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Photo: Eduardo Calderón

Sea Change


Jackson Pollock

American, 1912-1956

Sea Change, 1947, was created at the beginning of Jackson Pollock's most iconic period: the "drip-period," from 1947 to 1950. The painting was owned by the art dealer and patron Peggy Guggenheim until its donation to SAM in 1958.

Jackson Pollock is perhaps the best known abstract expressionist painter from the 1940s and 1950s. His painterly style was labeled "action painting" in reference to the electric energy and movement contained in his canvases. His life and work were captured in Hans Namuth's classic 1951 film and featured in interviews published in Life (1949) and Time (1956) magazines. In 1942, Pollock was introduced to Peggy Guggenheim, who played a pivotal role in launching his career. Guggenheim offered Pollock a monthly stipend in exchange for works of art that she would own and exhibit in her gallery (his first show there, at Art of This Century, was in 1943). In 1945, Pollock married fellow painter Lee Krasner and moved to a cottage-studio in Springs, Long Island, where this work was created. He painted furiously for over a decade, altering the course of modern art in the process, before dying tragically in a car crash at age 44. His untimely death, coupled with his signature artistic achievement, catapulted him to mythical stardom.

Artist and commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, 57 7/8 x 44 1/8 in. (147 x 112.1 cm), Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim, 58.55, © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Signed: Signed on reverse "47 Jackson Pollock"

Provenance: The artist; to Art of this Century, New York / Collection of Peggy Guggenheim, New York and Venice (in stock of gallery when it closed, sent to Ms. Guggenheim in Venice by Betty Parsons, 1948); gift from Peggy Guggenheim to Seattle Art Museum, 1958

Now on view at Seattle Art Museum

I like to use dripping, fluid paint. I also use sand, broken glass, pebbles, string, nails or other foreign matter…. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.

Jackson Pollock speaking in Hans Namuth's film, Jackson Pollock, 1951

Pollock's Lasting Influence

Jackson Pollock's influence can be seen on all subsequent artistic developments, from movements in sculpture and photography to performance, video and installation art. His very personal application of paint on a canvas, the layered strands of fluid paint, the trancelike dance and the placing of the canvas on the studio floor have affected the way that later generations of artists think about the creative process and the creation of non-hierarchical compositions. By not giving any part of the canvas particular privileges but treating it as a unified field of vision, Pollock paved the way for numerous other approaches that began to appear in his wake.

The Legacy of Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock's' non-hierarchical compositions have influenced minimalist artists like Agnes Martin, Tony Smith and Carl André, whose works have the same elements in the middle as at any edge and use grids to guide the compositional structure. Despite minimalism's rise as a direct response to the expressive, gestural and emotionally subjective qualities of abstract expressionism, there are various Pollockian influences to consider in the work of these artists.

Martin, Smith and André all befriended abstract expressionists during their art studies and first artistic forays in New York City. Their work, although more reductive and impersonal than that of many of the abstract expressionists, is full of movement, rhythm and energy despite the geometrical constraints they imposed on themselves. Minimalism simply represented a fresh look at content, form and space. Much like Pollock's drip paintings, these works appear to have no beginning and no end but are an endless array of energy contained within the work's framework.

In particular, Agnes Martin's early grid compositions on paper, consisting of black, white and brown bands, explore an all-over rhythm of marks not dissimilar to Pollock's work. Martin embraces Taoist principles that are concerned with reaching a higher spiritual dimension through artistic creation, a parallel concern to the contemplative nature of Pollock's webs of paint.


Jackson Pollock

American, 1912-1956

Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912. During the late 1920s, his family moved to Arizona and later to California, where he attended Los Angeles Manual Arts High School. In 1930, he moved to live with his older brother in New York and dropped his first name (Paul) to be known only as "Jackson." He continued his art studies at the prestigious Art Students League under the supervision of the American mural painter Thomas Hart Benton, who became his mentor.

Pollock's style during the 1930s reflected Benton's influence aesthetically and in subject matter. His work of this time is infused with colorful contours and American rural iconography. His sources of influence widened when Pollock began looking at the work of Mexian muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. He probably first saw their work in 1936, in a New York May Day Parade, and in posters for Communist Party presidential candidates. At that time, Siqueiros was operating a workshop in New York. Many historians believe that studying these artists' large murals gave Pollock his first exposure to the spontaneous use of liquid paint, an experience that he later incorporated into his "drip-style" painting. During the years 1935-1943, Pollock, like many other artists of his generation, made a living working on diverse assignments for the government-funded Works Progress Administrations (WPA) Federal Works of Art Project.

In 1942, Pollock was introduced to Peggy Guggenheim and had his first one-man show at her gallery, Art of this Century, a year later. Despite the show's limited success in terms of sales, the media's attention was focused on the "newcomer," who critics such as Clement Greenberg hailed as the "best American painter." Greenberg was an advocate of American abstract expressionism, which he termed "American-Type Painting," and was responsible for furthering the careers of artists like Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still, a group he believed to be among the new generation of American painters who were championing modern art. In his groundbreaking essay "American-Type Painting," published in 1955, Greenberg argued that American painters were producing the most noteworthy avant-garde art in the world.

