It’s a great romantic myth that great artists come out of nowhere and develop a truly “new” style that breaks all the rules and announces a brave, new world. When Clement Greenberg hailed Jackson Pollock as the next big thing that would cast off the oppressive chains of the past and lead the way to a whole new way of seeing, he bought into that myth entirely and invited the entire art world to join him. Born January 28, 1912, Pollock owed much of his art to a series of mentors and influences, like pretty much every other major artist in history. As America pulled itself out from under The Great Depression, Pollock worked for the WPA Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1943. Without that financial assistance, Pollock would never have continued as an artist and never painted works such as Moby-Dick (above, from 1943). Moby-Dick not only shows Pollock’s interest in Herman Melville but also the influence of David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom Pollock worked with in the 1930s. Siqueiros’ unique use of the liquid properties of paint as well as his independent spirit helped shape Pollock into the individualist he later became.
Another great influence on the young Pollock was Thomas Hart Benton. It’s hard to see how Benton, the pseudo-realist regionalist, could have influenced works such as Pollock’s Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952) (above, from 1952), but if you dig deeply, you can see the connections. Like Siqueiros, Benton displayed a fierce streak of independence and passed that trait on to his students, including Pollock. But even more importantly, Benton taught Pollock how to compose a painting. Many people who look at Pollock’s paintings deny that there is any structure, but there is, if you look closely. Blue Poles may have the most obvious structure of all. In his study of Pollock’s art, Kirk Varnedoe showed how Blue Poles mimics the compositions of many of Benton’s works, with the blue poles standing in for the figures that would strike poses in Benton’s historical murals. The drip technique certainly doesn’t come from Benton, but the underlying structure does.
Perhaps the most fascinating suggested influence on Pollock for me is that of Claude Monet. Monet’s late Water Lilies paintings, thanks to his severe cataracts, approach abstraction in their color and lines. Before even that late period, Monet’s Cathedral series took the face of a cathedral and almost dissolved it in different light effects. One of Pollock’s earliest drip paintings, titled Cathedral (above, from 1947), may pay homage to Monet in some sense. In Cathedral, Pollock layers paint in a very controlled and deliberate fashion, constructing the “cathedral” of paint with absolute control in a way that denies the myth of “Jack the Dripper” aimlessly flinging paint about and eventually calling it art. Monet’s art is all about the eye taking in light and color. Pollock took that lesson and extended it further, almost obliterating the ostensible subject in the pursuit of pure color and gesture. The wild ride of Abstract Expressionism seems light years away from the serenity of Impressionism, but inquiring minds can find connections in the great web of art history. Freed from the myth of magical individuality, Pollock can finally be seen as a great student of art history who set off on his own only after following the tracks of others.