Jackson Pollock’s No.5 exemplifies his iconic action paintings and “drip technique” that he developed at the end of the 1940’s and for which he is famous. In this article, Singulart analyses this key Abstract Expressionist work and takes a closer look at one of America’s most renowned painters.
Who was Jackson Pollock ?
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was an American painter and a key figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement, most famous for his drip technique which he used to create his “action paintings”. Born in Wyoming, Pollock was the youngest of five sons, his father was a farmer and land surveyor and his mother was a weaver. Before his first birthday he moved with his mother to California, where Pollock spent most of his childhood.
He attended Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled. In 1930, he moved with his older brother, Charles Pollock, to New York, where they both studied at the Art Students League under Thomas Hart Benton. During this time he also became familiar with the murals of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera and was influenced by other artists, namely Picasso and Joan Miro.
Pollock traveled extensively throughout the US during the early 1930’s and settled permanently in New York in 1934 where he contributed to the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project from 1935-1942. He also worked in David Alfaro Siquieros’s experimental workshop in 1936, where he learnt about the possibilities of liquid paint. This influenced his first experiments with pouring techniques in the early 1940’s, as seen in Male and Female and Composition with Pouring I, which would later lead to the development of his iconic drip technique.
No. 5, Late Career, and Development of Signature Style
In 1943, Pollock worked as a maintenance man at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the predecessor to the Guggenheim Museum) until he signed a contract with Peggy Guggenheim allowing him to devote all his time to painting. His first solo show was held the same year at Guggenheim’s Gallery for Art of this Century.
In 1942, Pollock met the contemporary artist Lee Krasner when they were both exhibiting at the McMillen Gallery. They married in October of 1945. Both artists influenced the other’s work, with Krasner teaching Pollock about modern painting and contemporary techniques and Pollock in turn influencing Krasner’s work with his action-based style.
Up until 1947, Pollock’s work reflected the influences of Picasso and Surrealism, contributing work to several surrealist exhibitions. By the mid-1940’s, Pollock’s painting had become entirely abstract, leading to the liberating breakthroughs which constituted his “action paintings”: his canvases came down from the easel and wall and were replaced by raw unstretched canvas fixed to the floor, upon which he was free to pour, drip, splatter and scrape paint from all angles.
It was during his “drip period”, from 1947-1950, that Pollock created his most famous compositions and saw great success. The height of this success was documented with a four page spread in Life magazine in August 1949 titled: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”. His work after 1951 went through several different styles, including his “Black pourings” exhibited at Betty Parsons Gallery, where none of his paintings sold, and a return to color and figuration during his time represented by the Sidney Janis Gallery. Pollock died at the age of 44 in a drunk driving car accident. In 1956, six months after his death, Pollock was given a memorial retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
No.5: Pollock’s Most Iconic Work
No.5, 1948 was painted by Jackson Pollock at the height of his “drip” period and exemplifies his revolutionary painting technique. Painted on a four by eight foot sheet of fiberboard, Pollock dripped black, grey, white, brown, red and yellow paint to create a layered, complex composition which is less the representation of an image but rather the record of the paint and the painter’s actions. In this way, No.5 can be seen to mark the beginning of his “action painting” which the American art critic Harold Rosenberg described in his 1952 essay: “Action Painting has to do with self-creation or self-definition or self-transcendence; but this dissociates it from self-expression, which assumes the acceptance of the ego as it is, with its wound and its magic.”
With No.5 and his other action paintings, Pollock marked a departure from the traditional demands of painting. He took the canvas off the easel, placed it onto the floor and stepped right into it. Once inside, he channeled his emotions to direct the movement of the paint, dripping, splashing, scraping, smearing, splattering, pouring, allowing the paint to reflect his subconscious. In 1956 Pollock described this himself saying: “My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” Pollock’s pioneering techniques became crucial to the development of the abstract expressionist movement which in turn had a great influence on subsequent movements in the history of art.
Jackson Pollock’s Legacy
Pollock’s revolutionary approach to painting had a profound influence on many artists to come. The 1950’s Japanese experimental Gutai group described his work as a pursuit of “pure creativity” and a transformation of life to matter. Allan Kaprow, the artist behind the first Happenings and the development of Performance art famously stated: “ Pollock left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life… these, I am sure, will be the alchemies of the 1960’s.” The Minimalist sculptor, Donal Judd, also claimed: “It’s clear that Pollock created that large scale, wholeness and simplicity that have become common to almost all good work.” Pollock’s important legacy is also evidenced by the continuing success and value of his works. Indeed, in 2006, No.5 sold privately for a record $140 million dollars, making it the most expensive painting in the world at the time of its sale.