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Jackson Pollack was a complex man who brought many things into the forefront of impressionism. Although he led a very short life of 44 years he was known as one of the pioneers of abstract impressionism. His abstract painting techniques and unhealthy psychological being made him very sought after, studied and critiqued. Within his complexity came out a brilliant artist that was widely considered the most influential painter of the 20th century.
Pollack?s first documented adventure into the art world was in 1929 when he began to study painting at the Art Students? League in New York City. Jackson, by this time in his life had already become a full-blown alcoholic. His brother, Sanford who taught as an apprentice at the school, was living with him in 1937 while Jackson continued attending school, wrote to Charles Beard a family friend.
Jack has been having a very difficult time with himself. This past
year has been a succession of periods of emotional instability for
him which is usually expressed by a complete loss of responsibility
both to himself and to us. Accompanied, of course with drinking.
It came to the point where it was obvious that the man needed help.
He was mentally sick. So I took him to a well recommended
Doctor, a Psychiatrist, who has been trying to help the man find
himself. As you know troubles such as his are very deep-rooted,
in childhood usually, and it takes a long while to get them ironed
out. He has been going some six months now and I feel there is
a slight improvement in his point of view.1
Jackson Pollock was a very troubled man with deep personal issues. He tried to express himself through his paintings, his only release valve for his troubles and issues. He had had troublesome behavior from the time he was an adolescent and had already developed a drinking problem by the age of sixteen. By the age of twenty-five he had been in a car accident which was his fault, and had been arrested in Martha?s Vineyard for drunkenness and disturbing the peace.2 Jackson was definitely headed down the wrong trail. One of Jackson?s good life influences was Thomas Hart Benton who not only gave him his first true guidance in painting, but also introduced him to popular literature on psychology and to literary friends with special interest in the mind and its workings. Shortly after starting to study under Benton, Pollack became a family friend by spending part of each summer at the Bentons? vacationing cottage on Martha?s Vineyard.3 In his early works he was mostly dedicated to Regionalist work being heavily influenced by Mexican muralist painters Orozco, Rivera, and Sizueiros. Although he did experiment with abstraction of objects in line type paintings. Even with being trained under a realist in Benton, Jackson branched out to explore the expression of himself through his abstract paintings. In 1936 Pollock worked in a experimental workshop where he worked on floats and banners for the Communist demonstrations, but shortly his interest in politics diminished and the one for psychological arose. 1939 brought Jackson?s his first psychological treatment from psychoanalyst Dr. Joseph Henderson. From 1938 to 1942 Pollock worked for the Federal Art Project, and by the mid-40?s he was painting in a completely abstract manner. In 1944 Jackson met and married his Lee Krasner, also an abstract impressionist of great influence in the 20th century. In 1947 Pollock abruptly started working in what he was famous for, his “drip and splash” method. He continued painting throughout the early 50?s, and in 1956 Time magazine named Jackson “Jack the Dripper”.4 Later in 1956, Pollock would shock the world when he was in a fatal car wreck which added to his already legendary status as an artist, and was a demonstration of the harsh violent displayed in his paintings.
Jackson was most well known for his drip paintings, which were created in a very unheard of?unusual way. He attached his canvases to the wall or floor dancing around them attacking it from all four sides. He would use about anything but a paintbrush to apply the paint to the canvas. He most often stood over the work slinging paint with sticks, trowels, or knives. He would also embed things onto his painting surface such as sand or broken glass giving in texture, depth, or both. Jackson had an exceptional interest in sand paintings. He had studied about the Southwest Indians that made sand paintings as a ritual to heal an unhealthy or diseased person. Jackson actually witnessed a sand painting ceremony and was most interested. Also when he painted he would drip and splatter many, many layers onto one another making the surface of the paint very think. Jackson was quoted saying?
When I am in my painting. I?m not aware of what I?m doing. It is only
after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about.
I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc.,
because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.
It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess.
Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting
comes out well.”5
Jackson had many strong ideals about what a painting was about, and his working methods allowed him to bring these ideals to life. He was also quoted saying,”I can walk around it, work from the four sides, and really be in the painting.”6
From the late 30?s to the Early 40?s Jackson was treated, and psychoanalyzed by several different doctor?s all bringing different results, yet none were the cure to the disturbing antics of Pollock. In 1938 Jackson was hospitalized for medical and psychiatric treatment of acute alcoholism. Once again Sanford wrote to Charles Beard?
