PRINT May 1967

The Genesis of Jackson Pollock

The Jackson Pollock retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art and soon to be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum, inevitably and properly focuses our attention on the mature creations of the artist’s last thirteen years: 1943 to 1956. Yet these works, which will be so frequently discussed and illustrated in conjunction with this important exhibition, cannot be thoroughly understood unless they are seen as the product of Pollock’s first thirty-one years. Art is a human development before it is a cultural phenomenon. This is especially true of Jackson Pollock. To discuss his work in terms of the broad sweep of “art history” before comprehending the components of its personal genesis is to distort his achievement.

This therefore is not going to be a critical essay on Pollock’s early work. I do not believe such an essay should be attempted until all the facts are in and the catalog raisonné—which I am writing—is published. What is needed now, and what I hope the following notes will provide, is an account of Pollock’s early life and activities between, 1912 and 1943 and a brief outline of his early stylistic development. Pollock’s mature works must begin to be seen in the light of his artistic formation. This is essential in order to encounter intelligently the current retrospective and to establish the foundations of a balanced historical and critical understanding of Pollock’s mature contribution.1


Paul Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming January 28, 1912. He left that town with his family at the age of eleven months. If he had any memories of Cody, they depended on family recollections and perhaps a few old photographs. His infancy, boyhood and adolescence were spent in California and Arizona on a variety of farms. The family moved nine times between 1912 and 1928.

Pollock had four older brothers: Charles Cecil, Marvin Jay, Frank Leslie and Sanford LeRoy. His parents were LeRoy Pollock and Stella May McClure. They were intelligent but poorly educated, liberal in their politics and uncommitted to formal religious beliefs. In general, they were poor, but never destitute. LeRoy was an honest, hardworking, sensitive man who loved to cultivate the land. He had little skill at business. Stella was strong willed and alert to opportunities. Her oldest son, Charles, recalls her as the impetus behind the family’s many new starts. She had a sense of style and loved craftsmanship. She was certainly the dominant force in the family. Her ambitions were her sons. It is said she at times wished to have been an artist. In any event her five sons, each in his own way and with varying success, sought out the life of art. LeRoy died March 6, 1933; Stella lived to 1958.

Pollock’s primary education was spotty due to the many moves. He knew and worked the land, had a superficial acquaintance with cowboys and Indians2 and was exposed to a wide variety of geographical environments. If he knew the “flatness” of the West he also knew its mountains, forests and canyons.

In 1927 Pollock enrolled at Riverside High School, Riverside, California. The next year the family moved into Los Angeles and he went to Manual Arts High School. It was at Manual Arts that Pollock first studied art. His teacher was Frederic John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky—a modernist conversant with the art of Cézanne and Matisse. Through him Pollock was also introduced to Theosophy and the teachings of Krishnamurti. Pollock attended Krishnamurti’s camp-meetings at Ojai. Professor Schwankovsky—who had joined the Theosophical Society in 1928—describes this interest in relation to his students as follows:

I encouraged originality and introduced my students to the ideas not only of Krishnamurti, who was a personal friend, but also of Hinduism, reincarnation, karma, etc. . . . I taught all of my students how to expand their consciousnesses. Once a student meets himself, he must expand some . . . I introduced my students to any and all expanding books or ideas . . . I tried to speak to the permanent ego of my students.3

Since Pollock was brought up a member of no church, it was probably Theosophy which provided his first religious experiences. It certainly helped him to articulate his adolescent introspection and to prepare his sensibilities for his later experience of psychoanalysis, Jung and Surrealist automatism.

Pollock was a rebellious student, frequently in serious trouble. By 1930 he had been expelled from Manual Arts twice and was studying there on a part-time basis arranged by Schwankovsky. He had a vague desire to be an artist which was frustrated by lack of facility and achievement. In January, 1930 he wrote of his art to his brother Charles in a style which rebelled against even the conventions of standard punctuation:

my drawing i will tell you frankly is rotten it seems to lack freedom and rhythem it is cold and lifeless. it isn’t worth the postage to send it. i think there should be an advancement soon if it is ever to come and then i will send you some drawings. the truth of it is i have never really gotten down to real work and finish a piece i usually get disgusted with it and lose interest. water color i like but have never worked with it much. Altho i feel i will make an artist of some kind i have never proven to myself or any body else that i have it in me.4

