What is the Meaning of Jackson Pollock’s Paintings?
The process of viewing art is usually synonymous with the act of recognising or searching for meaning within it. When it comes to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, this is often a difficult feat, with no form or objects to rationalise and interpret. So do his paintings have any meaning to them, and if so how do we go about interpreting them?
Jackson Pollock once remarked that his paintings don’t have any inherent objective meaning and that the way for viewers to enjoy them is to stop looking for one. The meaning of Pollock’s paintings is widely regarded as the painting process and motion captured within the artwork themselves.
What exactly does this mean though? Below I discuss a few key features embodied within Pollock’s drip paintings that add meaning to them beyond their aesthetic surface appeal.
Man’s search for meaning
Frustrated by art critics’ search for – and of their subsequent failure to find – objective meaning within his paintings, Jackson Pollock once remarked that his paintings don’t have any inherent objective meaning and that the way for his critics and viewers to enjoy them was to stop looking for one. While this is an adapt summary of the representation going on within the paintings, no artist devotes several years of their life to producing a single style of artwork within having some cause or reason to do so.
The meaning of Pollock’s drip paintings is more elusive and intangible. Meaning is typically found by considering the process and motion that was required to paint them, which is so evidently and immediately captured within each of his signature style of paintings. Belonging to the American avant-garde Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s, Pollock was driven to produce his particular style of paintings by a number of forces including his pursuit of total artistic freedom and mastery, and Jungian psychology – to which he was introduced to help solve his personal problems of depression and alcoholism.
How did Jungian psychology inspire Jackson Pollock?
A logical starting point in the exploration of the meaning behind Jackson Pollock’s signature drip paintings is his introduction to Jungian psychotherapy between 1938-41 to treat his alcoholism and depression. This school of psychoanalytic therapy pioneered by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud focused on an exploration of the subconscious mind (the part where dreams come from), and the way in which humans have become detached from this primal part of our brains and thought.
This concept fascinated Jackson and became a central tenet of his art from that point onwards. Indeed, Pollock’s transition away from figurative painting (even those which incorporated loose, dreamlike, action-painted elements) to fully abstract painting can likely be attributed to his desire to achieve a feeling, rather than analytical, form of art.
Pollock had previously been obsessed with mystical depictions within some of his earlier paintings. This was perhaps a form of escapism from some of the harsh realities he had experienced since early childhood; his Jungian psychotherapy had illuminated a viable gateway for detaching entirely from reality and conscious thought within his artwork.
For Pollock, his painting was the perfect way to explore his troubled and chaotic ‘inner’ world – something which can easily be witnessed in his finished creations. Read my post about some of the other influences on Pollock’s style.
Meaning in the motion: What did Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings represent?
In an unconventional move that defied other artists of his era and even what painting was thought to represent by the art world up until the abstract expressionist movement (which began around the 1940s and 1950s), Pollock devised a style of painting that focused on the process of actually producing the painting, and not the finished artwork itself.
Although he is quoted as remarking that the technique of an artist is not important – and it was the overall statement of an artwork that mattered – the signature quality within Pollock’s paintings is that the motion used to create them is evident within the finished piece. Controversially, this was even at the expense of any form or objects within his compositions.
Pollock believed entirely in the performance of his paintings, and that the finished result was merely documented evidence of this human experience; a “record of the dance” as some critics termed them. Pollock also regarded his large canvases as his “arena” in which he would carry out this performance.
Perhaps somewhat frustrated, too, by the constant search within the art world for objective meanings in the representation of paintings, and by the pretentious desires of his contemporaries to communicate coherent meanings and truths within their works, Pollock sought to emphasise the act of painting itself the fundamental feature of his work. Seeking to reconnect with his subconscious and his raw, primal instinct (as uncovered through his Jungian therapy), he focused entirely on form over function, and the result is dozens of mesmerising drip paintings packed full of mood and emotion.
Either driven by his own personal battles or a more general critique of the art world – or most likely a combination of the two – any meaning to be found within Pollock’s drip paintings undoubtedly stems from the actual process of their creation.
Pollock’s pursuit of total artistic freedom
A key trait of Pollock’s personality and psyche from a very early age – far before his personal troubles saw him introduced to Jungian psychology – was his rebellious, anarchic streak and seeming disdain for authority figures, which was always evident and became directed at figures of the art establishment during his adult life.
Never one to conform, Pollock’s creative output saw him display an intense inner desire to establish his artistic credentials and ability – to himself as much as the external art world. While respecting and admiring the established art figures from whom he knew he could learn so much, from his college art teacher Thomas Benton through to Picasso, Pollock also sought to break free of any conventions he found himself being enslaved too (a friend as well as an art mentor to Jackson, Benton was essentially abandoned by Pollock once his student had the confidence to branch out in his own direction).
Embodying this bohemian spirit, it was fitting then that Pollock would ultimately abandon the traditional method of painting altogether; and begin dripping, throwing and pouring his paint across his canvases (much to the shock, dismay and confusion of the art world at the time).
Jackson Pollock embodied the American dream
Pollock, as just one member of the abstract expressionist movement that began in New York, was somewhat of a metaphor for the American ideals of aspiration and freedom of expression that emerged in the 1940s following the post-depression years of the 1930s.
Abstract expressionists believed in producing large-scale art focused on shape, colour and texture rather than on objective representation (art up until the turn of the twentieth century had focused exclusively on depicting reality in painted form, so this new abstract movement was shocking to many who encountered it).
Unlike many of the European art movements of the time that were still focused on more traditional qualities, American art was finding its own way and was unconstrained by typical artistic conventions, which suited Pollock’s character perfectly. During America’s culture wars with the Soviet Union during this period, abstract expressionist art was also used to embody these American ideals and achieve soft power; in stark contrast to communist artwork that largely depicted communist imagery. Pollock’s paintings can therefore be said to carry broader cultural meaning beyond just his personal intentions.
Beauty – and meaning – is in the eye of the beholder
Generally speaking, as with all artwork and especially that of an abstract nature, the meaning of a painting is to be interpreted and decided subjectively. This is perhaps more so the case with Pollock, who was reluctant to ever discuss the meanings of any of his paintings – and whose form and composition provide little to interpret objectively. What we are left with is not only a tangled web of densely-packed layers of paint, but also a mesh of personal and artistic motivations that underlie his drip creations. This combination has made for rich discussion around Pollock’s artworks that continues to this day.
What do Jackson Pollock’s paintings say to you? What other meaning would you draw from these, beyond what is discussed in this article?