What do the Titanic, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso have in common? Jackson Pollock, who some art critics hail as the American Picasso.
Jackson Pollock was born in 1912, the year the Titanic sank. I’m not old enough to have lived through the Depression (the Great Recession, yes) but I’m told they still teach school children about the WPA, created under President FDR to provide much needed jobs. The Federal Art Project paid workers like Pollock a weekly wage, and he was able to earn a modest living as an artist for some crucial years. These are some of the wonderful things one learns when going to see a well-curated museum exhibit of a great artist. We in Dallas are lucky to have an art scene that continues to explode. Recently it exploded with Jackson Pollock at the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s the largest-ever exhibit of his work and only the third major one in the U.S. That packs a punch when you realize JP died sixty years ago, in 1956.
Compared to the experts, what I know about the fine arts such as painting and sculpture might fill an expresso cup. I’m a work-in-progress so I’ll approach Jackson Pollock–like everything else–in story form. Someone who knows a lot about art said that JP could sling paint around a canvas with the accuracy of a cowboy twirling a lasso. It’s a great metaphor and I didn’t hear it at the museum. After being blown away by the exhibit, I went to see the new documentary about art patron Peggy Guggenheim to see what else I could learn. She was the one who “discovered” JP five years before LIFE Magazine made him famous in August 1949. LIFE showed photos of his work and asked the question: “Is he the greatest living painter in the U.S.?”
While Pablo Picasso had a famous “blue period”, JP had a less famous “black” one, and the new exhibit explores his black paintings or “pourings” in depth. You’ve got to admire a guy who’s beginning to get some good press for his colorful paintings and goes off in a new direction that most people don’t get. “Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” JP. Picasso got rich in his lifetime but JP never did, even though some of his paintings are today worth more than $100 million. Poverty didn’t kill him–the bottle did. He fell in and out of alcoholism (mostly in) and flipped a car on the way home from a party in the Hamptons. Today East Hampton is a posh place, a summer playground for the rich and famous. Not in JP’s day and neighborhood. Still, he couldn’t have bought the small house out there without Peggy Guggenheim’s help. She gave him the down payment and a small monthly stipend. He built a studio out of a barn on the property. He was happy there–as happy as a tortured drunken artist can be–in part because it reminded him of the rural and wide-open spaces of his youth: Cody, Wyoming was where he was born, the youngest of five brothers. He moved around a lot as a kid–Arizona, L.A. and landed in New York City by the time he was eighteen. He did go to art school and his early work, like Picasso’s, was more traditional. JP was influenced by the European artists who arrived in NY to escape WWII. Surrealists, the abstract artists. Abstract Expressionism might have been born in Europe, if not for the war. But it wasn’t, and JP became the first American painter to be taken seriously in Europe without having spent time there. He stopped drinking for two years, 1948-1950, and created many of the paintings that gave him international recognition. “Life and work are one, and neither is real for me without the other.” JP. Then came his new “black” period: 1951-53. Three years later he was dead at 44. Six months before he died, TIME Magazine mocked him, dubbing him Jack the Dripper.
JP wasn’t a perfect human being. But whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, I’m betting that seeing the exhibit Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots or some future exhibit would make you pray: that there’s a God looking after JP and that the man is now swinging on a star looking down at this exhibit and realizing that his life and work really mattered a lot, OR, that he’s been reincarnated as a billionaire with a summer place in the Hamptons, gazing at the Pollock on his wall that he didn’t really want to sell except he needed the money–the $50 or $200 or whatever pittance he got for it.