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Jackson Pollock: Trapped, then Liberated.

Deborah Solomon was born in New York City and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. She was educated at Cornell University, where she majored in art history and served as the associate editor of The Cornell Daily Sun. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1979. The following year, she received a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Written by Deborah Solomon, Jackson Pollock vividly captures and communicates the struggles and hardships, as well as successes and achievements of Jackson Pollock, an influential American painter and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. Solomon interviewed two hundred people who knew Pollock and his work for her biography, and she has drawn extensively on Pollock’s own writings and other personal papers. In addition, she examines Pollock’s relationships with his family, his wife, and all the acquaintances that shaped Pollock’s identity as a greatest American painter he has become today. According to Harold Rosenberg, Pollock had re-imagined the canvas not as "a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or 'express' an object.. [but as] an arena in which to act."1.

Jackson Pollock’s life, like his work, was colorful and dramatic. Solomon begins this biography with the childhood and youth of Jackson Pollock, describing what kind of family he was born into and how it greatly affected his perspective of the world. Pollock was born on January 28, 1912 in Cody, Wyoming. He was the youngest of five sons, and he was born into a rather poor farm family under Leroy McCoy (who later got adopted and changed his last name to Pollock) and Stella May McClure. Because they were financially instable, the family moved from place to place looking for better jobs and environment to live under. In September 1903, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona where they finally grew slightly prosperous by purchasing a piece of land for farming. However, their prosperity did not last long and Jackson’s father ended up leaving the house in frustration. His father’s departure signaled complete loss of childhood security for Jackson and “left him weak with an uncertain image of himself and an unfathomable sense of loneliness.”2 Although their father left, the remaining Pollock family did not break loose. While Jackson’s mother made an effort to  find a California dairy farm hoping her husband would come back, Charles, the oldest son, enrolled at the Otis Art Institute, the most prestigious art school in the West. He had decided, at age eighteen, that he was going to become a great artist. Charles’s decision to pursue a career in art was almost startling considering the cultural isolation of his youth. The towns in which the Pollock boys grew up offered no evidence of a living tradition in the fine arts. Although back then art was only considered little more than leisure pastimes for women, Charles’s natural talent for drawing and the reinforcement he received from his mother enabled him to pursue such career. Influenced by his brother, Jackson decided to become an artist as well. Unlike his brother, however, Jackson had not yet demonstrated facility for drawing. In fact, he did not even try and felt dissatisfied and inadequate compared to his talented brother. Because of his personality, Jackson struggled to adapt himself to school and ended up dropping out, spending a time of excruciating loneliness.

Moving from school to school, Jackson dropped out of every one of them until he finally enrolled at Art Students League of New York, a prestigious but unorthodox school sharing little in spirit with its palatial Renaissance-style building on West Fifty-Seventh Street. Students were allowed to pick their own teachers, and Jackson signed up to study under Thomas Hart Benton known as a leader of American Scene painting. Under Benton, Jackson was “a solitary dreamer, clearly absorbed by Benton’s teaching but too unsure of himself to try to accomplish anything on his own.”3 He was stuck under Benton’s style, Benton’s strategy, and Benton’s influence. Eventually, Benton encouraged Pollock to exhibit his work every chance he could get and recommended that he submit his work to the popular competition-exhibitions organized annually by the Brooklyn Museum; it was at this venerable institution that Pollock made his museum debut. By 1935, the government had created one of its most successful relief programs, the WFA Federal Art Project where thousands of artists earned a respectable wage of $23.86 a week to paint on a full-time basis. To qualify for it, an artist had to prove only that he was poor, a criterion that few had trouble meeting. Pollock joined the easel division – the largest of the Project’s section – electing to work at home and produce about one painting a month for allocation to government buildings. However, not all of Pollock’s paintings were accepted by the Project. Some were returned to him for additional work, others were rejected outright. Discouraged, Pollock fell into despair and started to escape his devastation by drinking. After four months of treatment in hospital, Pollock felt ready to dispense with Benton’s influence and begin the long search for a style of his own.

