American artist Jackson Pollock is considered one of the greatest painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His signature drip paintings—which he began producing in the late 1940s—captivated the art world. Pollock redefined line, color, and pictorial space by finding an entirely new way to fill a canvas.
Dedicated to self-expression, his large body of work symbolizes freedom of creativity and evokes the artist’s turbulent and passionate mind. “Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves,” he once said. “Most modern painters work from a different source. They work from within.” Pollock’s life ended in tragedy, but his legacy lives on. His expressive masterpieces continue to inspire artists today.
Discover six famous Jackson Pollock paintings that define how his artistic practice developed.
Guardians of the Secret, 1943
Guardians of the Secret was one of the most talked-about works in Pollock’s first solo show at the Guggenheim in New York in 1943. It represents many themes and influences the artist experienced throughout his life, including world mythology, African and Native American art, and prehistoric art. Pollock was exposed to these early art forms as a child, and he claimed to witness Indian rituals from an early age. Some historians believe that these experiences played an important role in the development of Pollock’s artistic process.
Also influenced by the compositions of Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, Pollock painted Guardians of the Secret to feature abstracted forms. The male and female “guardians” at either side of the painting appear like Indian totems, Egyptian gods, or even chess pieces wearing African masks. A figure of a dog is painted at the bottom of the canvas in the style of ancient Egyptian tomb drawings. There’s also a tablet in the center of the composition which features hieroglyphic-like symbols. The blood-red rooster at the top perhaps represents the time Pollock lost the tip of his finger to an axe that was intended for a chicken.
Mural, painted in 1943, represents Pollock’s transition from his easel paintings and his signature drip canvases. Measuring nearly eight by 20 feet, this was Pollock’s first large-scale work, and it was commissioned for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. Legend has it that Pollock spent weeks staring at the blank canvas, complaining to friends that he had “creative block.” Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1944, he painted the entire canvas in one frantic burst of energy. (Despite this, the painting is still dated as 1943.) Pollock later told a friend of his vision for the piece: “It was a stampede…[of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.”
Full Fathom Five, 1947
Full Fathom Five is one of Pollock’s earliest paintings made using his drip technique. Its surface is scattered with a number of random objects from Pollock’s studio, including nails, matches, cigarette butts, coins, and a key. The bottom layers of the painting were created using a brush and a palette knife, while the top layers were created by pouring from cans of black and silver house paint. “Like a seismograph,” noted writer Werner Haftmann. “The painting recorded the energies and states of the man who drew it.”
The title for Full Fathom Five was suggested by Pollock’s neighbor. It quotes part of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, when Ariel describes a death by shipwreck: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes.”
Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950
Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 was one of the major works which appeared in Pollock’s 1950 solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery. To create it, Pollock layed out the unstretched, 207 inch-wide canvas flat on the floor and constantly moved around it as he poured, dripped, flicked, and splattered the pigment onto it. Spontaneity was a critical element to Pollock’s work, but his free process didn’t mean he lacked control of his medium. He once was quoted saying, “I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident.”
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Blue Poles, 1952
Blue Poles, (originally titled Number 11) is one of Pollock’s most famous works. It contains footprints and shards of glass throughout the canvas, signifying Pollock’s frenzied working method. In 1973, the National Gallery of Australia purchased Blue Poles for $1.3 million. Today, however, it has an estimated value of between $20 million and $100 million.
The Deep, 1953
During the 1950s, a dramatic shift occurred in both Pollock’s work and personal life. He began avoiding color and painted exclusively in black and white. Alcoholism began taking over his life and his productivity steadily declined. The Deep evokes Pollock’s inner battle. His signature drips are still featured, but they’re muted by layered brushstrokes of white paint. “It was not for nothing that white was chosen as the vestment of pure joy and immaculate purity,” said Wassily Kandinsky of the painting. “And black as the vestment of the greatest, most profound mourning and as the symbol of death.”
On the night of August 11, 1956, when Pollock was just 44 years old, he lost control of his car due to drunk driving and died. Edith Metzger also died in the car, and a third passenger, Ruth Kligman, was seriously injured.
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