Abstract Expressionism was a brief yet extremely influential art movement, lasting from the early to mid-1940s to the late 1950s. It was America’s first original art form. As such, it drew many European artists to major American cities. Very soon after World War II, New York City replaced Paris as the locus of modern development in the visual arts. Up-and-coming artists such as Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning immigrated to the United States to help form what was later termed the “New York School” of abstract action painters. These artists began their careers between the two World Wars, and nearly all of them experienced the economic hardship of the Great Depression by the time they reached prominence, moving them to conclude that “only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.”1 Their personal yet very common trials served as a powerful ingredient in the art of the midtwentieth century.

Perhaps the most revolutionary and well-known Americanborn painter of the New York School was Jackson Pollock. Raised in the Southwestern United States, Pollock grew up one of five sons of a poor sheep rancher. In 1930, while still in his late teens, he traveled to New York, where he studied art at the Art Students League under the American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. From 1938 to 1943 he worked periodically for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. In 1945 he married abstract painter Lee Krasner, and in November of that year the two moved to a farm in Springs, Long Island, New York. Pollock turned an old barn into his studio, where he worked intermittently while under the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim until his death in a car accident in August 1956.

Art connoisseur John Graham, who befriended Pollock and profoundly influenced Abstract Expressionism,2 summarized the goals of modern art with their political implications quite well. “Art is essentially a process,” he wrote, “the business of [which] is not to portray life or nature or their aspects… but by using nature as a point of departure draw pertinent conclusions [and] create new values which will eventually enlighten people on the subject of pure truth.”3 This pure truth transcended politics and mundane experiences to grab hold of the things humans most needed - particularly spiritual, relational, and moral understanding. During a 1950 interview on his farm, Jackson Pollock commented about his revolutionary “drip” painting style, itself rooted in process:

My opinion is that new needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements. It seems to me that the mod ern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in... old forms.4

Here Pollock speaks in broad terms about the role of the artist in meeting the needs of modern society. This role naturally interfaced with other means of meeting human needs, including politics.

Of all the well-known Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock’s work was perhaps the least politically expressive.5 Moreover, there exists very little documentation of his political beliefs. Robert Motherwell, one of the foremost leaders and theoreticians of the New York School, wrote of the irony that “Pollock in fact had very Leftist political views… [but they] seemingly had little to do with his art.”6 Although personally a strong socialist, Pollock was never active in political dissent movements, unlike several other prominent Abstract Expressionists. On a practical level, part of this may be because he died in 1956 at the age of forty-four, prior to the height of the Cold War and the tumultuous days of Vietnam. In fact, we cannot say what relationship Pollock intended for liberal politics and his art; however, the debate on Pollock’s personal political beliefs is not of significant concern here, because they were never explicit in writing or in his work.7 More importantly, the fact that his expressed artistic aims were not chiefly political, or even moderately political, does not mean that his work makes no political statement.

As art historian Stephen Polcari argues, Pollock and others deliberately shunned a narrow civic dialogue to address wider psychology.8 Because political theory examines how to govern humanity, and therefore involves the question of who we are as human beings, the fact that Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists explored this question means they did express at least basic political beliefs through their art. That is, their seemingly apolitical artwork had powerful political consequences. Both Abstract Expressionism as an art movement and Jackson Pollock’s art as part of that movement had political significance, even if neither made overt political statements. Although the Abstract Expressionists did not always necessarily agree on all ideas about their art,9 Nancy Jachec has concluded that “it is safe to consider them as a distinct artistic and intellectual unit.”10 That is, they were in enough agreement to provide a specific set of foundational ideas. Anna Chave, for example, despite classifying the New York School painters as essentially highly different individuals, provides some common themes in their work that are useful when thinking about the movement of Abstract Expressionism. These include art as an expression of profound, riveting feeling, an anti-bourgeois or “high art” aesthetic, and an intentionally physical technique executed on large space.11 I thus discuss Pollock’s work as unique but presuppose that it has been influenced by the ideas of others in this “unit,” using other artists’ words often. To understand Pollock in the context of Abstract Expressionism, we must examine the ideological relationship between his work and that of the other Abstract Expressionists. I attempt to do this by showing how Pollock’s work displays influences from the movement as a whole within the arena of politics. I do not seek to lump all the Abstract Expressionists together as if their work makes a uniform statement about politics. However, Abstract Expressionism was an art birthed during the very tragic and searching time around World War II. As such, it explored what sociopolitical relationship the individual had to him- (or her-) self and others, what Michael Leja, in his influential book Reframing Abstract Expressionism, terms “Modern Man discourse”.12 Furthermore, the artists, appalled by the implications of totalitarian political regimes, emphasized that their work was unconfined by humanity but could provide direction for humanity. Thus, painting’s autonomous nature gave it a social benefit.

