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Pollock's Legend Still Splattered On Art World

Jan 28, 2012
Originally published on January 28, 2012 5:52 pm

Even a century since his birth, American "splatter artist" Jackson Pollock still provokes heated debate about the very definition of art.

Was a man who placed a canvas on the floor and dripped paint straight from the can actually creating a work of art?

"It's very hard if you try to build the paint up to this extent with this many colors and not achieve mud," says National Gallery of Art curator Harry Cooper.

"He didn't achieve mud here — I think he achieved something quite beautiful," Cooper tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "And in the process, he opened up a whole new way of thinking about what a painting could be, how you could make a painting, what it could do in an abstract way."

The public perception at the time, though, was distinctly different than that of art critics.

"In the popular mind, he was Jack the Dripper," Cooper says. "I think all of those feelings and associations have remained with the work, no matter how many books and how many retrospectives he has."

In 2006, one of Pollock's works sold for $140 million — the most ever paid for a painting. He remains polarizing, a man whose work is as derided as it is desired.

Born in Cody, Wyo., on Jan. 28, 1912, Paul Jackson Pollock trained under the acclaimed American naturalist Thomas Hart Benton. During that time, Pollock's paintings were indistinguishable from Benton's — clear human forms with enhanced curves, as if windblown or carved like riverbeds.

Over time, Pollock's forms would become more surreal, like Picasso's. Surprisingly, the trademark splatter work doesn't make an appearance until Pollock's mid-30s.

"In fact, by the end of 1950 and '51, he's not doing the drips anymore," Cooper says. "He returns to the figure and spends his last years doing something quite different."

Pollock died tragically at the age of 44. After a lifetime struggling with alcoholism, he crashed his car while driving drunk. His death befit the legend that grew around his life.

"He was a macho man from Cody, Wyoming," Cooper says.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

The artist best known for dripping and splattering paint across canvases, Jackson Pollock, was born a hundred years ago on this date. And to mark the occasion, we headed down to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, to check out one of his most iconic paintings with the modern art curator there, Harry Cooper.

HARRY COOPER: We are looking at a painting called Number 1, and informally subtitled Lavender Mist.

RAZ: Despite the fact there's no lavender or mist in it, there are violent stabs and drips of pastel colors - pinks and whites and aquamarines - with black slashes circling it like a web. And Pollock's not just working with splattered paint here.

COOPER: There's a lot of stuff on it; it's - cigarette, and other things. We see some handprints that Pollock very purposely placed in the upper corners, in the upper edge.

RAZ: Jackson Pollock's fame is based on this technique alone, but his career was much more varied than that. When he studied under Thomas Hart Benton, the American regionalist, Pollock's paintings were indistinguishable from Benton's - clear, human forms with enhanced curves as if windblown or carved like river beds.

Now, over time, Pollock's forms would become more surreal, like Picasso's. But the trademark splatter work didn't really make an appearance until Pollock was in his mid-30s.

COOPER: He doesn't come into it, really, until 1947, and he dies in '56. So it's less than a decade. And in fact, by the end of '50 and '51, he's not doing the drips anymore.

RAZ: But the splatter work remains the focus of everyone's attention, even though it's always been divisive. From the very beginning, there were two camps: those who loved it, and those who hated it.

He had some dealers behind him, important people like Peggy Guggenheim. But in the popular mind, he was Jack the Dripper - you know, my child could do this. I think all of those feelings and associations have remained with the work, no matter how many books and how many retrospectives he has.

Yet in 2006, one of Pollock's paintings sold for $140 million. That made it the most expensive painting ever sold. So why does this man, whose work is as derided as it is desired - why does he have this lasting popularity?

COOPER: De Kooning said Jackson broke the ice. He put the canvas on the floor. He stopped using brushes in the normal way. Yes, there's a randomness to it, but there's also a great order to it as well. He is a colorist, arguably in a great tradition of romantic painting, evoking atmosphere.

RAZ: Would you say he is one of - or, among the five or six most important American artists?

COOPER: One of the three or four, yeah, I would say.

RAZ: That's Harry Cooper. He is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, here in Washington, D.C. They've got two Jackson Pollock pieces on display there. You can see them both at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.