As can be deduced from this statement, Charles Pollock was an important factor in guiding his youngest brother’s artistic ambitions. Charles had been interested in art since his youth, had studied painting as a boy, had occasionally won prizes in local art contests and had amassed a sizable collection of magazine reproductions which his brothers would have known. In 1922 he left home to study at the Otis Art Institute. He supported himself by working for the Los Angeles Times. He would send his old copies of the Dial to his brothers. In these they could have seen color reproductions of contemporary European modernism. In 1926 Charles enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City as a student of Thomas Hart Benton. By Jackson’s high school days Charles had acquired much experience as a beginning artist and was sharing this with his youngest brother. It was at his suggestion that Jackson subscribed to The Arts and Creative Art in 1929. Early in 1930 Jackson wrote to Charles that he was “hoping you will flow freely with criticism and advice and book lists . . .”5 By the fall of 1930, with high school a growing cause of tension and his artistic ambitions quickening, it was inevitable that he should decide to go to New York in Charles’s footsteps.


Jackson Pollock Studied with Thomas Hart Benton for two and one half academic years: from September, 1930 through the fall term of 1932. In December, 1932, Benton left the League to accept a mural commission in Indiana. Pollock’s records show he enrolled in one of John Sloan’s classes in January, 1933 and changed over to Robert Laurent’s sculpture class in February and March. After the death of his father in March, Pollock ceased to attend the League. In all he worked there a little short of three years.7 He would never again study art.

What Pollock knew about the basic craft of painting he learned from Benton. In 1950 Pollock told a New Yorker interviewer:

Tom Benton . . . did a lot for me. He gave me the only formal instruction I ever had, he introduced me to Renaissance art and he gave me a job in the League cafeteria. I’m damn grateful to Tom. He drove his kind of realism at me so hard I bounced right into non-objective painting.8

Benton’s teaching centered around the formal analysis of “Renaissance” art—which to him meant everything from Signorelli to Rubens. He describes his methods as follows:

My teaching was not theoretical but rather processive. My students “learned by doing” in the John Dewey fashion. Their references were to things rather than ideas. By things I mean the works analyzed by linear and cubistic processes.

We studied composition in my classes by analyzing reproductions of the great works, Classic and Renaissance mostly, but also Assyrian, Egyptian and Oriental works. This was done with a cubistic technique somewhat in the manner of Luca Cambiaso but with adaptations from da Vinci and Dürer. Modern cubism had nothing to do with this though, it had possibly suggested directions. By the early twenties modern cubism had become too much an art of the “picture plane” to be useful for my purposes. I sought to break, not maintain the picture plane._

Along with these analytical exercises Benton also stressed the exploration of chiaroscuro composition with the aid of model figures arranged in light boxes and the literal study of human anatomy achieved at times by actually feeling and prodding the model.9 His approach to the teaching of art was blunt and pragmatic but geared to the spontaneous needs of problems at hand and the abilities of his students. In recalling Pollock as his student, he states:

Jack did not have a logical mind. But he did catch on to the contrapuntal logic of accidental form construction quite quickly. In his analytical work he got things out of proportion but found the essential rhythms. At one time I used one of his rough analytical diagrams as an example for my class to show that it was not a copy we were looking for, even a cubistic copy, but a plastic idea. None of the analytical work was ever rigid. It was always changing as we hit upon new descriptive devices. My students didn’t study under me but with me. . . I studied along with the students—often neglecting them because of the problems I ran up against myself . . .

Benton’s well-known commitment to the American scene had little effect on Pollock. During the first two summers between terms at the League, Pollock made cross-country “sketching” trips to Los Angeles and back.

He reveled in the “local color” though he made few drawings. These trips were modeled after Benton’s extensive sketching trips described in his later autobiography and he urged such journeys on his students.10 Pollock had neither the facility nor the extroverted interests required to find material for his art in the life and activities of others. Benton’s regionalism found only the most superficial place in Pollock’s early art. Benton’s style, on the other hand, did. Benton states that “Jack did finally reject my ideas about the social function of art. . . . He followed a Benton example but this was in matters of form rather than content . . . If he ever approved the ‘American Scene’ in terms of specifically American meaning, I don’t know about it.”

As Benton states, Pollock learned much from his emphasis on pictorial form. This is significant since Benton’s plastic methods had been formed in contact with the most advanced art of the early 20th century. It should be recalled that Benton’s early experience in Paris from 1908 to 1911 coincided with the development of Cubism and that Benton’s early work of about 1916 was abstract and strongly influenced by Synchromism. These influences, though later vehemently rejected by him, certainly contributed to Benton’s handling of the problems of form organization as seen in his methods of compositional analysis, the plastic modeling of his figure style and the “montage” technique utilized in his early murals. The devices of pictorial composition were the foundations of his teaching.11 The critic who wants to relate Pollock’s later work to Cubism must begin with Benton.

