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Book Review: Jackson Pollock

Time Magazine once called painter Jackson Pollock “Jack the Dripper.” The name describes Pollock’s well known style of paint-flinging and pour-it-out-of-the-can art.

In the mid-20th century, Pollock was criticized for his vision. Book critic Joan Baum says a new book about Pollock puts the artist and his work in proper perspective.

The truth is Pollock was a complicated artist, whose evolving methods, techniques, and subject matter reflected a much wider study and embrace of modern art than the so-called drip paintings. His wife, the painter Lee Krasner, hated the word “drip,” and, of course, knew better about her husband’s extensive work. So did, early on, the art patron and collector, Peggy Guggenheim, who hailed Pollock as “the greatest painter since Picasso.” Still, the myth persists — that Pollock’s claim to fame during his greatest years as an abstract expressionist in the late forties and early fifties, was owing only to these iconic paintings which disparaging critics said could have been turned out by a five-year-old child. A handsome new book on Pollock, however, should help, finally, lay these biased and ignorant beliefs to rest.

Pollock came to the attention of his future wife and early admirers, because of expressionist paintings he was doing in the tradition of Thomas Hart Benton and Mexican muralists. - Joan Baum

Called simply Jackson Pollock and part of a series on major mid-20th century American artists, the book shows by way of accessible text and gorgeous images, some reproduced here for the first time, the full extent of Pollock’s complex career – influences, defining events, innovations. Written by noted Pollock art expert and long-time journalist Helen Harrison, who is director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, Long Island, the book, authoritative and persuasive, will appeal to both scholars and a new generation of the general public. Without being didactic or partisan, it makes the case for a fuller appreciation not only of this talented, troubled but serious and hard-working student and exemplar of modern art, but of modern art globally.

As Harrison, reminds readers, Pollock came to the attention of his future wife and early admirers, because of expressionist paintings he was doing in the tradition of Thomas Hart Benton and Mexican muralists, work that was kind of figurative and representational. He knew his surrealist forebears in Europe and America and wrote to family and friends about the thrill of making art that expressed the inner world. He liked to redo canvases, work on the floor, use commercial paint, compose on occasion all in black, use a basting syringe as well as incorporate sand, nails and glass. And to get the effect he wanted for his 1952 painting No. 11, later known as “Blue Poles,” he walked on it. He loved sculpture. He also knew he was mocked and knocked, once saying of a few canvases that they would “give pause to the kids who think it simple to splash a Pollock out.” Harrison includes familiar material on “Jackson’s greatest hits,” but the main merit of her monograph is seeing Pollock in context: his own as well as the art world’s.

Joan Baum is a book critic who lives in Springs, Long Island.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.