Herein lies the political culture of Abstract Expressionism: art as a free force for human understanding.13I will argue that Pollock’s work displays these ideological underpinnings. At least three areas stand out at which we may see political links between Pollock’s work and that of Abstract Expressionism as a modern art movement. Specifically, my thesis is that Pollock’s painting displays the political culture of Abstract Expressionism through the creation of art as a unifying factor of humanity, the use of negation to make a personal statement, and the idea that art was its own referent. One caveat is that my argument is primarily subjective and theoretical, especially since Pollock’s work has been open to much debate, given that he made few statements about the meaning of his work and even fewer about its political significance.

Jackson Pollock drew much of his anthropological approach to painting from the ideas of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, particularly that of the Collective Unconscious. Jungian depth psychology was a process of healing in which an individual examined his or her inner “psyche” to confront and defeat trials and problems from his or her past. Only through the examination of the history of one’s unconscious, Jung argued, could we hope to find genuine solutions to a person’s problems. Jung’s “archetypes”, images and myths from humanity’s primal past, supposedly reconnected modern people to their historical and multi-cultural roots for purposes of healing. The Collective Unconscious, humanity’s inevitable connection with its archaic past, transcended individual personality and served as a means to historical and contemporary self-discovery. Jung maintained that modern man had lost contact with himself because he was removed from his primitive roots. Through awareness of ancient rituals, narratives, spirituality, and arts, rather than application of reason and the scientific method, he maintained that contemporary society could successfully cleanse itself of many problems that led to war, poverty, and crime.14

Jung’s ideas gained enormous popularity among the artists in New York. By advocating art as one of the primary means to activate the unconscious, he gave it a very prominent role in human experience. Art could reconnect the artist with cultural elements in man’s past and help him or her in the process of self-discovery and re-creation. Art, however, was not merely an instrument in the service of the individual. Jung believed that art played a profound social role as well, helping society understand itself.15 Stephen Polcari discusses the responsibility of the artist in using his creations for the public good:

The artists’ use of their psychology is at least as much a social and public act as a primarily private and personal one. In other words, the quest for the representation of inner life was not merely, if at all, a quest to represent the artists’ own unique psyches and lives ...Rather their quest was to represent the collective inner life and needs of modern humanity and the body politic. (emphasis added)16

This psychological basis for the expression of humanity’s identity and history coincided with the politics of Abstract Expressionism. Jung’s depth psychology argued objectively that neither government nor material commodities nor technological advancement could provide an adequate foundation for the liberation of mankind from social evils. The artist had a justification for advocating the birth of a society in which creative expression could be released from the stranglehold of science and reason. Art acted as a tool for shaping social harmony. The argument is not that Pollock and others deliberately sought to find such a justification for preconceived ideas, but that these developments greatly contributed to their worldview as artists.

Jackson Pollock frequently depicted abstract primitive themes in his early work. This may be directly attributed to the time he spent in Jungian therapy following one of his several bouts with alcoholism. In fact, he was the only Abstract Expressionist treated with this approach, and afterword he remained a dedicated follower of Jung.17 While it is true that ancient Hispanic and Native American religious culture influenced many elements within his work, depth psychology provided the intellectual spark. For example, Male and Female (ca. 1942) explores themes of primitive sexual identities. Circle (ca. 1938-41), on the other hand, portrays fertility, symbolized by Native American- like representations of snakes, as well as water, which is often used by Jung as a metaphor for the unconscious.18 The circular shape may also represent continuity (see Fig.1).