More obviously, Benton’s interest in the mural had a profound and lasting influence on Pollock. In the late twenties Pollock could hardly have been unaware of the excitement generated by the Mexicans. He certainly knew that his oldest brother was studying with a man who had the beginnings of a reputation as a muralist and who was a personal friend of Orozco. When Pollock arrived in New York Benton and Orozco were just starting their murals at the New School for Social Research (1930–31). Pollock met Orozco through Benton during his first winter in New York, watched both artists at work on their murals and did action posing for figures in his teacher’s work. Thus Pollock encountered large-scale painting from the very beginnings of his life in New York.12

When Pollock first enrolled at the League Benton’s course was labeled “Life Drawing, Painting and Composition.” The next year, after Benton had completed his New School murals, his course was renamed “Mural Painting” though its substance did not change. Immediately following the New School murals Benton painted a mural series for the library of the Whitney Museum of American Art (1932) and later received several major mural commissions in the mid-West. All this was accompanied with much controversy and publicity. In the early thirties Benton was an exciting personality with which to be associated. Certainly the student of such a teacher would have had very fixed ideas concerning the glamor and challenge of painting murals. Indeed, one of the earliest extant works by Pollock is a mural sketch dating from about 1933 (Fig. 1) for a lunette in Greenwich House in Greenwich Village. Though never executed it indicates Pollock’s early interest in the mural form. Later, during the WPA period, while Pollock concentrated on small easel paintings, his brother Sanford and numerous friends were engaged in planning and painting Project murals. The point here is that throughout his formative period the mural was a very real artistic goal for Pollock—even though he had neither the skill nor opportunity to paint one. Later, however, in 1947, after he had already achieved his first wall-size canvas—which was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943—he wrote:

I intend to paint large moveable pictures which will function between the easel and mural. . . . I believe the easel picture to he a dying form, and the tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural. I believe the time is not yet ripe for a full transition from easel to mural. The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.13

To my mind it is no accident that Jackson Pollock’s later large scale paintings—though relatively few compared to his total output—are among his most brilliant masterpieces; they are, in the light of his early experience, the fulfillment of long-standing ambitions.

Pollock did not terminate his relationship with his teacher when he left the League. Benton returned to New York in the fall of 1933 and Pollock saw him frequently thereafter through the late spring of 1935. He attended Benton’s “Monday Evenings” which were open to his friends and students and devoted mostly to music-making—though the only instrument Pollock could play, according to Benton, was the Jew’s harp.

During the winter of 1934–1935 Benton’s wife, Rita, set up, with Pollock’s assistance, a sales gallery for needy artists in the basement of Frederic Newlin Price’s Ferargil Gallery. (Price at this time handled Benton’s work.) She and her husband showed Pollock how to paint and fire ceramic bowls and plates (Fig. 2) which he sold through this outlet. Benton left New York for good in the late spring of 1935. Thereafter Pollock saw Benton for a few weeks each summer on Martha’s Vineyard where Benton had a home. Pollock had been doing this occasionally since about 1932 or 1933 and continued through 1937. He visited Benton again in Kansas City during the Christmas season of 1937. This was their last extended meeting. Pollock saw Benton very infrequently after this though he would occasionally telephone his former teacher in Kansas City right up through the year of his death in 1956.

Benton’s teachings are at the core of Pollock’s artistic craft. This is a fact which Pollock never denied. It is unfortunate that those critics who find Benton’s art unfashionable and therefore unmentionable today tend to attribute their own rejection of the teacher to his student.14


When Pollock left the Art Students League in March, 1933 the Depression was at its worst. Terminating his education necessitated earning a living. The Pollock brothers—Charles and Frank were also in New York—were sustained by odd jobs. When their father died in Los Angeles a few days after Roosevelt’s inauguration, they found themselves too poor to attend the funeral. This was the time of the bank holiday and hunger marches. The unemployment rate was close to 25% of the working force. Jackson eventually found a job as a janitor at The City and Country School—for $10.00 per week. During the winter of 1934–1935 he shared this with his brother Sanford, who had come East during the fall of 1934.16 They lived in a small unheated room over a lumberyard on Houston Street. Both were on home relief but even with this aid they could barely feed themselves. Occasionally food was available at the relief office—usually meal or flour; the rest, including fuel for their makeshift stove, had to be stolen. And to live they stole. They were unemployed and unemployable. There were thousands of artists like them throughout the country.

