“Pollock” is a colossal word in art. Automatically it brings to mind the abstract drip-paintings of a disturbed, passionate alcoholic who drizzled paint in layers as he walked around huge canvases.

Despite his enduring fame, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) created his most defining works in only four years. Prior to 1947, he searched for a direction, often changing course. After 1950, he battled the emotions and demands accompanying art-world fame, leading to acute alcoholism and, in 1956 at age 44, his death. Yet in those short four years, he changed the course of art, some thought irrevocably, abandoning the most basic canons of art —- the easel for the floor and the brushstroke for the drip.

Jackson Pollock, American 1912-1956, Composition (White, Black, Blue and Red on White) 1948; Casein on paper, mounted on masonite, 32x40 inches
  • The New Orleans Museum of Art: Bequest of Victor K. Kiam, 77.300
  • Jackson Pollock, American 1912-1956, 'Composition (White, Black, Blue and Red on White)' 1948; Casein on paper, mounted on masonite, 32x40 inches

Within five years following his death, Pollock, thanks to a major spread in LIFE magazine and a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, was mythic. According to George Rodrigue, his teachers at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (1964-1967) spoke with reverence about Pollock and the “death of easel painting":

“The teachers were 10-15 years older than the students, and they had vivid recollections of the drip painting phenomenon. When I first arrived, I recall one teacher stating that following Pollock, he thought for a while that no artist again would walk up to a canvas on an easel and use a brush.”

Yet by the time Rodrigue reached art school in 1964, the students and teachers painted at easels again. Even Pollock tried to move on in the early 1950s, but his agent and the critics wouldn’t have it, and the work was ill-received.

Taking time with Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Taking time with Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Without studying Pollock, his art at first may appear simplistic, even child-like. Yet his paintings include a formula. Generally he dripped the darkest colors first and ended with white. He moved with both the drips and splashes in a deliberate pattern, resulting in canvases resembling shiny marble surfaces.

Years later, other artists apply paint using this same technique. George Rodrigue drips on the floor, on chrome pieces over Blue Dogs. Is this a tribute to Pollock? I asked.

“I don’t dare go that far,” he explained. “Rather I drip paint on both the background and the dog as a way of blending, of transitioning from the dog to the chrome, in the same way Hunt Slonem unifies his shapes and images with lines and cross-hatches.”

George Rodrigue, 2010
  • George Rodrigue, 2010

Sadly, Jackson Pollock suffered a short career dictated, perhaps near-bullied, by the art elite. This Abstract Expressionist, an American artist born in Cody, Wyoming, could not know his lasting contribution to the art world. Today, on what would have been his 100th birthday, his legacy enriches museum collections such as our own New Orleans Museum of Art, also, coincidentally, celebrating its centennial.

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

-for more by Wendy Rodrigue, visit “Musings of an Artist’s Wife” or find her on facebook