Similar themes carried into the period beginning around 1946, in which his painting took a more abstract and uniform composition. Shimmering Substance (1946) and Eyes in the Heat (1946) show the first trace of freedom from direct natural depictions, a characteristic element within Abstract Expressionism. In his most mature “drip” or “pour” phase, he spread out large canvases, some up to 9 by 18 feet, directly on the floor, and used a collection of brushes, sticks, and trowels to pour various kinds of paint directly on the canvas, working rapidly and never touching the surface. By moving totally away from illustration, the physical properties of the paint and the importance of the individual mark achieved greater significance as the elements that gave the painting its life. During this period, as art scholar David Anfam points out, Pollock discovered the convergence of a disordered, “primitive” technique with a joined, harmonious composition, undergirding themes of social unity amidst chaos.19 There is no disconnection from his earlier work with the beginning of this period, but rather a more mature representation of subconscious energies and the primal spirit of archaic man.20

The physical process of creation that Pollock employed had tremendous significance within a Jungian context. Through his fast movements, which utilized not just the wrist but the entire arm, Pollock produced a rhythmic network of lines and spots that echoed physical ritual acts, battle maneuvers, hunting tactics, and natural sources of energy such as fire, integral parts of early human living. This “allover” look led to a painting style that had no real beginning or end, creating consonance with man’s continuous narrative.21

Pollock thus entered into the creative process through the role of “mythmaker,” a descriptive term popular among art critics.22 Through the act of mythmaking, Pollock established art as truly autonomous: not the instrument of social institutions, nor a way of depicting contemporary objects, but the force that could set new paradigms in motion or reconnect to old ones. These creative processes believed to join humanity therefore replaced the dialectical clashes advocated by Marx and the free market, technology-driven capitalist structure as the impetus of social life and unity.

Pollock even spoke of his art as leading him:

I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well. (emphasis added)23

Thus art was a thing in itself, a thing to which the artist could join himself. From a Jungian viewpoint, as Pollock painted, part of him became the painting and part of the painting echoed those subconscious aspects of himself as a human being. Furthermore, he did not use drawing to generate ideas for his painting, but instead went straight to the canvas. The result was the absence of a barrier between him and the original creative act. He was thus free to express truly the raw states of humanity outside of a political framework. These significant concepts led to an art that was highly critical of seemingly repressive systems of government.

Pollock’s work also manifested the conclusions of the idea of “negation,” which as a philosophy of art implicitly criticized social flaws to create a more humane approach to living. In his published 1952 essay, “Abstract Art Refuses”, Ad Reinhardt advocated an approach to painting that reflected the Abstract Expressionists’ understanding of the relationship between modern art and politics.24 Centered around the idea of “negation,” as he elsewhere termed this approach,25 he affirmed aesthetic detachment from the impurities of modern life. Influenced by Buddhist philosophy, Reinhardt’s concept of negation entailed the belief that artistic expression could only find expression in negative, mystical language. One of his journal entries simply describes art as

Nonsensuous, formless, shapeless, colorless, soundless, odorless ... No images, mental copies of sensations, imagings, imaginings No concepts, thinking, ideas, meaning, content...26

By extension, negation meant that art’s proper role in social criticism was not through its use as a tool for propaganda or the support of established political, religious, or cultural criterion; negation was about the absence of artistic definition and would be lost if art was given the role of propaganda.27 Furthermore, it implied that art should not directly support a particular set of policies but rather indirectly criticize existing ones. As Robert Motherwell stated, modern art was about “remoteness from the symbols and values of the majority.” Modern artists rejected “almost in toto . . . the values of the bourgeois world.”28 In a paper delivered to the College Art Association on “The School of New York,” which actually preceded Reinhardt’s definition, Motherwell spoke of the critical nature of their art: “[Our] art … has social implications. These might be summarized under the general notion of protest…[i]n many respects a negative position.”29 The Abstract Expressionists did individually possess strong political beliefs, including Pollock. Some were orthodox Marxists, others favored social democracy, and several, such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, embraced anarchism. The fascinating thing, however, is that despite their convictions, they refused to place their art in the service of a higher political ideal. All of them agreed that society needed to be remade, but they continued to discuss how, if at all, their art should be involved in that struggle. Although there is no strong evidence to suggest that Pollock embraced Reinhardt’s level of extremism, Reinhardt’s system of thought, which had similarities to much Abstract Expressionist thinking, was evident in Pollock’s avoidance of political themes in exchange for mystical, “transformative” ones.30 Although we may not know much about his personal political ideas, his art exemplified autonomy. Motherwell, reflecting on Pollock’s legacy, said that “[Pollock’s] power lay in the force of negation that was part of his character. What Pollock stands for … [is] that only when a man really asserts his identity … does his medium rise to the character of style.”31 It is because of this independence that Pollock was one of the most powerful examples of the use of negation among the Abstract Expressionists.

