its name suggests tries to incorporate the emotions and feelings of the artist in to the paintings, to that extent this can be found in much earlier works of art. An example of expressionism, however, would be “The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1893) , a very well known painting.

What the New York artists did do was to bring the two together and produce a non-representational expressionism and Pollock was to become the most famous proponent of this art form. Pollock’s style of abstract expressionism is sometimes called ‘action painting’ due to the technique that he developed. He removed the canvas from the wall and tacked it onto the floor where he could move round the canvas much more easily. He then discovered that he could splash or pore the paint directly on to the canvas using the brush to splash paint across the canvas to create patterns. Sometimes he filled in parts of the painting with solid slabs of colour other times he used sticks to paint or even added sand or other material to the paint. To many people this was just a mess that anyone could do and was just throwing paint on to a canvas and calling it a painting. Pollock, however, said the process was deliberate and that he meant the paint to go were it landed. In many respects this is what the surrealists wished to achieve with automatism, producing art that came straight from the unconscious ( see Frontline no 16).

The Cold War

When asked why he painted in this manner he said, “... the modern painter cannot express this age, the aeroplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the forms of the Renaissance or of any past culture. Each age finds its own technique”. This is an important quotation because abstract expressionism has been described as being apolitical, in fact it was for this reason that the CIA used it as a weapon of the cold war. In the book “Who paid the Piper-The CIA and the Cultural Cold War” Frances Stoner Saunders discovered that the CIA was funding Pollock’s and others art to move the centre of the art world to the US. There is no evidence that Pollock or many others had any idea that this was happening; though it has been suggested that some did. The CIA used a front organisation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, along with the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to counter what they saw as the cultural dominance of the left in Europe. Stalin was using Socialist Realism to expound the virtues of socialism on the one hand and on the other Paris was playing host to such left intellectuals as Sartre and Picasso . The CIA saw abstract expressionism as the perfect tool to shift the artistic centre of gravity. For them it expressed freedom, individualism and had no overt political context and in Pollock they had a western ‘pioneer’ as the ideal front man.

In fact this was not the first time that wealthy or political interests have used art to promote its ideals, though it is not usually done covertly. The Medici’s during the Renaissance, the Catholic Church during the Counter Reformation, and the Satchi’s with Brit art, and to one extent or another they were successful. This of course begs the question would Pollock have become so successful without this backing? To a large degree artists have always needed some form of patron to get their work noticed even Michelangelo. Perhaps, though this is not always accurate, a better determinant as to whether they are any good is the test of time.

In any case Pollock continued to paint and exhibit though his period of sobriety was over and he was drinking very heavily again. The old demons were coming back to haunt Pollock. Though he exhibited, abstract expressionism’s period in the sun was being eclipsed by new art forms and the show was moving on. He now fought regularly with Lee and as well as drinking daily was cheating on her. This and Pollock’s technique of standing over a prostrate canvas with a phallic like object dripping paint onto it has lead to a sceptical feminist appraisal of his work. Certainly when he died in a road crash in 1956 his lover was in the car with him, she survived but her friend also died, however, it is also true that by this time he was a mess physically and emotionally.

Bourgeois Art?

The question asked by many on the left is whether or not abstract expressionism is self-indulgent bourgeois art at its most negative. At face value this art form seems to have no reference points for a dialectical analysis. If you look at the historical time period and the aims and ideas of the painter, however, you can get a better understanding of the art. Was Pollock’s reference to the atom bomb accidental and without meaning, or at the start of the nuclear arms race did it indicate Pollock’s and others fear of what could come out of such a race. Artists are not immune to their surroundings, and what goes on round about them generally appears in their art. Also, in and of itself, abstract expressionism has lead to many discussions about the nature of art, emotions, society and how we see the world, something that the ruling class are not too keen on.

Finally, in any case there is nothing wrong with liking art for aesthetic reasons without first having to analyse it to death to see if it fits into a socialist framework.

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