Jackson Pollock’s Drip Paintings In Context

The contemporary aims that Jackson Pollock refers to impose on the artist an attitude and a mentality that would have been unthinkable in the Renaissance. Pollock’s large drip and splatter canvases offer the viewer an opportunity for internal reflection. The complex web of color emphasizes the surface of the canvas and the painterly application of the medium. The eye is not seduced by one particular area or drawn out of the picture frame. There is little overt evidence of representation, of the world beyond the canvas.

The influential art critic Clement Greenberg saw Jackson Pollock’s work as evidence of the total autonomy of artistic practice. But can art ever be truly autonomous?

Jackson Pollock’s Artistic Background

In the 1930s Jackson Pollock’s work had been much more political and public. His work through the Federal Arts Project (part of the New Deal) hNYC - MoMA Jackson Pollocks Number 1A 1948ad taken him into the studio of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, where his “regionalism” was broadened out into a flirtation with communism and new techniques with the use of enamel and spray paint.

However, the closing of the Federal Arts Project in 1943, which many politicians regarded as a Left-wing organization, led to Pollock’s first successful one-man exhibition at the Guggenheim Galleries.

Jackson Pollock at work with his drip paintingJackson Pollock’s Art Turns Inwards

By now his work was almost entirely concerned with the Jungian search for mystical and classical symbols that would exorcise his increasing alienation and flight into alcoholism. The questions and conflicts of modern life became internal, personal ones against the background of the war in Europe, as he struggled with drink and the pressures of a demanding New York art market.

In a sense this mentality could be described as a contemporary phenomenon, the reaction of an artist once committed to the public, political arena who, under subtle pressure from political undercurrents, and against a background of war, was forced to sink into himself. His later spatter techniques, influenced by the Surrealists’ automatic paintings, were devoid of the broader political perspectives of European artists. Here, on these large canvases, Jackson Pollock expressed how he believed it felt to be “modern” in America.

Political and Social Forces Influence Jackson Pollock

Despite Greenberg’s contention, Jackson Pollock was not in total control of the way he worked. His individual “contemporary aims” had been maneuvered by wider forces.

  • In 1939 when the Soviet-German Pact was forged there was disillusionment on the Left.
  • The aims of the Social Realists and political works by people such as Diego Rivera and Ben Shahn were undermined by the art establishment.
  • America consolidated its political power, the might of its industry and its armaments.
  • The Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, resulting in any political and social movements at home being undermined.

Jackson Pollock and American Avant-garde

On the artistic side, therefore, Jackson Pollock’s works were promoted at a period when, arguably, it was politically expedient to show a new American avant-garde emerging. From this perspective, American dealers and collectors, in particular, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, sought to “save” European art from the fascist threat, becoming the new guardians and instigators of the contemporary art scene. Thus in 1948 when the Marshall Plan was devised, Greenberg brought out his timely article, “The Decline of Cubism” claiming that the European avant-garde was redundant.

In light of the above argument, therefore, when Jackson Pollock speaks of his “contemporary aims” and critics claim autonomy for art, it is helpful to try to make a connection between the stated aims of the individual artist and critic. And the perceived wider aims of the society in which they are forced to participate in order to make a living.

At the same time, the actual idea of autonomous art is, in itself, a valuable indicator of the social and historical period in which it was conceived.

Perhaps only the passing of time can give a fair, if not purely objective, analysis of any work of art.


  • Harrison, Charles. Introduction: Modernism, Problems and Methods. The Open University, Arts: A Third Level Course 1984
  • 1951, radio interview as quoted in: Lucie Smith, Edward. Lives of the Great Twentieth Century Artists, London, 1986

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