The Jungian mythical archetypes and the expression of the unconscious evident in virtually all of Pollock’s paintings made them pieces that denied their use as mere decoration or propaganda. As we have seen, Pollock believed his paintings formed a life of their own, as his inner energies, linked with the Collective Unconscious, came out in visual form. His radically spontaneous method ensured a highly personal and unique result on each canvas, especially during the “allover” phase at the height of his career. Thus, by its nature, his painting did not have the possibility of adaptation to any message, political or otherwise, beyond itself. As many have noted, the allover effect de-centered the image and drew the viewer into a flat, all-encompassing space.32 Every painting was a single episode, a pure, solitary frame of the Unconscious. In these ways, it at least theoretically negated any individual or force that may attempt to dominate it as a malleable artifact, rather than yield to it as a gateway of enlightenment.

Pollock’s artwork therefore espoused a visual reaction against the totalitarianism of Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s communist megalomania, systems of power scorned by the Abstract Expressionists. These governments symbolized liberal politics gone horribly wrong. Before and during the Second World War, many in the New York School championed the Communist ideal of a utopian society while condemning what they saw as Stalin’s attack on that ideal. With the 1939 German- Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), Pollock and the other leftist artists who were at that time working for Roosevelt’s WPA opposed Stalin’s shift from the politics that had led to the Russian Revolution of 1917.33 The making of peace with a tyrant was surely a signal that the mother country of socialism could no longer support the endeavors of Soviet-inspired artists to paint for the masses. As Stalin grew more and more radical, murdering the members of his own party and driving socialism further and further into the depths of inhumanity, these artists grew increasingly disgusted with his politics. When the American Artists’ Congress, comprised of several painters of the New York School, implicitly supported Stalinist and Fascist actions,34 seventeen of its members seceded, some going on to form the democratically-focused Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors in the Spring of 1940. In the Federation’s constitution, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb stated that there was an enmity between their work and Soviet communism, a system which now symbolized a “totalitarianism of thought and action.”35

Pollock’s painting was more in keeping with Leon Trotsky’s views on art and the state. In a move seen as heroic by many modern artists, Trotsky gave his support for these artist’s expressions by stating that art must have a distinct, independent role in society. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 after bitter disputes with Stalin over the way communism should be achieved.36 He later settled in Mexico, where he befriended Hispanic artist Diego Rivera, who influenced Pollock and André Breton, a dedicated Marxist and the theoretical founder of Surrealism (from which Abstract Expressionism borrowed its emphasis on psychology). In 1938, two years before Trotsky’s assassination by a Stalinist sympathizer, these three joined to publish a document entitled, “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.” They condemned the tightly controlled socialist realist style in which Stalin had had portraits painted to publicize his dictatorial rule as “Generalissimo.”37 Proclaiming “the liberty of art itself,” they advocated the formation of a stateless society that ensured art would have freedom from politics.38 Trotsky’s beliefs regarding a free art were much nearer Marx’s views and even Lenin’s than anything Stalin espoused. Stalin’s stifling of individual expression served as an example to Pollock and his contemporaries. Pollock made it clear that he believed art and government should be divorced from one another. In a November 9, 1943 interview, when asked if there could be such a thing as a distinct American, democratic art, he responded:

The idea of an isolated American painting … seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd … [T]he basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.39

