Who influenced Jackson Pollock?

Who (and What) Influenced Jackson Pollock’s Drip Paintings?

Jackson Pollock is one of the most influential painters of all time, with his iconic ‘drip’ paintings and fearless attitude towards pushing the conventional boundaries of art inspiring artists and creatives around the world even today – not least myself, with my own range of Jackson Pollock-inspired pop art ‘action portrait’ paintings.

But who, and what, inspired and influenced Jackson Pollock himself to create his signature action paintings during the period between 1947-1950? In a previous blog post I explored some of his drip painting predecessors who painted with this method before Pollock did. While Pollock was familiar with some of their work and even admired it, they didn’t directly inspire and influence Pollock in his own artistic journey towards his signature drip paintings. So who and what else did?

How exactly did each of these artists influence Pollock – an artist whose style was so formless and unlike anything that had come before him? Read on to learn more.

Who and what influenced Pollock’s drip painting?

Like many artists, Jackson Pollock drew upon many sources of inspiration and ideas over the course of his career. The list of artists that were said to have inspired Pollock included his former art teacher and mentor Thomas Hart Benton, André Masson and Picasso, among others. Pollock’s ideas for his paintings didn’t just come from the works of fellow artists, however. Many of his influences from his childhood in rural America stayed with him to varying degrees throughout his artistic career.

A reclusive and unorthodox character, Pollock was was also driven by his personal attitudes towards the world around him. This included a degree of distrust and disdain from authority figures, as well as convention. These traits were evident in his behaviour at his first schools and stayed with him throughout his life and painting career.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock
Blue Poles (1952) by Jackson Pollock

Jackson wasn’t the only artist in the Pollock family

Pollock was also largely inspired to become an artist by his older brother Charles, who was an aspiring painter before Jackson was. Following in Charles’ footsteps, Pollock had an intense, burning ambition to become a great artist (he wanted to be a sculptor, initially, before he gravitated towards painting).

Unfortunately for Jackson, however, he also struggled with his level of artistic ability for large parts of his early career. His perceived flaws in his early paintings as a student impacted his confidence as an artist, to the extent he would be reluctant to show his paintings to others; even destroying the paintings he felt most embarrassed about. These frustrations of Pollock seemed to spark a burning competitive ambition within Pollock, and act as a catalyst for his rebellious approach to his art.

Ultimately, Pollock’s psyche as an artist – combined with his anarchic, somewhat bohemian character – would eventually see him break all artistic convention and become one of the most famous painters of the twentieth century.

Jackson Pollock in his studio
Pollock in his studio

What were Jackson Pollock’s early career influences?

One of Pollock’s first influences was the countryside environment of his youth, which also inspired his first style of painting, ‘American scene’ painting. Pollock’s often gloomy and lonely early American landscape paintings were largely influenced by his early childhood in Cody, Wyoming. His scenes also came from the trips he would sometimes accompany his dad on during his time as a surveyor on industrial, rural locations across the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon. Camp With Oil Rig, around 1930, is one of Pollock’s first notable paintings in this style.

Camp With Oil Rig by Jackson Pollock
Camp With Oil Rig by Jackson Pollock. Pollock carried many of his early childhood influences throughout his career.

Also stemming from his childhood, Pollock admired Native American Indian art, too, and this is attributed to some of his figurative work around the mid-point of his career. Some of Pollock’s paintings, including from his ‘drip’ phase, feature handprints; this idea is thought to have come from Native American Indian influences.

In terms of personnel, Pollock’s art teacher, the painter Thomas Hart Benton, was a key figure in Pollock’s formative student years. He both befriended Pollock (recognising Pollock as a somewhat vulnerable and lost individual, he often invited him to join his family for evenings and meals) and also guided his early artistic forays. An American scene painter himself, Benton nurtured Pollock’s love for this style. He also encouraged Pollock’s experiments with ceramics during his college years; he believed painted ceramics would be easier to see in a post-Great Depression 1930s New York than canvas paintings. (He also had Pollock painting tea towels and other homewares – sadly few of these survive today.)

Which other artists inspired Pollock?

Greek painter and architect El Greco (1541-1614) was thought to have been an influence on Pollock’s figurative phase of painting, along with relatively obscure 1930s American painter, Ross Braught.

