With the possible exception of Frida, Salma Hayek’s film of Frida Kahlo’s life and art, Ed Harris’ Pollock, his interpretation of the life and art of Jackson Pollock, may be the finest biopic of a painter ever done. Born January 28, 1912, Pollock lived the myth of the tortured artist, always playing up to the expectations the public had of the crazy artist dubbed by the press as “Jack the Dripper” for his unique abstract expressionist paintings created by dripping and splashing paint. Behind the wild life story and the caricature of the madman blindly flinging paint onto canvas, there is a core of composure beneath the chaos. In works such as Blue Poles Number 11, 1952 (above, from 1952), Pollock grounded the patterns of dripped color with the rhythmic series of horizontal blue lines (the “poles” of the title) using, as Kirk Varnedoe showed in his book on Pollock, a compositional pattern Pollock learned from the regionalist Thomas Hart Benton. In many ways, Pollock’s life careened out of control, thanks mainly to substance abuse and his unstable emotional life, but his art never was a creation of pure chance.
Like the poles that stabilize Blue Poles, Pollock’s marriage to fellow abstract expressionist Lee Krasner helped stabilize his life and allow him to enjoy some success. Works such as Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) (above, from 1950) show the beautiful effects that Pollock’s technique could achieve. Advances in liquid paint made that technique possible, and Pollock’s time assisting David Alfaro Siqueiros helped open his eyes to that potential. Pollock’s drip paintings made such a paradigmatic leap in modern art that nobody really could follow in the same style. Anything else would be condemned as pure imitation. For a style so deceptively easy to the untrained eye, no school of Pollock formed around him. Such isolation only makes his art and his life more fascinating.
The performance aspect of Pollock’s painting continues to intrigue students of his art. Fortunately, Hans Namuth filmed Pollock at work, including innovative shots such as the one above in which Pollock painted on a sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from below, giving a sense of being within the painting as Pollock worked upon it. Unfortunately, such close scrutiny made the already self-conscious artist even more jittery and upset the delicate balance of his life. During his life, Pollock continually felt torn asunder by demands upon his work. The critic Clement Greenberg championed Pollock as the greatest painter of the age, the heir to the long legacy of Western art. Greenberg’s rival critic Harold Rosenberg, meanwhile, proposed Willem de Kooning as the top artist, attempting to generate a rivalry in the press between the artists that didn’t exist in real life between the two friends. Pollock even became the plaything of the United States government during the Cold War as they held his work up as an example of the freedom of American democracy in contrast to the repression of Russian Communism. All of these strains proved too much for Pollock, who lived too fast and died too young while drunk driving. Like James Dean, another icon of the period, it would be difficult to imagine Jackson Pollock living into old age, but it would have been nice to have had the chance.