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Paul Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming on 28 January 1912. He was the fifth and youngest son of LeRoy McCoy Pollock and Stella McClure Pollock. The family left Cody when Pollock was less than a year old, and he was raised in Arizona and California.​

After a series of unsuccessful farming ventures, his father became a surveyor and worked on road crews at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere in the Southwest. Pollock, who sometimes joined his father on these jobs, later remarked that memories of the panoramic landscape influenced his artistic vision. While attending Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, Pollock was encouraged to pursue his early interest in art.

Two of his brothers, Charles and Sanford (known as Sande), were also developing as artists. Charles, the eldest, went to New York to study with the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League, and he suggested that Jackson should join him. In 1930 Pollock went east and enrolled in Benton's class at the League. It was at about this time that he dropped his first name, Paul, and began using his middle name.

Under Benton's guidance, Pollock analyzed Old Master paintings and learned the rudiments of drawing and composition. He also studied mural painting with Benton and posed for his teacher's 1930-31 murals at the New School for Social Research, where the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco was at work on frescoes. Pollock's first-hand experience of contemporary mural painting is thought to have sparked his ambition to paint large scale works of his own, although he would not realize that aim until 12 years later.

During the 1930s, Pollock's work reflected Benton's "American Scene" aesthetic, although enriched by a brooding, almost mystical quality reminiscent of the work of the visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom Pollock admired.

Orozco's influence also made itself felt, especially after Pollock saw his dynamic frescoes for Dartmouth College (1932-34). Other early influences include Picasso, Miró, and the Surrealists, as well as another Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, who in 1936 established a short-lived experimental workshop in New York. It was there that Pollock first encountered the use of enamel paint and was encouraged to try unorthodox techniques such as pouring and flinging the liquid material to achieve spontaneous effects.

With the advent of the New Deal's work-relief projects, Pollock and many of his contemporaries were able to work as artists on the federal payroll. Under government aegis, Pollock enrolled in the easel division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which provided him with a source of income for nearly eight years and enabled him to devote himself to artistic development. Some of Pollock's WPA paintings are now lost, but those that survive–together with other canvases, drawings and prints made during this period–illustrate his complex synthesis of source material and the gradual emergence of a deeply personal pictorial language.

By the early 1940s, Native American motifs and other pictographic imagery played a central role in his compositions, marking the beginnings of a mature style.  Even as his art was gaining in assurance and originality, Pollock was experiencing personal turmoil and recurring bouts of depression. He was also struggling to control his alcoholism, which would continue to plague him throughout his life. His brothers Charles and Sande, with whom he shared living quarters at 46 East 8th Street in Manhattan, encouraged him to seek treatment, including psychoanalysis.

Although therapy was not successful in curbing Pollock's drinking or relieving his depression, it introduced him to Jungian concepts that validated the subjective, symbolic direction his art was taking. In late 1941, Sande wrote to Charles, who had left New York, that if Jackson could "hold himself together his work will become of real significance. His painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality."

At about this time Pollock was invited to participate in a group exhibition of work by French and American painters, including Picasso, Braque, Matisse and other established masters. Among the virtually unknown Americans in the group was Lenore Krassner–later known as Lee Krasner–who became Pollock's lover and, in 1945, his wife. The work she saw in Pollock's studio convinced her of his extraordinary talent, and it was not long before influential members of New York's avant-garde intelligentsia began to share her opinion. His work came to the attention of Peggy Guggenheim, whose gallery, Art of This Century, showed the most challenging new work by American and European abstractionists and Surrealists. Guggenheim became Pollock's dealer and patron, introducing his work to the small but avid audience for vanguard painting.

In 1946 Guggenheim lent Pollock the down payment on a small homestead in The Springs, a rural hamlet near East Hampton, Long Island. This property, now the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, would be Pollock's home for the rest of his life and the site of his most innovative and influential work. Before moving to The Springs, his imagery had been congested, his colors somber, and the general mood of his paintings anxious and conflicted. Soon after establishing his studio in the country, however, his colors brightened, his compositions opened up, and his imagery reflected a new responsiveness to nature. Soon he would pioneer the spontaneous pouring technique for which he became world-renowned.

Although Pollock had first experimented with liquid paint at the Siqueiros workshop in 1936, it would not become his primary medium until more than ten years later. By 1947 he was creating densely layered all-over compositions that earned both praise and scorn from the critics. Some dismissed them as meaningless and chaotic, while others saw them as superbly organized, visually fascinating and psychologically compelling. Clement Greenberg, one of Pollock's most ardent supporters, maintained that he was "the most powerful painter in contemporary America and the only one who promises to be a major one."

With several one-person exhibitions to his credit and work included in important group shows, Pollock was receiving significant attention. A profile in the 8 August 1949 issue of Life magazine introduced his challenging art to a nationwide audience and cemented his growing reputation as the foremost modern painter of his generation.

Pollock's radical breakthrough was accompanied by a period of sobriety lasting two years, 1948-50, during which he created some of his most beautiful masterpieces. In his barn studio, he spread his canvas on the floor and developed his compositions by working from all four sides, allowing the imagery to evolve spontaneously, without preconceptions. Pollock described this technique as "direct" painting and likened it to American Indian sand painting. He maintained, however, that the method was "a natural growth out of a need," and that its only importance was as "a means of arriving at a statement." The character and content of that statement were then and remain controversial, subject to widely varying interpretations--which is why Pollock's art has retained its vitality in spite of changing tastes.

In 1951 Pollock's aesthetic underwent a shift in emphasis as he abandoned non-objective imagery in favor of abstracted references to human and animal forms. "When you're working out of your unconscious," he explained, "figures are bound to emerge." He also gave up color to create a series of stark black paintings on unprimed canvas. Many of his admirers were ambivalent about his new direction, which may account at least in part for Pollock's inability to remain sober. For the next five years he would struggle unsuccessfully to solve his drinking problem, while his art underwent a series of revisions, some more successful than others. Color returned, gesture became richer and more various, and Pollock once again veiled his imagery in layers that obscured as much as they revealed.

By 1955, however, Pollock's personal demons had triumphed over his artistic drive, and he stopped painting altogether. Ironically, his work had begun to earn a respectable income for him and Krasner, who was becoming increasingly estranged from her troubled, alcoholic husband. In the summer of 1956 she took the opportunity of a trip to Europe to re-evaluate their relationship, while Pollock remained at home with a young lover, Ruth Kligman, to distract him from the agonies of self-doubt and inaction that plagued him. In Paris, on the morning of 12 August, Krasner received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had died the night before in an automobile accident. Driving drunk, he had overturned his convertible, killing himself and an acquaintance, Edith Metzger, and seriously injuring Kligman.

Text by Helen A. Harrison

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