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JUNE 2010

Arthaus Musik’s DVD series on Great Artists: Jackson Pollock
By Dr. Irving Spitz
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Jackson Pollock, Mural (1943). Oil on canvas, 8' 1 1/4" x 19' 10" (2.47 x 6.05 m). Gift of Peggy Guggenheim. University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City. 1959.6

“Each age finds its own technique”
—Jackson Pollock

Arthaus Musik, one of the leading DVD labels for classical music, offers a wide range of opera, ballet and orchestral performances. It has recently issued a fascinating DVD series on famous painters. One arresting example is a documentary produced and directed by Kim Evans on the American abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock.

Throughout the DVD, pertinent examples of Pollock’s art are displayed. Although the impact of the DVD is not as great as a direct face-to-face encounter with the paintings, even when viewed on a large TV screen, the images give a tantalizing insight into Pollock’s oeuvre nonetheless, inviting the viewer to see these paintings displayed appropriately in all their glory in a museum. This minor shortcoming is more than compensated for by the outstanding content of the DVD. In addition to live footage from Hans Namuth as well as other photographers of Pollock demonstrating his painting technique, it also includes interviews with Pollock himself as well as his contemporaries, including his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, other relatives, friends and fellow artists. What makes this documentary especially fascinating is the incisive commentary of several art historians and critics, including Clement Greenberg. It was Greenberg and Lee Krasner who were the first to recognize Pollock’s genius.

Pollock was one of the leading members of Abstract Expressionism. This movement implied expression of ideas concerning the spiritual, the unconscious and the mind, and was applied to many artists working (mostly) in New York who had very different styles. This American post-World War II art movement eventually displaced Paris and put New York City at the center of the western art world.

 Pollock remarked that “technique was only a means of arriving at a statement.” He is famous for using liquid flowing paint dripped or poured onto the canvas, which was on the floor. Often the brush or stick did not even touch the surface of the canvas. According to the film snippets, it often appeared that Pollock was throwing paint recklessly on the canvas, but this was all carefully contrived. Pollock’s famous “drip” technique was a deliberative process rather than a random splashing of paint. These images of Pollock stooping over his canvas, cigarette dangling between his lips, dripping and flicking the paint, have become icons of twentieth century America art.

Pollock, the youngest of five boys, was born in 1912 to a poor family in Wyoming. After an early stint in Los Angeles, Pollock moved to New York in 1930 to attend the Art Students League. Initially he stayed with his oldest brother and sister-in-law, Elizabeth. There is a fascinating interview with Elizabeth, who pointed out Jackson Pollock’s selfish, manipulative and exploitative nature.

Pollock was influenced by the artistic movement known as Surrealism as well as the great Mexican muralists, including Diego Riviera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, from whom he leaned to paint on large canvases. Peggy Guggenheim gave Pollock his first commission: a mural for her town house (see illustration). She also loaned him and Lee Krasner money to purchase their home on Long Island.

Pollock was catapulted to fame by a cover story in Life magazine in 1944, which posed the question as to whether he was the greatest painter in the U.S. This helped transform Pollock into the first media-driven superstar of American contemporary art and captured the imagination of the public. Throughout his short life, Pollock maintained and cultivated his cowboy, chain-smoking mystique.

As attested to by his friends, family, fellow artists and critics, Pollock always displayed a complex, controversial and difficult personality, which was compounded by alcoholism. On the one hand he possessed a huge ego, but this was coupled with doubts of insecurity. He claimed that he was no good and only a phony, but once remarked to his lover and fellow artist, Ruth Kligman, that in the twentieth century there were only three great painters: Picasso, Matisse and Pollock.

By the time Pollock reached his mid-40s, he felt frustrated at the limitation of his present style. According to Greenberg, he had run out of inspiration. Perhaps his genius, like that of Giorgione, Masaccio, Raphael, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin, had exhausted itself.

Pollock, as well as many other abstract expressionists, were children of the Great Depression and were drawn to fast cars and alcoholism. In August 1956, at the age of 44, whilst driving in a drunken state, he was killed in a car crash. Regrettably, alcoholism and suicide was a common denominator among many of the abstract expressionists.

One of the other two passengers in the fatal car crash was the painter Ruth Kligman. She explained that in death, Pollock really achieved the iconic status which had sadly evaded him in life. Despite the blurb in Life magazine, Pollock received little critical recognition and sold only few pictures. According to Kligman, had he died of natural causes he would not have achieved the glamorous “James Dean-like mystique and cult.” His tragic ending served to romanticize his life and legacy.

The documentary makes it clear that it was Lee Krasner, while managing his legacy and estate, who began the escalation of art prices which would put the Abstract Expressionists firmly on the map and catapulted these American painters to the forefront of contemporary modern art.

Arthaus Musik deserves credit for promoting this fascinating series of artists, which will be of interest to both the discerning specialist as well as the general public. Other artists featured in this series include Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Matisse and Andy Warhol.

The DVD, Jackson Pollock, is on the Arthaus Musik label (Catalog: 100664) and is distributed by Naxos, the World’s Leading Classical Music Label. The Naxos catalogue is often described as “an encyclopedia of classical music.” #



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