We look at “Jack The Dripper”, one of the best-rated painters on the auction scene. New proof of the dominance of American artists on the art market. Shows and hammer blows!
Jackson Pollock was born on 28 January 1912 in Cody (Wyoming), the youngest of five siblings. He was affected by the immense landscapes of the American West where Amerindian culture is still visible — he would take part in rituals from a distance in the 1920s. Between 1912 and 1928, the Pollocks moved eight times. The family had trouble making ends meet and alcoholism took a toll.
Jackson Pollock didn’t have much success at school either. He didn’t finish secondary school, and was expelled from Manual Arts High School for criticising the teaching methods. Open to Marxist ideas, he appreciated mural art and along with his brothers, discovered the frescoes of José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College (California) in 1930. He enrolled at the Art Students League of New York, where he followed Thomas Hart Benton’s class and met Orozco.
During the crisis, Roosevelt’s New Deal instigated the Federal Art Project to offer financial support to artists. As part of this programme, orders for his frescoes multiplied, but Pollock was excluded from the Project because of absenteeism. At the end of 1937, Jackson Pollock went into rehab and started therapy — the first in a long series — before being rehired for the Project until 1942 in its “easel-painting” section. A delicious touch of irony for the man who, as of 1947, would lay canvases on the ground to perfect his famous dripping technique. Jackson Pollock was passionate about Amerindian art, the sand paintings of the Navajos, the Kachinas, the Hopis, and so on. He had the opportunity to fine-tune his knowledge at the “Indian Art of the United States” exhibition at the MoMA in 1941. He was particularly touched by the Navajo paintings, executed on the ground during rituals.
In spring 1943, Jackson Pollock showed Stenographic Figure at the Peggy Guggenheim gallery, The Arts of this Century. The painting was lauded by a jury made up of Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney — the future director of the painting and sculpture section at the MoMA. This urged Peggy Guggenheim to pay him a monthly stipend of $150 and to organise a few exhibitions.
In 1945, Jackson Pollock married painter Lee Krasner. She would have a decisive impact on his career and the promotion of his work. They moved into a former farm in Springs (East Hampton, New York State) where Jackson Pollock worked on his pouring and dripping techniques on paintings that Clement Greenberg described as “all over”. From 1948, Jackson Pollock temporarily stopped titling his paintings and only designated them by numbers.
Recognition came in the 1950s. Pollock was one of the representatives of the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1951. Photographer Hans Namuth visited his studio to take a series of photographs, then made two films. He continued to experiment widely: using syringes and Indian ink; trying out layer effects with thick and flowing paints, etc. “Modern art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age we’re living in… My opinion is that new needs need new techniques.” He produced little but constantly looked for newness, namely supported by his new gallerist Sidney Janis. On 11 August 1956, Jackson Pollock died in a car accident.
Pollock’s international renown — he was the first abstract expressionist to become famous — is inseparable from New York’s emergence as the world capital of art after the war. It was the savvy blend of commercial, institutional and critical coverage — supported overseas by organisations such as the Congrès pour la Liberté de la Culture (Paris), which received funds from the CIA via fictional foundations — that endowed abstract expressionism with its noble reputation.
Five MoMA shows
The figures speak for themselves. Since 1943, Jackson Pollock has been shown in over 450 collective exhibitions and 70 monographic ones. The painter is widely displayed in institutions, which make up three-quarters of his appearances.
His first large-scale exhibition was at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1945, closely followed by a second solo exhibition at the SFMoMA (San Francisco) in the same year. In 1956, the MoMA hosted its first show of his work — out of a set of five (1967, 1980, 1998 and 2015) —, followed in 1958 by his first exhibition outside the United States, at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam).
Recent events thus include the 2015 Jackson Pollock show at the MoMA, “Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954”, featuring around fifty works from the museum’s collections. In the same year, “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” at the Tate Liverpool took the unusual angle of focusing on his black pourings, produced over a relatively short period, from 1947 to 1953, his best-known years. In 2011, “Jackson Pollock: A Centennial Retrospective” opened at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art (Nagoya), then the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo (MOMAT). This was the painter’s first retrospective in Japan. In 2008, the Pinacothèque de Paris welcomed “Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme”, analysing the complex links between the painter, shamanism and Amerindian art.
