Jackson Pollock was a central and polarizing figure among avant-garde artists in New York in the 1940s and ’50s. His work grew from many sources, including an interest in surrealist automatism in which artists would work directly on their canvas without attempting to plan or direct the final outcome. Pollock believed that unconscious forms, ideas, and spiritual insights might be externalized through art. He rejected the tradition of linear perspective that had governed painting since the Renaissance, and instead activated paint and surface in shifting relationships.
There Were Seven in Eight (c. 1945) marks an important turning point in Pollock’s work, as its allover composition mixes brushstrokes with the poured, drizzled, and splattered paint that would come to characterize his “drip” paintings. In these paintings, Pollock worked directly on unstretched canvas laid on the floor, allowing for the more fluent creation of vast “allover” compositions. In the chaos of There Were Seven in Eight or the elegant, swirling interstices of Number 23 (1948), his efforts to externalize the submerged unconscious in his “act” of painting are surely evident, just as they reflect his struggle to define his role as an artist in the postwar period. As Pollock told an interviewer in 1950, “My opinion is that new needs need new techniques. . . . The modern artist is living in a mechanical age . . . working and expressing an inner world.”
Best known for his “drip paintings,” Jackson Pollock is a leading figure of Abstract Expressionism. Although his gesture-driven splattering and pouring technique marks the height of his artistic achievement, he searched throughout his career to express rather than illustrate emotions. Pollock’s early work shows traces of ethnographic influences, deriving from early encounters with indigenous relics in the Western U.S. At Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles he encountered theosophy, later evoked in his work’s unconscious imagery. Yet when Pollock arrived in New York in 1930, he followed a traditional education in composition at the Art Students League under regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. From 1938 to 1942, Pollock was employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, where he discovered the work of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera (1886–1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974). Their method liberated Pollock’s approach to scale and paved the way for his first monumental painting entitled Mural—commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. In the late 1940s Pollock came to develop and establish “action painting” as an artistic expression of postwar existentialist mentality. Pollock reached international acclaim during his lifetime and was included in the 1950 Venice Biennale.