For a few months after his release he showed improvement. But it
didn?t last and we had to get help again. He has been seeing a
doctor more less steadily every since. He needs help and is getting
it. His is afflicted with a definate neurosis. Whether he comes
through to normalcy and self-dependentcy? complex and though
I comprehend it in part I am not equipped to write clearly on the
subject to mention some of the symptoms will give you an idea
of the nature of the problem, irresponsibility, depressive mania,
over intensity and alcohol are some of the more obvious ones. Self destruction, too.7
After the failure of his first doctor, Sanford found Jackson the doctor that would study and treat him for approximately 2 years. Dr. Joseph Henderson would play a crucial role in the way Jackson developed his beliefs about his own mind and about unconscious. Soon after beginning treatment with Henderson, Pollock involved himself into a higher level of interest in his studying of psychology. When first beginning treatment the communication was almost non-existent. Pollock would refuse to talk to the young doctor who could not be trusted in his eyes. As the sessions went on Henderson asked Pollock to bring paintings in to discuss and enhance the quality of the therapy. Jackson did not draw specifically for the treatments; rather he brought in works from his regular everyday production. Henderson spoke of how Jackson did not want his drawings to be analyzed, but merely understood. “Most of my comments centered around the nature of the archetypal symbolism in his drawings.” He was painting the unconscious when they started their treatments, which was amazing to Henderson. Henderson also spoke of the great diversity in the drawings that Pollock brought him. Throughout this time his paintings were very inconsistent showing multiple styles. His drawings ranged from lead pencil to color pencil, some were mono chromatic while others used a wide variety of color scheme. His drawings also were different in the way he approached them stylistically; some were very accurately drawn showing crisp edges, finished delicately. Others would seem to be thrown together with jagged lines showing no specific figure or form. Some showed single lines with no depth, while others traveled deep into space with heavily worked pieces. Some showed Cubist influence, while others showed the opposite with a surrealist influence. A few showed a cluster of objects occupying the entire page with no visual center of attention, while others had a definite object that drew your eye. None of the diversified paintings were numbered, dated, or signed showing no real order or meaning of his progression or mutation in style. It was not until after Pollock quit bringing the paintings that Jackson and Henderson began speaking on a more personal level.8 In 1969, Henderson decided to sell the paintings and suit was filed against him by Krasner for violating the privacy from Doctor to patient.
Pollock was also known to have a very strong tie to nature and internal human forces as subject matter for his paintings. Kasner spoke of his strong interest in nature in an interview in 1944 saying, “Certainly his relationship to nature was intense. For example, the moon had a tremendous effect on him, and he liked gardening. Just walking on the beach in the wintertime with snow on the san was exciting. He identified very strongly with nature.”9 Tony Smith did a group of interviews called “Who Was Jackson Pollock?” In these interviews he spoke of how Jackson “identified with the land” and how he always used it in some way. “This was elemental; painting is always, to some extent, cultural.” He went on to say?
I don?t think that Jackson painted o the floor just for its hard surface,
or for the large area, or the freedom of movement, or so that the
drips wouldn?t run. There was something else, a strong bond with
the elements. The earth was always there.10
Many that were close to Jackson said that they would set silently with him, and watch nature for hours.
Pollock believed that modern art, especially his own expressed the inner life of the artist. With this he did not just believe that the emotions of the painter at the time the painting was created were coming out, such as hate, love, anger, and fear. He believed that there were inner forces coming out of the painting expressing themselves. Jackson made himself very clear about this in an radio interview with William Wright when he started off by making the point that modern artists work from a different source?
The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to
a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work
from a different source. They work from within. ? the modern
artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world?
in other words?expressing he energy, the motion, and other inner
He meant from this exert that modern artists did not just draw inner force energy from themselves, but from the world around them. They drew energy from nature and from the city, from animals and people alike.
Who was Jackson Pollock? This was a greatly wide spread question. Was he a genius or was he a lunatic? Was he an artist or was he an alcoholic? Jackson Pollock was a man with many ideals that not many could understand. Maybe only he could understand the complexity of his own mind, and the ideals that he believed in. Although Pollock was a psychologically complex man he was a genius of his time. Showing us not only a new way to paint, but also a new way to think. “Jack the Dripper”, one to be remembered and missed
1. Leja, Michael. Reframing Abstract Expressionism.
Yale University Press, 1993.
Jackson Pollock 1912-1956. 11-22-00.
6. Levin, Eric. The Most Intriguing People Of The Century.
NY: NY People Books, 1998.
7. Leja, Michael, Reframing Abstract Expressionism.
Yale University Press, 1993.
8. Cernuschi, Claude. Jackson Pollock: “Psychoanalytic”
Drawings. Duke University Press, 1992.
9. Mackie, Alwynne. Art/Talk. NY: Columbia University
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