Pollock’s statement that there is no such thing as a purely American art reflected a general trend among the Abstract Expressionists to shun any form of nationalism. Nationalism pitted state against state and subverted the goal of unity through common human experiences, the artistic expressions of which were quite possibly the “problems of contemporary painting” of concern to Pollock. It also fit hand-in-hand with an American capitalist mindset that emerged after the First World War (and especially after World War II) that the United States was the dominant world power and the international cultural center. Pollock refused to acknowledge New York City as more artistically prestigious than Amsterdam or Moscow or the pueblos of New Mexico. Many times in the few interviews he agreed to do he referenced his painting methods in light of other cultures’ artistic practices: “All cultures have had means and techniques of expressing their immediate aims,” he said, “Each age finds its own technique.”40 Catherine Soussloff has also observed that “Pollock sought through his practice, particularly in those crucial years just after World War II, a form of expression that allowed him to transcend the growing political constraints of ‘art’ and the artists who imposed themselves upon the [bourgeois] New York “high” art scene…”41

Although Pollock and many of the Abstract Expressionists favored communism, they rebelled against the pursuit of industrialization and technology that Marx believed would establish the communist utopia. They also disliked the bureaucratic nature that characterized the Soviet Union, and they viewed Marx’s idea of a determinist history as too restrictive. Most importantly, these artists did not pin the blame for all social evils on the capitalist system nor champion socialism as humanity’s savior. Instead, they favored the value of the common person, the use of creativity to address the suffering in the world, and the reality that man simply existed, apart from any political or economic system that sought to define him. Pollock in fact “suggest[ed] a wished-for, primal, non-industrial alternative to the modern world.”42 Through his use of the “drip,” Pollock offered a new form of artistic freedom, which by its mere existence as an expression of man’s Unconscious attacked any form of ethnocentrism or inhumanity. Even prior to the “drip,” violent images such as Naked Man with a Knife (ca.1938-41) or Burning Landscape (1943), inspired by the War, reveal a search for life amidst death,43 especially when viewed alongside the regenerative aspects of his other work. We may thus view Pollock’s painting, as a leading force in Abstract Expressionism, not as passively apolitical but as actively antipolitical. For Pollock and others, the insistence that humans were autonomous individuals led them to embrace the idea that art was free from social bonds. For them, art was a thing in itself.

Pollock’s art represented the political aims—or, more precisely, non-aims—of Abstract Expressionism by helping to establish art as its own referent. That is, his art, in keeping with much Abstract Expressionist thinking, reflected the idea of independence from society and even from the artist himself. Ultimately, such a paradigm signaled a major shift in the history of Western art: art was no longer about the portrayal of life but a source of life itself, as Hans Hofmann declared.44 The popularity of existentialist philosophy during the mid-twentieth century drew all aspects of culture, including art, into a worldview that embraced the relativity of truth claims and asserted in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of its leaders, the reality that man first of all exists, but the individual aspects of reality are uncertain and meaningless. The Abstract Expressionists came to advocate a return to a humane, utopian society that looked after “man’s real needs, basic wants, and desires,” as Robert Motherwell wrote in 1949.45 Modern politics, they believed, failed to uphold the dignity of the individual and the traditional artistic craft.

The time that members of the soon-to-be-called New York School spent working for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPAFAP) was crucial for the formation of their ideas about art and politics, both as individuals and as a group of loosely-allied artists. Before the Project was shut down in 1943, Pollock and others made a decisive split with many of the other painters involved. Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, said in an interview after her husband’s death that she and many of the artists working on the WPA project left in part because of the strong Communist influence that many of the artists were embracing. Art became more about illustration of political dogma rather than a self-sustaining discipline.46

The type of art commissioned by the WPA also spurred a negative reaction by the artists, who eventually viewed it as not dissimilar to Nazi or Soviet realism. Through an art confined to the depiction of contemporary American scenes and activities so that “everyone could understand it,” the artists reasoned their talent abused for nothing but the visual representation of the ruling class’s ideals. The Abstract Expressionists also believed the realistic depiction of nature was a reinforcement of the materialist consumer culture supported by Roosevelt in his New Deal rhetoric. Art critic and close friend of many of the artists Meyer Schapiro expressed this idea in a 1957 essay, “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art”:

