The Pollock and I

by Guy Kinnear

I hate to admit it in print, but I don’t know Jackson Pollock. I am a painter, and I don’t know him. I know more about him than most people do, but I still don’t know him. But the fact is precious few of us do, and that includes most of the texts of art theory that burden the bookshelves. He has been a looming ghost over my endeavors in paint from the beginning, even before I knew there was a singular name associated with those infamous drips. Still, I don’t know him. He has changed the art world, and the world’s expectations of my profession.

My first contact with Pollock happened through one of his successors in splash. I was about seven or eight years old, enjoying a rare treat of catching a variety “news” television show past my bedtime. I remember watching with rapt fascination as a painter, risking life and limb, stood in the jet stream of a 747 casting gallons of paint up into the air, which was then blown onto a huge canvas. I had never seen anything like it, an artist endangering his own life in an act of creation. The final images didn’t look like anything recognizable—which was still a novel idea to me then—but the host went on to say the paintings sold for thousands. The epic event gave the object its worth, and I thought that was amazing!

But of course that was not Pollock, and Pollock himself would probably have some choice words to describe his would-be protégé.

Yet that memory stuck with me, along with a slew of other such splash artists I was exposed to as a child. Everyone had a spin on old “Jack the Dripper.” Every local art fair and art program seemed to have at least one fruit painter and one splash painter. I saw tennis players backhanding paint saturated tennis balls onto canvas. Artists shooting balloons of paint with handguns to bomb the pure canvas landscape below. Sesame Street characters with canvases of lavender splats, each one titled in numerical order. Apes (no really, apes), elephants (I just saw one do it again two weeks ago at a circus), and worms dipped in paint and let loose across paper (don’t worry, it was tempera, no worms were hurt in the process). Everyone was doing it. The drippy, smeary stuff was the way to go. Anyone, or anything, could be a painter. And I kept hearing that dismissive yet glorious line that did more to affirm my youthful celebration of the creative mess: “A five-year-old could do that!” That was the best part—the art world was blown open to us kids—all that slime I loved making anyway, you could become famous doing it.

But is that Pollock? No, not yet, but it’s his fault.

Years later, as a freshman in college, I finally learned his real name, the man who made those fabulous, freeing drips. With only a single image in an art history text as my point of reference, and some limited experience making abstractions in 100-level studio classes, I defended him. With battle lines drawn, I had to declare my allegiance. I picked up enough to know that those drips were the mark of the faithful, understand them or not. So against the philistinism and ignorance of peers, friends, and family, I fought for respect for those drips, tooth and nail: There is real skill there! Don’t you see the rhythm, the abstract space? Good abstraction takes some sweat and vision. Yeah, anyone can splash paint, but not everyone knows how to make it work.

In the years of education following, I really didn’t get beyond this formalist defense, and I didn’t get to know him any better, this artist who had made such an impact on painting. Of course I read about him, memorized the slides, copied the lecture notes. Yet it was all so contradictory. Was it pure paint and composition, an artist working all his life for the sole purpose of making a flat painting? Was it one long cathartic explosion on multiple canvasses, a sort of primal scream therapy for the artist’s subjective benefit only? Or was it an attempt to vent a collective cultural post-nuclear angst? Pure nihilism or the celebration of the creative life?

Would the real Pollock please stand?