After his 1943 solo exhibition at Guggenheim's gallery and during the next decade, Pollock slowly arrived at his signature drip-style painting in his studio home in Springs, Long Island. He began by placing canvases on the studio floor and dripping paint as a substitute for brushstrokes. Pollock applied the paint rhythmically over the blank canvas with the help of a stick or brush end. Often he would also pour the paint straight and smear it on the canvas surface. Although the drip technique appears spontaneous and accidental—the result of an unconscious trance—researchers believe that much like Pollock's traditional brushwork, it is the result of a carefully choreographed study.

In 1952, the art critic and abstract-expressionist champion Harold Rosenberg referred to the canvas as the "arena in which to act," in reference to Pollock and other abstract expressionist artists' new style and attitude toward the canvas. Since then, Pollock's drip technique has become a lasting influence in contemporary art. In particular, the emphasis Pollock placed on creating a work of art through the artist's actions rather than the use of objects has influenced subsequent movements like Fluxus, performance and earth art.

Jackson Pollock  

European Influences

Blue (Moby Dick), ca. 1943, Jackson Pollock, American, 1912-1956, gouache and ink on composition board, 18 3/4 x 23 7/8 in.   Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan. © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  

American Influences on Jackson Pollock

Muralism and Thomas Hart Benton

In 1938, Jackson Pollock spent several months in the hospital undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction. During this time he became interested in C.J. Jung's psychological analysis, which he began to integrate into his art. In addition, he familiarized himself with John Graham's theories regarding the unconscious, the mythical and the symbolic in art. These influences permeated Pollock's works during the early 1940s.

Also in the 1940s, Pollock began to use psychotherapeutic analysis in his art, creating highly symbolic and imaginary works that reflect his personal development during these years. His professional relationship with muralist Thomas Hart Benton afforded Pollock the opportunity to immerse himself in his deep search for his American roots. Benton's work is full of American rural symbolism and iconography.

The Arts of Life in America: Arts of the West, 1932, Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889-1975, egg tempera and oil glaze on linen, 93 3/4 x 159 1/2 in.   New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT, Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1953.21. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY  

Native American (Navajo) Sand Paintings

In conjunction with his mural work and in an effort to explore his American roots, Pollock was attracted to the expressive qualities of Native American—specifically Navajo—sand paintings, which he saw for the first time as a young child growing up in Arizona. Pollock often described how he enjoyed the immediacy of these works, the way the colored sand is molded directly with the artist's hands or by using sticks. In addition, the healing and harmonious feelings that emanate from these works, which are often created with medicinal or therapeutic purposes in mind, were very appealing to the artist. In his own drip-paintings, Pollock emulated the sense of "being one" with the work by applying fluid paint without prior study on a canvas that was placed on the floor instead of an easel. He chose to work with fluid paint because it allowed his creativity to flow directly from the swirling stick onto the canvas. Pollock was interested in the way that the medium and his technique allowed him to experience the work of art in a much more inclusive way. Moreover, Pollock was intent on creating a sense of enveloping space in his work that makes viewers feel as though they are "in the canvas" despite the flatness of the picture frame.

"Alhkidokihi - Navaho": One of the four elaborate dry-paintings or sand altars employed in the rites of the Mountain Chant, a Navaho medicine ceremony of nine days' duration, 1907, Edward S. Curtis, American, 1868-1952, photogravure with brown ink, 10 1/2 x 16 7/8 in.   Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian," 2003  

Pollock and Abstract Expressionism

Abstract expressionism is often defined as an "attitude" adopted by a diverse group of artists rather than a movement defined by a unique style. The term was coined by the art critic Robert Coates in the New Yorker in 1946. Pollock befriended a number of diverse artists, including Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Hans Hofmann. Each artist had a distinct aesthetic approach and yet all were grouped and labeled by critics as abstract expressionists. Furthermore, within this group was a subdivision: the so-called "New York school" of artists. Ironically, the majority of these artists, with the exception of Pollock, were of immigrant origins and born outside the United States. Additionally, neither de Kooning, Gorky nor Pollock, considered by many to be the preeminent representatives of the New York school of abstract expressionism, were native New Yorkers. However, the major art galleries that exhibited these artists' work, like the Stable Gallery and the Betty Parsons Gallery, were in New York City, as were art critics Robert Coates, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, who championed and authenticated the movement's existence.

In his mature style Pollock used of a variety of mediums, anything from cigarette butts to threads, sand and pebbles, to create a greater consistency and texture and add a sculptural quality to the canvas' surface. He made a web from colored liquid paint, creating an illusion of infinite depth in which is embedded a powerful message of freedom and sovereignty of spirit. Moreover, the web of lines and swirls advance and recess at the same time, creating a movement that is rhythmically contained but that can also appear to leave the canvas. As seen in Sea Change, 1947, Pollock's work takes on a life of its own and changes with the mood of the viewer and the lighting in which the painting is displayed. There is always more beneath the surface.

Number 20, 1949, Jackson Pollock, 2002.66   © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation  


Michael Darling describes Sea Change by Jackson Pollock