The New Deal was quick to aid the unemployed. In May, 1933, two months after his inauguration, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Federal Emergency Relief Act. In November of the same year he created by executive order the Civil Works Administration specifically to provide employment for four million jobless during the winter of 1933–1934. The artist was not forgotten. Under the Civil Works Administration the first of the government art projects was created. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was organized to provide work-relief for qualified artists. This began in December, 1933 and lasted until June, 1934.

New York City, with its high concentration of artists, had had a similar program of work-relief since December, 1932. This program had been instituted by Harry Hopkins, relief administrator in New York State under then Governor Roosevelt. He would later apply his experience in art-relief as head of the Civil Works Administration and the WPA. By the spring of 1934 the New York State program was receiving funds from the PWAP. Later, in June, when the PWAP was transferred to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, work-relief for artists was continued in New York City through an agency called the Emergency Relief Bureau.

On February 25, 1935, Jackson Pollock was employed by the Emergency Relief Bureau as a stonecutter at a wage of $1.75 an hour. This is his first recorded receipt of government relief; he would not have qualified for the PWAP or the New York State project because both required artistic and pedagogic skills he did not possess. The Emergency Relief Bureau was concerned solely with the criteria of need. Pollock earned his stipend cleaning Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s statue of Peter Cooper in Cooper Square.

Pollock remained with the Emergency Relief Bureau until August 1, 1935, when the newly created Federal Art Project provided him with the all-important opportunity to return to the full-time practice of his art. Created specifically to provide work-relief for unemployed artists, the Federal Art Project had been set up as a relatively autonomous agency within Harry Hopkins’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). It was directed from Washington by Holger Cahill and administered in New York City by Audrey McMahon.

Pollock found employment on the “Easel Division” of the Federal Art Project. In general, this meant that he was required to submit to the government one painting about every four to eight weeks—depending on its size and his rate of production. These works would then be theoretically allocated to embellish the walls of government buildings. He was free to select his own subject matter and the works he submitted were accepted for allocation automatically—at least during the early years of the project—as long as they seemed to be his best effort. While he was expected to report to the Project’s office periodically, he was permitted to work in his own studio under the occasional supervision of a timekeeper. He was free to paint as many other works as he wished and he took advantage of the opportunity. His monthly wage averaged out to about $91.50; his total earnings for the eight years he was on the Project totaled a little more than $7,800.00.

Pollock’s records show that he worked steadily on the Easel Division from August 1, 1935 to June 9, 1938 when his employment was suddenly terminated for “continued absence.” During the summer of 1938 he was hospitalized—as will be discussed below. In November, he returned to the Project and remained employed for the next eighteen months—until May 22, 1940 when his employment was again terminated. The reason this time was due to the reorganization of the Art Projects during June, 1939. Because of reactionary opposition in Congress, the Federal Art Project was turned over to state control and renamed the WPA Art Program. Its funds were reduced and its new regulations, along with requiring its employees to sign a loyalty oath, automatically severed from its rolls all artists employed more than eighteen months. Jackson’s brother Sanford, who was on the mural division, was fired immediately, while Jackson’s reemployment in November, 1938 saved his job until May, 1940. The only means by which an artist could be reinstated was to get himself recertified for public relief—a procedure that was made increasingly difficult and humiliating. By October, 1940, however, Jackson had himself recertified and got back on the Project. His salary was cut to $87.60 per month.

In March, 1942, the WPA Art Program was reorganized as the Graphic Section of the WPA War Services Program. This meant that the art projects were no longer authorized to carry out creative work but were assigned to the exclusive production materials relevant to the “war effort.” The artists concerned protested vigorously. In May, 1942 both Pollock and his future wife Lenore (Lee) Krasner, signed a petition to Roosevelt asking that the New York projects be permitted to function creatively. Their efforts were to no avail. During the summer of 1942 Pollock was assigned to a project within the War Services Program which was designing window displays promoting war-training courses offered at the municipal colleges. Interestingly, Lee Krasner was the director of this project. It ended early in October. On the 14th of that month Pollock was reassigned to an aviation sheet-metal project in Brooklyn. His wages were reduced by forty dollars. He managed to get himself returned to the Graphic Section within a week, but by then it was obvious that the art projects were doomed. On December 4, 1942 Roosevelt ordered that the WPA be given “its honorable discharge as soon as possible within the fiscal year.” By January 30, 1943 the art projects ceased to exist and Pollock was once again unemployed.17

At the time the WPA was dissolved Pollock was utterly unknown except, of course, to a small group of friends. He had had few opportunities to exhibit. His earliest recorded participation in a group show was in February, 1935 when he showed a work called Threshers at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1937 he exhibited a tempera painting titled Cotton Pickers at the Municipal Art Gallery in February and a watercolor at the Federal Art Gallery in October. Both galleries were supported by the WPA. There is also some evidence that he sent works to competitions in the mid-West and once showed a work at the Kansas City Art Museum. During the late thirties he gave his gallery as the Ferargil though there is no evidence that he ever showed there—except for the sales project during the winter of 1934–1935—or that Frederic Price handled his work.