[T]he personality is hardly present even in the operations of industrial planning or in management and trade. Standardized objects produced impersonally and in quantity establish no bond between user and maker ... [The] qualities of painting may be regarded as a means of affirming the individual in opposition to the contrary qualities of the ordinary experience of working and doing.47

Pollock later reacted very strongly against the style of Regionalist scene painting in which he was trained during his early years under Thomas Hart Benton.48 Benton’s American West portrayals, such as the early 1930s The Arts of Life in America mural series, were clearly absent in Pollock’s universal, non-geographic abstractions. Only stylistic influences from Regionalism remained with Pollock, most importantly his use of the curved line and a violent (although abstract) depiction of natural elements seen in his early paintings.49

It is necessary to address why, if Pollock did not favor placing his art in service of politics, he worked for the WPA for nearly five years. Nancy Jachec has pointed out that by 1950 the Abstract Expressionists were forced to regard many of their liberal political hopes as unattainable. In practice, it was either totalitarianism or American democracy. Although democracy was accompanied by the mass-production of capitalism, it at least maintained, in the words of a contributor to the Abstract Expressionist publications the Partisan Review and the Commentary, the ‘passion for human freedom and equality’ of concern to the artists.50 In what Jachec calls “tactics of despair,” the Abstract Expressionists, along with other former leftists, began to reform their ideas of Marxism to argue that democracy underpinned both socialism and capitalism. Ultimately, “Arguments for a socialist transformation of the relations of production were ... eclipsed by a larger fear of being free to produce at all.”51 Although Pollock himself gave no comment on why he chose to continue working for the WPA, perhaps his connection to these changes as an Abstract Expressionist explains his decision to do so.

Three major elements of Abstract Expressionism emerged during the years between 1938 and 1943. Most importantly, Pollock and his friends came to disapprove of any kind of label, classification, or concrete description of their work. Reinhardt’s desire to keep art “free of all meaning” shows this logic pushed to the extreme.52 Not even the artist could characterize his or her work to mean exactly this or that in order to prevent the application of an external label to a particular painting. When critics asked Pollock about his painting The She- Wolf (see Fig. 2), containing subject matter clearly inspired by an ancient Roman sculpture of the same title, he replied that he could not know how the painting came about. To attempt to explain the image “could only destroy it,” he explained.53 This thinking tied to a second important aspect of Abstract Expressionism, that is, its function as an anti-definitional art. As the artists applied negation and autonomy to their art, they isolated it from other fields of knowledge. Finally, they were forced to arrive at “art-for-art’s-sake,” as Reinhardt’s popular phrase went. According to David Craven, none of the Abstract Expressionists ever accepted this idea of art-for-art’s-sake, but he fails to point out that their rejection of labels caused them to get dangerously close to such a concept.54

Photograph of Pollock's work

Jackson Pollock said of his art when asked how the average person should examine it, “I think they should not look for, but look passively—and try to receive what the painting has to offer [as a thing in itself ] and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea [i.e. a label] of what they are to be looking for.”55 Pollock’s painting style represented a self-referential art that defied categorization perhaps more than any other Abstract Expressionist work. The chief reason contributing to this was Pollock’s use of the revolutionary “drip” style of painting at the height of his career (see Fig. 3). By allowing the paint to fall freely on the canvas without his conscious and deliberate stroking of the brush on its surface, he gave it the ability to drop as it may in the most independent way conceivable, short of using some kind of mechanical device. There still exists much controversy over how well Pollock could actually control his technique; here we are only concerned with his stylistic approach to painting, in which the paint had the possibility of total unrestraint. Through his painting technique he linked the concepts of autonomy and self-referentialism with the physical action so prominent among the Abstract Expressionists. As David Anfam observes, Pollock produced a style of art that could not be taken any further theoretically.56 It represented the ultimate in undefined, unbound expression.

The main success of Jackson Pollock’s political communication of Abstract Expressionist ideals can be seen in his creation of art as a unifying factor of humanity, use of negation to make a personal statement, and belief that art was its own referent. Pollock typified Abstract Expressionism’s antipolitic by creating an art that broke from social labels or political uses. This enabled him to explore themes of basic human nature and exemplify a political philosophy in which individuals were autonomous, and creative expression, rather than governmentled industry or economics, served as the glue for social bonds. Jung’s depth psychology and American radical leftist politics provided much of the intellectual framework in which Pollock evolved his craft.