Pollock was making genuine progress in his art. Many of his paintings showed the influence of Jose Orozco, to whom Pollock turned at the end of the thirties in an effort to break free from the style of his past. His theme was eternal conflict, and Jackson started painting violent pictures that owed a lot to Orozco such as scenes of people on fire and women giving birth to skeletons. The paintings marked a radical break from the lonely little landscapes that Pollock had been painting throughout most of the thirties. Another artist who greatly influenced Pollock’s style was Picasso. Guernica, Picasso’s famous elegy for the Basque town of Guernica, proved that the Cubism of Picasso was “not only a set of aesthetic principles but a means of expressing overwhelming emotion – the fear and the courage of living and dying.”4 For Pollock, Guernica awakened him to the power of abstract painting. Around 1939, Pollock produced a number of small paintings in the Cubist style and Pollock’s obsession with Picasso spanned for many years. While he was still on the Project, one of his closest friends, John Graham, offered to include Jackson’s paintings at a show that he was organizing at MacMillen Inc., an antique and fine-furnishings company. There, he met Lee Krasner, who he described as a damn good woman painter, and formed an intimate relationship with her. As they found similarities and shared interest in art, they fell in love and moved in together. In February 1943, Jackson heard about a job he very much wanted; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was hiring young artists to help run the museum and was offering them monthly stipend in addition to free art supplies. Recognized by Peggy Guggenheim, an American art collector, Jackson was offered a one-man show as well as to paint a mural for the hallway of her apartment. Furthermore, she offered him a one-year contract by which he would receive a fixed income of $150 a month and a settlement at the end of the year if he sold more than $2700 worth of paintings. However, his one-man show did not turn out the way he wanted. With his show behind him, Pollock once again entered a severe depression; he turned to heavy drinking and succumbed to feelings of self-loathing and despair. Through continuous failure of Jackson’s one-man show and disappointing reviews, Guggenheim closed her gallery.

At the end of the summer, Pollock moved into the barn to prepare for his fourth show at Art of This Century. The strongest of his 1946 works marked a critical juncture between the “veiling the image” style of his past and the “drip” paintings he began the following year. Shimmering Substance, by Jackson Pollock, is “a small, bright painting composed of hundreds of curling yellow and white brushstrokes, the cursive gestures packed tightly together to form a mesh of sensation.”5 It was totally abstract, and Pollock did not allow them to become identifiable. He introduced it as an “allover” painting, which consisted of undifferentiated forms dispersed evenly across the picture surface. In the summer of 1947, Pollock produced the first of his so called drip painting. Instead of using an easel, Pollock placed his canvas on the floor and applied paint from sticks, trowels, and hardened brushes. He walked around the canvas as he worked, tossing paint from all four sides. Sometimes he would tilt the can and pour the paint, allowing the pigment to run down directly onto the canvas. The key element in the drip paintings was line, as opposed to color or form. As many critics have pointed out, Pollock “was endowing the painted line with the immediacy and spontaneity one tends to associate with pencil sketches.”6 For Pollock, the drip paintings were a proof that he finally had become the “draftsman of his ambitions.”7 However, the debut of his drip paintings turned out to be a disappointment, arousing little interest from either critics or collectors. This brought the severest hardship Pollock had known since the Depression and once again pushed him into despair and poverty. Pollock’s second show at the Parsons, however, opened to impressive publicity. While only one year earlier the newspapers had totally ignored Pollock, they now took note of the young American extremist. To the outside world he had become, in the words of Life, “the shining new phenomenon of American art.”8 Years after his recognition and fame, Pollock’s life was once again dominated by a struggle against alcoholism and depression. For so many years he had been racing forward, testing limits, and pushing at extremes, but he could no longer sustain this momentum. He had failed to move forward, and unable to move forward, Pollock quickly lost faith in his abilities and began a precipitous decline. Even worse, he had an affair with a 25 year old art student named Ruth and moved in with her, abandoning his wife Lee. Nonetheless, his affair with Ruth did not turn out successful and finally he died in an automobile accident in 1956.