John Graham can be credited as having been among the first to “discover” Pollock. It is possible that they met as early as 1938.18 Later in 1941 Graham invited Pollock to participate in an exhibition he was organizing at the McMillen Gallery. This opened early in 1942 and included Pollock’s oil painting Birth. Among the other artists included were Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner. Miss Krasner sought out Pollock late in 1941 when she learned he lived just around the corner from her studio. They later recalled having met once before at a party in around 1936. Pollock would marry her in 1945.

When the WPA folded in January, 1943, Pollock eventually found piece-work in a sweatshop painting neckties and decorating lipsticks. Later he was employed by the Baroness Hilla Rebay as a custodian in the Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art on 54th Street. By this time, however, he had met Peggy Guggenheim, who invited him to show some collages at her museum-gallery, Art of This Century. The collage show was followed by a Spring Salon for Young Artists in which Pollock showed Stenographic Figure. Miss Guggenheim was impressed with her new find and by July, 1943, at the urging of Howard Putzel, her assistant in the Gallery, and the painter Matta, she gave Pollock a year’s contract, commissioned a wall-size painting for her residence and scheduled a one-man show for him in November. This patronage, replacing within six months that of the WPA, permitted Pollock to return to the full-time practice of his art. Later in the year, with the generally favorable response to his first one-man show, he successfully launched his career.


It is not yet time for a full scale analysis of Pollock’s creative evolution between his leaving the League and his first one-man show. I think it would be useful, however, on the basis of the documentary and stylistic evidence I have accumulated in the course of my research, to outline briefly at this time what seems to me a more plausible chronology of Pollock’s early works than is to be found implicit in the datings published up to now in the several books and exhibit catalogs devoted to his art.

Jackson Pollock’s early artistic development can be divided into two periods. The first spans the time from his leaving the Art Students League until his mental crisis of 1938; the second from then until his first one-man show in 1943.

Unfortunately nothing Pollock did while a student at the League would seem to have survived. Thus his earliest extant works would seem to date from 1933 to 1935 and are few in number. As mentioned, the period between his leaving school and getting on the WPA was one of acute poverty. The security afforded by the Project for nearly eight years permitted him to work and experiment freely.

While the influence of Thomas Hart Benton is a factor to be considered throughout Pollock’s development, it is most overtly recognized in the style and themes of his work before 1938. This is evident in the mural sketch of about 1933 in which the music-makers—no doubt related to Benton’s musical “Monday Evenings”—demonstrate Pollock’s early ability to contain dynamic subject matter within a coherent and stable pictorial structure derived from his analysis of “Renaissance” models. The two figures seen from the back effectively close the sides of the design and frame a central triangle while the arc of the accordion in the center echoes the curve of the lunette.

Pollock’s vacations at Martha’s Vineyard are reflected in a number of landscapes before about 1938. He loved to depict the undulous curves of its inlets and promontories. Typical of this landscape style is an early ceramic painting (Fig. 2) which dates from about 1934–1935 and a more elaborate WPA canvas called Menemsha Pond (Fig. 3) which he gave the Project in February, 1939 though it was probably painted earlier.19

Among other works of this period are a WPA oil (Fig. 4) given to the Project in February 1937. Called Night Pasture, it depicts a man plowing—a theme Pollock often repeats in different media. Somewhat atypical of his usual subject matter is a lithograph of miners at the mouth of a shaft (Fig. 5). This dates from about 1934–1935 and was perhaps inspired by a trip Pollock took through mine country with his brother Charles during the summer of 1934.

In many of these works before 1938 one feels a sense of isolation and brooding: the little boat with its one passenger, the windowless houses, the nocturnal labors of a faceless man, the figures threatened by massive architectural forms. Though the style and themes derive from Benton, there is none of his love of narration or “local color” in Pollock’s work. The mood is always more somber—more introspective—more poetic.