Additionally, through their art, Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists critiqued Franklin Roosevelt’s promotion of government-funded initiatives exhibited in his New Deal programs heralded as America’s greatest boon. The collapse of orthodox Marxism under Josef Stalin helped give Abstract Expressionism an actively antipolitical stance, which Pollock embodied, even if he was unaware of it, through the development of an unrestricted “drip” painting form divorced from illustrative purposes. Pollock pioneered solutions to “the problems of contemporary painting” through using his art to frame the movements of humanity through time. His was an original and revolutionary creative form that introduced new ways of protesting existing political and social contexts to rediscover what it meant to be human.


1 The New York Times, June 13, 1943.
2 David Anfam. “Abstract Expressionism,” Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/subscriber/article/grove/art/T000252?q=%22abstract+expressionism%22&article_section=headwords&search=article&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit.
3 Marcia Epstein Allentuck, ed., John Graham’s System and Dialectics of Art (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 93, 95.
4Jackson Pollock, interview by William Wright, The Springs, Long Island, New York, late 1950, broadcast on radio station WERI, Westerly, R.I., 1951, in Pepe Karmel, ed., Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 20.
5 See, for example, Claude Cernuschi, Jackson Pollock: Meaning and Significance, (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 32.
6 Robert Motherwell, “Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part I,” Art News 66, no. 2 (April 1967): 65, in Dore Ashton and Joan Banach, eds., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 226.
7 Clement Greenberg, interview with author, 1981, quoted in T.J. Clark, “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism,” October 69 (Summer, 1994): 45; See, for example, Matthew Rampley, “Identity and Difference: Jackson Pollock and the Ideology of the Drip,” Oxford Art Journal 19, no. 2 (1996): 84, 87, 92. Pollock’s political ambiguity has led many art critics and scholars to suggest that he was everything from a “Goddamn Stalinist” (Greenberg) to an implicit supporter of capitalist ideals.
8 Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 31, 33.
9 Anna C. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 3-6. Chave believes the homogeneity of the New York School artists has been overestimated.
10 Nancy Jachec, “’The Space between Art and Political Action,’ Abstract Expressionism and Ethical Choice in Postwar America, 1945-1950,” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 2 (1991): 19.
11 Chave, Mark Rothko, 6-8.
12 Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). Leja uses the term “man” intentionally, arguing that the all-male New York School was primarily focused on male or masculine understanding.
13 Jachec, ‘Art and Political Action’: 22-23: Jachec describes the “root” of Abstract Expressionism as action (which was clearly an element of Pollock’s technique) that was inspired by the existentialist conception of individual feeling. This feeling was generated by contact with society but expressed a form of personal knowledge that contrasted sharply with ‘restrictive,’ objective knowledge such as that derived from science, the method upon which modern society was built; Robert Mothwell, “The Modern Painter’s World,” DYN 1, no. 6 (August 1944): 10, in Stephanie Terenzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 29: As Robert Motherwell expressed this idea in 1944, “The function of the modern artist is by definition the felt expression of modern reality…. The social condition of the modern world … is [seen in] the spiritual breakdown which followed the collapse of religion…. Science is not a view, but a method…. [I]t is [now] the artists who guard the spiritual in the modern world.”
14 Polcari, Abstract Expressionism, 43-44.
15 Ibid., 44.
16 Ibid., 45.
17 Ibid., 43.
18 Ibid., 240.
19 Anfam, “Abstract Expressionism,” 5.
20 Ibid., 250.
21 Jackson Pollock, “My Painting”, Possibilities, 1 (Winter 1947-48): 78-83; Berton Roueché, “Unframed Space”, The New Yorker 26, no. 24 (August 5, 1950): 16, in Karmel, Jackson Pollock, pp. 17-19. Pollock told his friend and critic Berton Roueché that an interviewer once criticized his paintings for having no beginning or end. Instead of taking offense, Pollock was quite pleased by his detractor’s comment.