Throughout the book Solomon emphasizes Jackson Pollock’s personality and how it affected his career and made him the person he is. She also successfully points out how Jackson’s insecurities and constant feelings of inadequacy “unleashed in him an anger so overwhelming that it all but paralyzed him during these years, while hinting at the makings of the fiercely competitive artist that Pollock would prove to be.”9 In a way, Jackson was able to make his career this far because of his desire to break his insecurities. Although it was not completely overcome and haunted him over and over again throughout his career, Solomon concludes that it successfully made Jackson the greatest American painter and helped him to get used to faltering, just so he could get back up again.

As an American art critic, Solomon took a great interest in Jackson Pollock’s style and artistic movement. In addition, her experience of majoring in art history at Cornell University further aided in her knowledge of Jackson Pollock and his style. Solomon greatly admires Jackson’s achievement in his art career and states that “integrity caused Pollock’s tragedy.”10 Drawn more and more by the fact that Jackson was not a perfect icon of the American painting from the start, Solomon takes time describing each of Jackson’s tedious moments from falling into despair to rising above everyone else.

The review published in Los Angeles Times complimented Solomon on successfully showing readers a troubled, inarticulate, yet sensitive teenager fighting himself and his inadequate past to become a recognized American painter. It also made an analogy of Pollock’s boyhood to James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Although the review critiqued on how Solomon’s prose sometimes lumbers, it applauded on how she “avoids that tone of querulous gloom that academics confuse with seriousness; and her subject – that improbable mix of Kowalski, James Dean and Van Gogh – never fails to amaze.”11

Deborah Solomon’s Jackson Pollock did a fantastic job of pointing out Jackson Pollock’s life story clearly and precisely with no confusion. The text was made easy to understand with familiar words and easy-flowing sentences, and at the same time did not fail to provide the events with meticulous details.  The book started off by introducing Jackson Pollock’s parents and how their unprepared marriage foreshadowed the unstable life that Jackson will have to go through as a child. After highlighting Jackson’s personality and his internal conflicts, the biography then progressed slowly toward Jackson’s adolescence when he learns and encounters different kinds of artistic movement until “finally settling down and sticking to his own.”12 Solomon described the ups and downs Jackson goes through in his career and his repetitive stage of despair and success. As much as it captured the negative side of Jackson’s personality such as his insecurities and inadequate feelings, it also vividly communicated how those factors aided Jackson in overcoming himself and his internal conflicts. Although Jackson didn’t maintain his consistency toward the end of his life, the book did not fail to deliver the message that perseverance and belief are the most important key aspects to becoming successful.

The art described in the book Jackson Pollock is abstract expressionism and it is an American post-World War II movement. As much as it is after the World War II, it has an image of being “rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic.”13 Not only is it influenced by the Great Depression but it also captures the emotional intensity of America reminiscing the World War II. Abstract expressionism successfully had a huge impact on the world and the American Art as well. It introduced new ways of expressing feeling and emotion, without having to depict some identifiable subject. It also further opened the eyes of the public to the idea of unconsciousness and changed the way the world viewed art. The intended message is delivered and communicated in its simplest form and combines with the unconsciousness of the Surrealist movement to further emphasize its American Art value.

Jackson Pollock by Deborah Solomon takes the reader into a real life adventure of Jackson Pollock’s life, visiting back and forth between his depressing moments to exciting events he encounters in his career. The book takes us through different phases of art movements Jackson encounters throughout his career until finally settling down and discovering his own style. Although Jackson is continuously trapped by his lonely and insecure childhood memories, he eventually succeeds in reaching the point where he’s greatly recognized and respected as the “greatest American painter.”14

1. Solomon, Deborah. Jackson Pollock. New York: A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1987. 7.
2. Solomon, Deborah. 5.
3. Solomon, Deborah. 159.
4. Solomon, Deborah. 172.
5. Solomon, Deborah. 175.
6. Solomon, Deborah. 201.
7. Solomon, Deborah. 8.
8. Solomon, Deborah. 2.
9. Solomon, Deborah. 31.
10. Solomon, Deborah. 214.
11. 06, September. "Jackson Pollock: A BIOGRAPHY by Deborah Solomon (Simon & Schuster, $19.95; 256 Pp., Illustrated)." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 06 Sept. 1987. Web. 04 June 2012. <>.
12. Solomon, Deborah. 128.
13. Solomon, Deborah. 214.
14. Solomon, Deborah. 226.