12 Aug History: Jackson Pollock’s Wyoming
In 1949, Life magazine roiled the art world with its story, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” In front of one of his controversial “drip” canvases, the 37-year-old artist posed with his arms folded across his paint-spattered black denim smock. He wore a James Dean–like self-confident gaze, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Abstract Expressionism had arrived, with Pollock anointed its leader.
In the article, Pollock proclaimed that he was born in Cody, Wyoming. But in a follow-up story, the Cody Enterprise newspaper could not find a single person in town who remembered him. It noted, however, that he had “a definite style of painting which has never before been used and probably never again will be.”
The next week, the Enterprise acknowledged that Pollock’s claimed birthplace might be authentic. But it nevertheless recalled how a few years previously, Hollywood publicists had fabricated a Cody birth for the cowboy movie star Roy Rogers. “Cody does not disclaim such noted sons, but is only careful to check on their authenticity,” the newspaper concluded.
Pollock was indeed born east of Cody in 1912 — at home, which may be why the courthouse didn’t record a birth certificate. And then his family left Cody before his first birthday, which helps explain why so few people recalled them. Pollock never returned to Wyoming.
Why then did Pollock highlight his Cody birth in almost every interview? Why did he keep choosing to bring up his associations with Wyoming? Perhaps it was because that detail could explain his looks and actions, and by explaining the person, it could explain the unusual art.
Pollock was handsome, hard- drinking, verbally inarticulate, and often reclusive. Associations with Wyoming allowed him to style himself as a “cowboy,” an individualistic working-class rebel. He was tough. He was cool. He was an American bull in an effete art-world china shop. Such Western connotations created a Roy Rogers–style mythology around Pollock. As much as Pollock’s visionary genius, this narrative drove his fame — for better and for worse.
LeRoy and Stella Pollock arrived in Cody from Iowa in 1903. Lured to “Buffalo Bill’s town in the Rockies” by the idea of a free homestead, the Pollocks found themselves unable to file a homestead claim because the available dryland parcels offered no wood to build a house, and they couldn’t afford to buy wood. LeRoy found work as a dishwasher at the Irma Hotel, and later as a laborer for a rock-crushing outfit. Finally, he took a job at Sanford Watkins’ sheep ranch on lower Sage Creek — in an era when men who worked with sheep were scorned as far inferior to cowboys. There, in a two-room frame house in January 1912, Stella gave birth to her fifth son, Paul Jackson Pollock. The middle name reflected his father’s favorite mountain town, Jackson Hole, and they called him “Jack.”
Times were tough. LeRoy was suffering from rheumatic fever, an inflammatory heart disease associated with poverty and malnutrition. With no treatment available, the doctor suggested that maybe a warmer climate would help. The autumn after Jack was born, LeRoy left for San Diego to find a house and a job and then send for his family. On Thanksgiving day, after Stella had sold the last of their possessions, she packed the boys onto a train for the trip south.
The Pollocks bounced around throughout Jack’s youth: Phoenix, Arizona, then Chico, Janesville, Orland, Riverside, and Los Angeles, California. Jack was a poor student, shy, lonely, and isolated. In 1930, he followed his brothers to New York City, enrolling in the Art Students League to study under the regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock remained undistinguished, with limited capacity for or interest in conventional techniques. Men found him shy and aloof, perhaps talentless. But deep down, he had reserves of passion and creativity, as women, especially, tended to recognize.
In his early work, Pollock imitated the folksy realism of his mentor. Benton created murals, and Pollock, too, was enamored with oversized form. But Pollock lacked Benton’s narrative gifts, his ability to use the mural to tell a story.
Pollock spent his 20s in the Great Depression — the nation’s and his own. He briefly worked as a janitor, spent years jobless and on welfare, and eventually received paychecks from the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program that employed muralists and other artists. He also spent a lot of time drinking.
As written about in Deborah Solomon’s definitive biography, Jackson Pollock, Pollock’s drinking resulted from inner turmoil. He loved Benton and the proletarian, anti-modern, realistic style. But his desperate creativity required him to rebel stylistically. Most of his fellow New York artists were making political art, tinged with communism. Pollock rebelled politically by never even bothering to vote. Then in 1939, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was displayed in New York to great acclaim. Pollock rebelled — and found his genius.
Guernica was a mural portraying a bombed-out Spanish town. It was chaotic, oppressive, nightmarish. It fit the tradition of both Benton’s regionalism and the New Yorkers’ antifascist politics. But it was abstract. It was art as an expression of overwhelming emotion, rather than narrative. And expressing emotion on canvas was Pollock’s gift.
Soon Pollock met Lee Krasner, an abstract artist who believed in him wholeheartedly. He started creating large, semi-abstract paintings that became noticed among experts. Of Pollock’s first one-man show in November 1943, critics raved about his raw energy, crude strength, and self-confidence. Works such as The She-Wolf emulated Picasso in their jumble of forms — but they didn’t feel like mere imitations. Pollock was establishing an American response to these groundbreaking European ideas.