Not surprisingly, it is next to his fellow abstract expressionists, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, that Jackson Pollock is most often seen. He is also frequently displayed alongside one of his greatest inspirations, Pablo Picasso.
In terms of galleries, Jackson Pollock has mainly been shown in the spaces of Washburn, Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, Jason McCoy, Michael Rosenfeld and Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century.
The rhythm of his exhibitions blatantly intensified in the second half of the 1990s. Around two exhibitions per year showed the painter’s work in the 1980s and at the start of the 1990s, with the figure climbing to an average of five per year between 1995 and 2000, then going over 20 a year since 2005.
This boom began primarily in the United States. The country has hosted 57 % of Jackson Pollock exhibitions — with over 40 % of these exhibitions being held in New York. The most active institutions are the MoMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Parrish Art Museum.
Naturally, the press echoes this growing institutional presence. In the 1990s, some 340 articles were published about the artist every year. Since 2005, an average of over 2,200 articles have been published every year. One quarter of these are published in the United States, followed by Great Britain (10 %), Germany (6 %) and Australia (4.5 %). The journalists writing the most prolifically on Pollock are Kenneth Baker (The Telegraph), Roberta Smith (The New York Times), Kelly Crow (Dow Jones) and Christopher Knight (Los Angeles Times).
When Ken Griffin set a private-sale record
Today, the popularity of abstract expressionists attests to the hegemony of American artists on the market. Many works by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Sam Francis go over the $10 million mark at auctions. As far as Pollock goes, this symbolic mark has been exceeded nine times.
The first time, in 2004, Christie’s sold Number 12 (1949) for $10.4 million. But if we’re talking about fat years for Jackson Pollock’s auction results, then 2013 deserves a mention. This was the year when three works went over the $10 million mark. The New York May sales recorded two instances: first, when Sotheby’s sold The Blue Unconscious (1946) for $18.5 million, albeit below the low estimate of $20 million. The next day, Christie’s sold Number 19 (1948) for $52 million, well over the high estimate of $35 million. This figure still stands as the auction record for a work by the artist.
In May 2014, Christie’s offered for sale Number 5 (Elegant Lady). This 1951 work is a rare late production by Jackson Pollock, revealing his last, more minimalist pictorial directions: colour gives way to black, traits are rarer and sparser. The painting went for $10 million.
Out of Jackson Pollock’s 50 best auction sales, 49 took place in New York — with all 50 overseen by either Christie’s or Sotheby’s. The United States thus makes up 86 % of Pollock’s auction market in terms of volume, and nearly 100 % in terms of value. Christie’s and Sotheby’s literally share the artist’s market. While the two houses have only sold two-thirds of the artist’s lots, they have swallowed up nearly all of his turnover. Jackson Pollock did not produce a great deal and he died prematurely. As a consequence of his rarity, few works go on sale — fewer than fifteen lots per year since 2005 — a figure that has risen slightly.
Outside of auction houses, Jackson Pollock is just as popular. In November 2006, a private sale of Number 5, painted in 1948, reaped $140 million, and for a time, was the art market’s highest transaction. Bettering this, in February 2016, collector Ken Griffin bought two works for $500 million, setting a new record for a private sale. The works in question were two expressionist paintings: one by Willem de Kooning — Interchange (1955), bought for $300 million — and Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A (1948), bought for $200 million.
It comes as no surprise that the artist’s most sought-after years cover the period 1947-1951, the era when he carried out his dripping and pouring research, at that time largely supported by the influential Clement Greenberg. Without his talent being called into question, Jackson Pollock is a new example of the United States’ hegemony in the art world… and the country’s capacity to promote its artists.
“The Figurative Pollock”, until 22 January 2017. Kunstmuseum Basel, new building, St. Alban-Graben 20, Basel, Switzerland. www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch
“’When you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge,’ Jackson Pollock said in a famous conversation with Selden Rodman in 1956. Yet the American painter is actually best known for his abstract drip paintings. Far fewer people are familiar with Pollock’s extensive earlier figurative oeuvre and the figurative paintings that grew out of the dripping period. Reframing our perspective on he artist’s creative output, the grand special exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel focuses on the figurative aspect of his work in order to pioneer a new perspective on his oeuvre, which spans almost three decades.”
Nina Zimmer, exhibition curator