It is not surprising, therefore, that an important influence parallel with Benton from about 1935 to about 1938 is Albert Pinkham Ryder. Pollock said in 1944 that “The only American master who interests me is Ryder.”20 He would have known Ryder’s work from the New York museums but especially through Frederic Newlin Price and the Ferargil Gallery. Price had written a book on Ryder in 1932 and kept a number of paintings attributed to Ryder in his gallery. Pollock’s Going West is an excellent example of his amalgamation of Benton’s style and subject matter with the poetic moodiness of Ryder’s dream landscapes.

Also from this period are a number of small, prophetic abstractions such as the untitled work illustrated here (Fig. 7). They are usually very heavily, gropingly painted and appear to be Pollock’s attempts at isolating the essential turbulence underlying Benton’s style and his own troubled personality.

It is interesting to note that Pollock’s subject matter during these years tends to ignore the social concerns of the New Deal period. Pollock’s art is consistently introspective. Just as he ignored Benton’s regionalism, he ignored social realism in his long, painful attempt to come to terms—through art—with his own inner reality.

It is clear from all available stylistic and documentary evidence that 1938 is the turning-point in his formative years. As early as January, 1937 Pollock was under psychiatric care for his alcoholism. By June, 1938 he had been dismissed from the Project for absenteeism and, at his own request, he was committed to a mental hospital. When he returned to his studio in the fall of 1938 a gradual change came over his art. His brother Sanford recalls that after his discharge his art “went for the first time abstract.”21 By May, 1940 Pollock wrote to Charles, “I haven’t much to say about my work and things only that I have been going thru violent changes the past couple of years. God knows what will come out of it all—its pretty negative so far . . .” A year later, in July, 1941, Sanford writes Charles that Pollock “has thrown off the yoke of Benton completely and is doing work which is creative in the most genuine sense of the word . . . His thinking is, I think, related to that of men like Beckmann, Orozco and Picasso . . . His painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality.”22

Three major influences can be discerned in Pollock’s art between about 1938 and 1943: Orozco, Picasso and Miró. Of these Orozco would seem to be the earliest. Pollock’s assimilation of his style and motifs can be seen in a long, untitled painting done about this time. (Fig. 8). Its shape and stage-like arrangement recalls Orozco’s New School murals while the imagery reflects the recently completed Guadalajara cycle. Another, larger untitled painting (Fig. 9) utilizes figure motifs borrowed from Orozco’s murals at Dartmouth College.

The influence of Picasso and Miró—two artists Pollock claimed to admire the most in 194423—can be found in almost all of his work after about 1940. Picasso’s influence can be seen, for instance, in the Head (Fig. 10) which is derived in part from the Guernica. Echoes of Miró are apparent along with Picasso and Orozco in the important transitional work Birth (Fig. 11). In a purer, more lyrical form, they can be seen in Stenographic Figure of 1942 (Fig. 12) where Pollock introduces free-form calligraphy into his work. Immediately following, these various influences give way—in works such as the Male and Female of 1942 (Fig. 13)—before the beginnings of Pollock’s mature sensibility.

Probably the most striking change in Pollock’s art occurs in about 1940 and after as the sculptural quality visible in the Orozco-influenced works gives way to an increasing flatness. Inevitably the picture plane—which Benton taught his students to break—asserts itself in Pollock’s art under the influence of Picasso and Miró. Parallel with this evolution is the appearance of powerful subjective iconography—much of it latent in his earlier work as far back as 1933—which his new-found technical and personal freedom permits him to set forth overtly for the first time.24

––Francis V. O’Connor



1. The material in this essay is based on research I have been conducting into the early career of Jackson Pollock over the past five years. It was first formulated in my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912 to 1943 (The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1965). For a complete account of Pollock’s life, and career, including the texts of many major documents, handlists of his one-man shows and excerpts from their critical reception, see my chronology in the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art’s current Pollock retrospective. While it would be difficult to acknowledge here all who have contributed to my research, I want to express my special gratitude to the following: Pollock’s widow, Mrs. Lee Krasner Pollock, his three surviving brothers, Charles Pollock (and his wife Sylvia), Jay Pollock and Frank Pollock, his sister-in-law, Mrs. Sanford McCoy and his teachers, Professor Frederick Schwankovsky and Thomas Hart Benton. All these––and many others––have given me access to their papers and/or recollections and have helped me in numberless ways to reconstruct Jackson Pollock’s life and development.