22 Edward Lucie-Smith, Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1996), 191.
23 Pollock, “My Painting,” in Karmel, Jackson Pollock, 18.
24 Ad Reinhardt, “Abstract Art Refuses,” (1952), in Barbara Rose, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 50-51.
25 Ad Reinhardt, “On Negation,” (Unpublished, undated notes), in Ibid., 102. Reinhardt was perhaps the most extreme spokesman for the idea of negation.
26 Ad Reinhardt, “End,” (Unpublished, undated notes), in Ibid., 113.
27 See Donald Kuspit, “Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art,” in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985, ed., Maurice Tuchman (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), 317-319.
28 Robert Motherwell, “Modern Painter’s World”: 10, in Terenzio, Collected Writings, 29.
29 Robert Motherwell, “The New York School,” Delivered 27 October, 1950, Mid-Western Conference of the College Art Association, University of Louisville, KY, in Terenzio, The Collected Writings, 78.
30 Stephen Polcari, “Siqueiros and Pollock, Düsseldorf,” The Burlington Magazine 138, no. 1117 (April 1996): 273.
31 Robert Motherwell, “Jackson Pollock,” in Ashton, Writings of Robert Motherwell, 228.
32 Rampley, “Identity and Difference”: 88.
33 Cernuschi, Jackson Pollock, 39.
34 See The New York Times, April 17, 1940.
35 M. Rothko, A. Gottlieb, and B. Newman, “Statement of Principles,” (June 1940), quoted in Dore Ashton, “The Federation in Retrospect,” The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, http://www.fedart.org/about.htm.
36 John M. Thompson, A Vision Unfulfilled: Russia and the Soviet Union in the Twentieth Century (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1996), 254-55.
37 Ibid., 281; Craven, Abstract Expressionism, 46.
38 Craven, Abstract Expressionism, 46.
39 Anon, “Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire,” Arts and Architecture 61, no. 2 (February 1944): 14, in Karmel, Jackson Pollock, 16.
40 Jackson Pollock, interview by William Wright, in Ibid., 20.
41 Catherine M. Soussloff, “Jackson Pollock’s Post-Ritual Performance: Memories Arrested in Space,” TDR 48, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 70.
42 Polcari, “Siqueiros and Pollock”: 274.
43 Ibid.
44 William Fleming, Arts and Ideas, 9th Ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 632.
45 Robert Motherwell, “New York School,” in Terenzio, Collected Writings, 79.
46 Lee Krasner, interviewed by Bruce Glaser, “Jackson Pollock: An Interview with Lee Krasner,” Arts Magazine 41, no. 6 (April 1967): 36-39, in Karmel, Jackson Pollock, 27.
47 Meyer Schapiro, “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” Art News 56, no. 4 (Summer 1957): 36-42, accessed at http://www.artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=2403.
48 Cernuschi, Jackson Pollock, 20.
49 Ibid., 27.
50 Sidney Hook, “The Future of Socialism,” Partisan Review 14, no. 1 (January- February 1947): 25, quoted in Jachec, ‘Art and Political Action’: 24.
51 Jachec, ‘Art and Political Action’: 24, 26-27.
52 Cernushi, Jackson Pollock, 75.
53 Jackson Pollock, Untitled Statement, in Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene Victor Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, Vol. 4, (London: Yale University Press, 1978), 234.
54 Craven, Abstract Expressionism, 42.
55 Jackson Pollock, interview by William Wright, in Karmel, Jackson Pollock, 20.
56 Anfam, “Abstract Expressionism,” 8.


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“My Painting.” Possibilities 1 (Winter 1947-48): 78-83.

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Thompson, John M. A Vision Unfulfilled: Russia and the Soviet


Photo of Kyle Fisher  

Kyle Fisher is a 5th-year senior graduating in May 2010 with a degree in communication studies and a major in history. He became interested in modern art history and Jackson Pollock several years ago while taking Professor Eric Standley’s Foundations of Art and Design class. After graduation, Kyle hopes to return to his native Maryland to receive a graduate degree in teaching to teach middle school social studies. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, running, playing the guitar, and photography. Kyle would like to thank Dr. Mark Barrow (history) for his helpful comments and encouragement while writing the initial drafts of this paper in the spring of 2008