That show also included a small work called Composition with Pouring II, Pollock’s first experiment with drips and swirls. But his real breakthrough came a few months later as he struggled with a mural-sized canvas. He arranged swooping black lines across vaguely abstracted forms in white, blue, and yellow. What particularly moved viewers was Mural’s soaring lyricism, the way its intensity cascaded through all 21 feet. For the next several years, Pollock explored this style with breathtaking success.
Pollock’s greatest innovation may have been to focus on line. In his great works, you can’t look at a figure, or a form, or even for a deeper meaning — so you’re free to focus on the artistic wonder of a line itself. Pollock may not have had much talent for drawing figures, but his lines — swooping, curving, widening, and narrowing, in paint thick and then thin, across varied backgrounds expressing ever-changing energetic tension — his lines were epic genius.
It’s possible to trace Western themes throughout Pollock’s career. For example, his early Benton-like Going West (1934–35) portrayed everyday folks in heroic settings using broad, gestural brushstrokes. As a Westerner, Pollock wanted to apply Benton’s philosophies to his own region. But this painting’s horses and covered wagons were a cultural cliché. They didn’t tell Pollock’s story or even Cody’s — his family had come and gone from Wyoming by train.
Pollock’s responses to Picasso often invoked Native American themes, and Pollock once compared his drip technique to indigenous sand painting. For example, in Birth (undated) he applied Picasso’s style of flattened forms and thick outlines to depictions of an Eskimo mask. Likewise, The She-Wolf used Navajo motifs to marry a Picassoesque bull to an American bison.
And critics often saw the free-form brilliance of his high period as reflecting nature. In Autumn Rhythm (1950), for example, he first created a complex linear skeleton using diluted black paint, then laid down white, brown, and turquoise lines. The result was three-dimensional, with paint often layered, sometimes pooled or clotted. This painting could be described as an ecosystem of interconnected elements expanding horizontally across an endless plain. Nature.
With its massive scale, Autumn Rhythm was also celebrated for its monumentality, the same sense of overwhelming enormity that many people love in the Western national parks. One might argue that Pollock the Westerner was helping New Yorkers capture a bit of untamed wilderness in their high-end galleries.
Another way to interpret Pollock’s work is to say that it expresses freedom. He captures vibrant energy freed from color, shape, or texture. Indeed, scientists have since demonstrated that Pollock’s paintings are fractal — the apparent chaos of their lines actually follows simple mathematical rules freely adopted in nature.
But the problem with trying to see Western or natural themes in Pollock’s art is the same as trying to see any themes in that art. It’s abstract. He was aiming at what he felt inside, rather than an explicit external theme.
For example, when asked if he worked from nature, Pollock angrily responded, “I am nature.” His questioner, painter Hans Hofmann, saw through the false bravado in ways that subsequent interpreters often miss. “You work by heart,” Hofmann said. “That’s no good. You will repeat yourself.”
Pollock’s artistic zenith coincided with success in his personal life. He stopped drinking. He and Krasner got married. They moved to a rural part of Long Island, where neighbors generally knew him as a nice-enough guy who did weird paintings in his barn.
Within a few years, however, Pollock reached the far frontiers of his style. He’d dripped and expressed everything he had to “say.” Because of his fame, the world now wanted him to celebrate his brutish technique and fling paint on cue. But “technique is the result of saying something, not vice versa,” Pollock said. To perform at being an artist trivialized the message of his art. Yet, because he couldn’t articulate that message verbally, he proved unsuccessful at living with fame.
Moreover, his success meant that Abstract Expressionism was now an accepted standard — one his personality needed to rebel against. The inner anguish of breaking with himself as an authority figure proved far more challenging than that of breaking with Benton or Picasso.
Pollock started drinking again, heavily, in October 1950. He largely stopped painting and became paralyzed with self-doubt. His drunken belligerence exasperated friends and colleagues. Krasner suggested they see a couples’ therapist in New York City, but Pollock would leave the sessions to go on binges. He started having an affair.
Still in love but frustrated by her day-to-day existence, Krasner decided to spend the summer of 1956 in Europe. Pollock invited his girlfriend to move in. She quickly became bored by his binges and invited a friend to visit for a weekend. Driving them around town on August 11, Pollock crashed his car into a tree. The girlfriend survived, but Pollock, aged 44, and her friend were both killed on the spot.
New Yorkers had never understood Pollock’s Wyoming-sized appetite for risk. He took on conventional definitions of painting and art the way a rodeo cowboy takes on a bucking bull. He was a kayaker faced with a Class V rapid, a free-climber on a cliff, Evel Knievel at the Snake River Canyon. For some people, the risk of such challenges makes life worth living and art worth creating.