Braught’s works had a mystical, dreamlike quality to them, which would likely have resonated with Pollock during a period of emotional turmoil following difficult personal and economic conditions in New York for him at the time (including the death of his father). Jackson – in typical Pollock spirit – was also seeking to escape the conventions and influence of his former teacher Benton, as he’d grown tired of this previous style and its limitations. Incidentally one of Pollock’s most famous painted ceramic bowls, titled Flight of Man, draws heavily on Braught’s style. This painted bowl was also an early indicator of some of Pollock’s later figurative paintings, including The Flame and Mural.

Other mystical and dark elements of Jackson Pollock’s paintings were drawn from Albert Ryder; while Pablo Picasso was also a key figurehead in the art world for a period for Pollock. Many of Pollock’s figurative works took on a surreal and disproportional quality that seemed to stem from Picasso’s cubist style. This surreal interpretation of the human body was a stark transition away from painting representational figures for Pollock. This was also indicative of the way Pollock would frequently seek to emulate a painting style before soon seeking to defy the very conventions of that style in his constant pursuit of a looser, more free and expressive style of his own.

Pollock was also influenced by Spanish surrealist painter Joan Miro. Surrealists believed that the purest form of art comes from the subconscious mind; that part of the mind we’re not aware of that produces dreams. This would prove to be a pivotal discovery for Pollock.

How did Jungian psychology influence Jackson Pollock?

Pollock was further introduced to this concept, and the exploration of the subconscious, through Jungian psychotherapy. This form of psychotherapy was prescribed to Pollock when he suffered a mental breakdown in his late twenties due to his depression and alcohol dependence. Intrigued by the exploration of his dreams, emotion and subconscious mind as encouraged by his psychotherapist, this personal ‘inner’ world of Pollock’s eventually became the subject of his paintings.

Jungian psychology proved a key turning point in his painting career. Internalising this notion, this became a fundamental belief underpinning Pollock’s general artistic evolution from representational landscape scenery at the beginning of his career to his formless drip paintings.

André Masson’s ‘automatic drawings’ stemmed from this same school of psychology and share a certain affinity with Pollock’s drip paintings; Masson sought to access subconscious thought when producing his drawings, and Pollock was said to have learned from this process.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock
Pollock’s paintings are said to have inspired by his dreams

Other factors in Jackson Pollock’s evolving painting style

Pollock’s house move out of New York City was also a critical factor in his evolution towards his signature action painting style. He moved with his wife, fellow artist Lee Krasner, to a house in Springs in East Hampton, a town in Long Island New York that offered more space and a more laid back lifestyle than his previous residence in New York City. Krasner recognised that a more rural lifestyle would suit Pollock’s temperament at the time and could benefit his artistic development.

Crucially, in a building next to this house Pollock was able to set up his own dedicated studio. Offering greater space and mobility to work, this saw Pollock experiment on a larger scale with his motion, or ‘action’ paintings. Springs had afforded Pollock the space to lay his canvases flat on the floor and work all around them – his “arena” as he called it.

Controlled chaos: loose with his new style

With his artistic repertoire a melting pot of many contrasting painting styles and artists, it seemed that Pollock’s overarching inspiration that sparked his drip paintings was his desire to communicate his chaotic ‘inner world’ through the medium of painting. Coupled with his intense internal ambition to be recognised as a great painter and a host of insecurities that seemed to accompany him since a young age, Pollock fully committed to this formless, abstract action painting style. When asked why he abandoned the idea of painting recognisable objects, Pollock once remarked that if someone wanted to see a flower then they could go and look at a real one.

Jackson Pollock at work
Jackson Pollock at work

Throughout his career Jackson Pollock was undoubtedly influenced by the various artistic movements and painting greats he had studied – and even strived to emulate at previous points in his career. But embedded within his psyche seemed to be a rebellious, independent, anarchic streak that simultaneously strived to defy the rules and conventions of the art world that he saw before him. What results is one of the most revolutionary, unique and iconic art styles that has ever been witnessed. And the world is so much richer for it.

Do any of these influences on Jackson Pollock surprise you? What other influences can you see in his paintings? Read my post about the meaning of Pollock’s paintings here.

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