Fractal Expressionism

Richard Taylor  

 

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Jack the Dripper

Was Jackson Pollock The Greatest American Painter of the Twentieth Century?


In a drunken, suicidal state on a stormy night, Jackson Pollock (1912-56) started his masterpiece Blue Poles (right) by rolling a large canvas across the floor of his wind swept barn and dripping paint from an old can with a wooden stick. This deceptively simple act fuelled unprecedented controversy and polarised public opinion. Was this primitive painting style driven by raw genius or was he simply a drunk who mocked artistic traditions? Twenty years later, the Australian government rekindled the controversy by purchasing the painting for a spectacular $2 million. Only works by Rembrandt, Velazquez and da Vinci had commanded more respect in the art market. Pollock's brash and energetic works continue to grab attention, as witnessed by recent retrospectives where price tags of $40 million were discussed for Blue Poles. Pollock shot to fame in 1949 when Life magazine asked, "Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" A photograph of Pollock glared out defiantly from the page, a cigarette dangling provocatively from his lips. In those pre-television days, a color spread in Life was a moment of national significance.

Blue Poles, 1952 (Australian National Gallery).

One year later, Pollock's artistic style was captured for posterity on film. By then, the public spotlight had reached unbearable brightness and Pollock descended into self-destructive alcoholism. The filming is seen by many as the day on which his downward spiral began. Pollock's story ended after a drunken binge in August 1956, when he died in a high-speed car-crash. He died with only $350 to his name.

Aside from the commercialism and mythology, what meaning do Pollock's swirling patterns of paint really have and what was his role in generating them? Art theorists now recognise his patterns as a revolutionary approach to aesthetics. In an era characterised by radical advances in art, his work is seen as a crucial development. However, despite the millions of words written on Pollock, the precise quality which defines his unique patterns never has been identified. More generally, although abstract art is hailed as a modern way of portraying life, the public remains unclear about how a painting such as Blue Poles shows anything obvious about the world they live in.

The one thing which is agreed upon is that Pollock's motivations and achievements were vastly different from those associated with traditional artistic composition. His drip paintings eliminated anything that previously might have been recognised as 'composition'; the idea of having a top and bottom, of having a left and right, and of having a centre of focus. Pollock's defence was that he had adopted a "direct" approach to the expression of the world around him, concluding that "the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old form of the Renaissance, each age finds its own technique."