2. It is doubtful that Pollock ever saw Navajo sand pain ting as a child in Arizona. It is possible, however, that he did see the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Indian Art of the United States which ran from January 22 to April 27, 1941 and which had Navajo Indians demonstrating their art in the Museum. Pollock, who was a regular museum and gallery goer, was also aware of the collections and exhibitions of the Museum of the American Indian in New York. His brother Jay tells me (letter April 25, 1965) that he traded a collection of Indian rugs and blankets which he had put together much earlier for the promise of one of his brother’s paintings late in 1945.

3. Schwankovsky to Author, March 16 and May 1, 1964.

4. Pollock in Los Angeles to Charles in New York, January 31, 1930.

5. Ibid.

6. This section is based on several communications from Thomas Hart Benton in response to my detailed inquiries concerning his relationship with Pollock. All direct Benton quotations are from these, which date March/April, 1964. Factual information about Pollock’s attendance at the Art Students league is based on his League records which were made available to me by its Executive Director, Mr. Stewart Klonis.

7. The most recurrent errors concerning Pollock are that he came to New York City in 1929 and spent two years at the league. These errors can easily be traced to their source since the y were caused by Pollock himself. In “Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire,” Arts and Architecture (February, 1944), p. 14. (Hereafter: Pollock: Questionnaire), he asserts that he studied“ at the Art Students league here in New York. I began when I was seventeen. Studied with Bent on at the league for two years.” Having been born in 1912, he was seventeen in 1929, yet two letters written to Charles from Los Angeles dating October 22, 1929 and January 31, 1930 prove he was still on the West Coast. The League records prove he enrolled first in the fall of 1930 and left in March, 1933. For the correction of another recurrent error, see note 17.

8. “Unframed Space,” The New Yorker (August 5, 1950), p. 16.

9. For an interesting account of Pollock as Benton’s student at the league see Axel Horn,“Jackson Pollock: The Hollow and the Bump,” The Carleton Miscellany (Summer, 1966). Charles Pollock tells me that Horn’s text has “a ring of truth about it. It is a picture which I would accept as essentially accurate” (Letter, November 10, 1966). It contains, how ever, several gross errors. It confuses the painter Guy McCoy with Charles Pollock and claims that both Guy McCoy and Sanford McCoy––who was Pollock’s brother though he used his father’s original surname––are Pollock’s “half-brothers.” Mr. Horn also is inaccurate concerning the chronology of Pollock’s tenure at the league. Despite this, however, he supplies some important documentation concerning Pollock’s relationship not only with Benton but with the Mexican Siqueiros. In 1935 Siqueiros opened an “Experimental Workshop” on 14th Street and Jackson and Sanford worked with him painting banners and floats and experimenting with new paints and techniques. Horn recalls how they used lacquer: “. . . We poured it, dripped it, spattered it, hurled it at the picture surface . . . What emerged was an endless variety of accidental effects. Siqueiros soon constructed a theory and system of ‘controlled accidents’.” Charles Pollock recalls that the floor and walls of the workshop were covered with drip. In the same letter quoted above, he says: “Jack and Sande did work for a time in the Sequeiros workshop. They had had some acquaintance with him earlier in Los Angeles. I visited the shop at least once and was struck by the scale of some of the work and the curious effects got with the spray gun. I have always thought this to have been a key experience in Jackson’s development. Amongst other things, the whole ambience was an antidote to regionalism; but it was so far-fetched and outlandish in the circumstance that in the end it only served to make social contact, whether provincial or revolutionary, a meaningless term for him. Nevertheless, the violation of accepted craft procedures, certain felicities of accidental effect, scale, must have stuck in his mind to be recalled later, if even unconsciously, in evolving his mature painting style.”

10. Benton to Author, April 26, 1965. See also his An Artist in America (New York, 1939), pp. 76–7 and passim. Concerning Pollock’s cross-country journeys, it should be noted that the first was in 1930 when he drove East with his brothers Charles and Frank. He traveled to Los Angeles twice, as stated. In 1934 he took an extended car-trip to Los Angeles and back with Charles. On the second trip––in the summer of 1931––Pollock hitchhiked and rode boxcars. The others were made by car.

11. See Benton’s articles “Form and the Subject,” The Arts (June, 1924), pp. 303–8 and “The Mechanics of Form Organization,” The Arts (November and December, 1926 and January to March, 1927), pp. 285–89, 340–2, 43–4, 95–6, 145–8. Benton’s analytical methods are outlined in the latter series of articles. All of Benton’s students knew of them and the evidence of two of Pollock’s early sketchbooks indicates that he utilized Benton’s methods after he left the League. See Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock (New York and London, 1960), plates 85 to 96. While his favorite “Renaissance” master seems to have been EI Greco, he ranges in his analyses from Signorelli (plate 89) to Rubens (plate 94). For an interesting discussion o f the dating of these sketchbooks between 1936 and 1938 see James T. Valliere “The El Greco Influence on Jackson Pollock’s Early Works,” The Art Journal (Fall, 1964), pp. 6–9.

