The Needs of Postwar America and the Origins of the Jackson Pollock Myth

Article excerpt

UNTIL THE ADVENT of Andy Warhol, probably no postwar American artist had captured the popular imagination more than Jackson Pollock. His appearance in a feature article in Life magazine in 1949 thrust him into public prominence beyond the narrower avant-garde circles in which he was already well known.

He continued to be featured in the popular media as well as in the art press as somehow emblematic of the new American artist: innovative, fiercely independent, leading rather than following European trends. The recent award-winning film on the artist testifies to his continuing fascination for the American public.

Pollock also took on the aura of a pop-existential hero: a lonely, sensitive, misunderstood genius, not unlike contemporaneous movie idols Marion Brando or James Dean. And like James Dean, his untimely and tragic death served as a romantic apotheosis that fixed his mythic stature and assured his continued place as an American icon.

In her discussion of Hans Namuth's well-known photographs of Pollock at work in his studio, Barbara Rose attributes the rise of the Pollock legend to the continuing American appetite for heroes, which could no longer be fulfilled by generals or soldiers in a peacetime environment:

   In the immediate postwar period, the American people were understandably
   casting about for heroic figures to fill the shoes of those who risked
   their lives in combat. With no suitable political figure such as de Gaulle
   to fill the void, the country was ready--for the first time--to acclaim a
   cultural hero. (112)

Although this partially explains the phenomenon, it fails to specify why it was Pollock rather than another artist who rose to this mythic stature. Rose postulates that the photos of Hans Namuth were key to Pollock's impact on the public. Without denying their importance, I want to suggest that the causes are multiple.

Actually, a number of factors contributed to the phenomenon of the Pollock myth, the crystallization of which depended on a convergence of unmet needs from various segments of postwar American society which were satisfied or at least represented in aspects of the artist's life and work.

An in-depth analysis of the complex matrix of sociological needs out of which the Pollock myth arose is beyond the scope of this essay. I will therefore describe the main components of the myth and suggest possible interpretations for its hold on the various publics to which it appealed. Such a description may shed light on the extra-stylistic factors that contributed to the rise of Abstract Expressionism at mid-century and suggest avenues for further research.

An important component of the myth is that Pollock was an avant-garde artist who was every bit as advanced as the Europeans and yet was quintessentially American. Willem de Kooning has been widely quoted for having said "Jackson broke the ice." This has often been interpreted as meaning that Pollock led the way aesthetically, but as Dore Ashton points out in her book, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, it is more likely de Kooning meant Pollock was the first American to have gotten the approval of those curators, critics, and other tastemakers who were powerful in the contemporary American art market (153).

He was the first American artist to have been invited by collector Peggy Guggenheim to mount a solo exhibition in her gallery, Art of this Century, in 1943. Until this time, the gallery had been mainly a showplace for European emigre artists, particularly the Surrealists. At this first exhibition, Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, bought Pollock's She Wolf for the collection of New York's premier showcase for contemporary art. It was also at this time that Pollock made the acquaintance of Clement Greenberg, an important critic who would continue to champion the artist's work throughout the rest of his career.

Pollock's major stylistic influences at that time were from Europeans: Picasso, Miro, and Masson, rather than from his former teacher, American Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton. …