Painting Pollock

By Ariana Busby

When my brother was in elementary school, he made a multi-colored splatter painting which my mom called “just as good as Jackson Pollock.” Though this comment was likely made out of motherly gratitude, I myself could not tell the difference between this school art project and an acclaimed masterpiece by one of America’s most prolific modern artists. This was the attitude I held towards Pollock’s works for many years; sure, his bold, experimental canvases could be overwhelming in scope, but ultimately, Pollock’s art felt haphazard and confusing, and I struggled to respond.

So, it was with some trepidation that I arrived at the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition “Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-1954.” I expected to find an exhibit as as audacious and creative as the artist it represented but instead was greeted by a minimalist opening with just Pollock’s name and a few screen prints from his later career. After reading a brief summary of the survey and Pollock’s life, I headed into the first room of the gallery: Pollock’s early work from 1934-1943.

The pieces in this room were colorful, imaginative, and unexpected--all qualities I would attribute to Pollock’s well-known drip paintings. However, these early works were hardly reminiscent of this stage of Pollock’s career. Instead, I saw stormy mythological scenes painted in the style of Mexican muralists such as Jose Clemente Orozco, whose art was highly influential for the young Pollock. Though these pieces showcased an unexpected beginning to Pollock’s famously abstract oeuvre, characteristics of Pollock’s early works foreshadow this artistic future--motifs of eyes and faces, material explorations through scratches and washes on the canvas, and an intentional de-centering of the painting’s subject.

The second room covered Pollock’s transitional work, from 1944-1947, and reveal Pollock’s leanings towards non-representational art. Here, I began to truly appreciate the experience of seeing Pollock’s paintings in person. While lost in prints, the variety of textures employed in the works are truly remarkable: stark black gouache over watercolor, crusts and sculptures of paint, found objects. These structural details, coupled with the artistic narrative running through Pollock’s career, pulled me into the exhibit and made me more attuned to Pollock’s choices and techniques.

By the time I reached the third and final room, which contained Pollock’s mature work (1948-1954), I had an eye for the artist’s intent and intelligence and a growing curiosity as to how he would further expand his vision. Admittedly, these final pieces of Pollock’s career, particularly the “drip” paintings dominating this section of the gallery, remained the most enigmatic for me. However, all the preceding works and information on Pollock’s creative biography had given me a plethora of themes, techniques, and images to apply to to my observation of these pieces, and I certainly enjoyed the drip paintings more than I ever had.

It was with some disappointment, then, that I realized the exhibit had ended. For a survey of an artist so varied and daring throughout his life, I was surprised by the limited scope of the exhibit. The process of tracing the evolution of Pollock’s art had piqued my interest, and when I abruptly reached the doors to lead me back to the rest of the museum, I felt I had only seen a small portion of an artist I had finally started to enjoy. Despite this, I recommend stopping by this exhibit before it closes on May 1st whether you are a longtime Pollock patron or, like me, a more unsure spectator. While it does not give as comprehensive a retrospective as one would expect, it does piece together a fascinating index of the works of a constantly evolving artist, and will certainly leave you wanting more.

Modeled by Caroline Wallis, photography by Sharon Wu, make-up by Nikki Shaner-Bradford and Carina Hardy, art direction by Carina Hardy