12. On entering the room in the New School for Social Research where Benton painted his murals you are surrounded by a brilliant, vibrant environment which, though perhaps dated in its subject matter, still lives in its swirling color and rhythmic, pulsating form. Pollock saw these murals––which cover all four walls––in the process of their creation. He posed for some of the figures. To my mind they are far more relevant to his future development than the splendid late Monets he never saw. See John Canaday, Mainstreams of Modern Art (New York, 1959), pp. 188–9 and William Rubin,“Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition,” Part II, Artforum (March, 1967), pp. 28–37.

13. From a brief biographical sketch and statement in the files of Mrs. Lee Krasner Pollock. It is interesting that the two sets of murals Pollock saw Benton paint––those at the New School and Whitney Museum library––were both done on movable panels, as were Rivera’s for the New Workers School which Pollock watched the Mexican paint during the summer of 1933 after the Rockefeller Center scandal and Orozco’s for the Museum of Modern Art in 1940.

14. I am planning to publish a detailed study of Pollock’s relationship with Benton in which I will demonstrate the influence his teacher’s methods, and in some cases even his iconography, had on Pollock’s mature work.

15. This section is based on Pollock’s WPA employment records. For a detailed history, chronology and bibliography of the New Deal art projects see my Federal Art Patronage: 1933 to 1943 (University of Maryland Art Gallery, 1966).

16. Sanford McCoy played an important and little known role in his youngest brother’s life. From late 1934 on Pollock lived with Sanford. When Charles moved to Washington to work for the Resettlement Administration in the fall of 1935, Sanford and Jackson moved into his old apartment at 46 East 8th Street. Early in 1936 Sanford married Arloie Conaway. Jackson lived with them until the fall of 1942. Sanford did much to sustain and encourage Jackson through the difficult days of the Depression and made many sacrifices to assist his deeply troubled brother. Jules Langsner tells me in a letter (March 18, 1964) that Sanford “always subordinated his not inconsiderable talents to advancing Jack’s chances. Sanford was an alter-ego and in a way a prodding influence, a need for Jack to prove himself to his greatest and most demanding admirer.” Charles Pollock left New York in 1935 and had little contact with his youngest brother there after.

17. The dates 1938 to 1942 usually given for Pollock’s tenure on the WPA are incorrect. He worked on the Project from its inception in 1935 until its liquidation in 1943.

18. There is evidence that Graham planned to add Pollock’s name to the list of“ Young Outstanding American Painters” on pp. 75–76 at his System and Dialectics of Art (New York, 1937). I am indebted to Mr. William S. Leiberman of the Museum o f Modern Art for this information. It is possible Graham planned to do this as early as 1938. If true, then John Graham may well be an important factor in the stylistic change apparent in Pollock’s work after 1938. A full scale study of Graham and the republication of his System and Dialectics of Art is long overdue.

19. The official WPA photographs of Menemsha Pond and Night Pasture were made available to me by the Archives of American Art through the courtesy of Mr. Garnett McCoy. The current whereabouts of these two paintings is unknown. The only two extant WPA Pollocks I know of are in the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Herbert Benevy of New York. These were exhibited at the University of Maryland in the spring of 1966 and I published them for the first time in my Federal Art Patronage, op.cit. They are also reproduced in Elizabeth Steven’s article on my show “The Thirties Revisited: Federal Art Patronage: 1933 to 1943,” Artforum (June, 1966), p. 43.

20. Pollock, Questionnaire.

21. Interview notes between Clement Greenberg and Sanford McCoy, c. 1956. These were made available to me through the courtesy of Mr. Greenberg.

22. Robert Motherwell told me in an interview February 19, 1964, that when he first met Pollock during the winter of 1941–1942 his work was clearly marked by a transition from Orozco to Picasso.

23. Pollock, Questionnaire.

24. The radical change in Pollock’s art at this time––reflecting as it does the influence of Surrealism and psychic automatism––must be seen also in conjunction with the fact that in about 1940–1941 Pollock was undergoing a Jungian analysis. His whole personality was undergoing a radical change and he was becoming acutely aware of the relevance of visual symbols. He is seeing on a deeper level. To my mind Surrealism is for Pollock at this time not so much an overt artistic influence as a subtle permission to be creatively free.