Jackson Pollock (1912–1956): Enchanted Forest

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956): Enchanted Forest

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.”
— Jackson Pollock

About the artist

Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912. His family moved to Arizona and later to Los Angeles. While still in high school Pollock began to study painting. At the age of 18, Pollock came to New York to study at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton, who would influence and encourage him throughout the next decade.

During the Great Depression Pollock worked for a government program known as the WPA (Works Progress Administration) that provided him with a source of income and enabled him to devote himself to artistic development. Some of Pollock’s WPA paintings are now lost, but what survives illustrates the gradual emergence of a deeply personal pictorial language that included references to Native American motifs, myths, rituals, and his own dreams.

Pollock’s early work was influenced by Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. He embraced the Surrealists’ concept of the unconscious as the source of art. For a time Pollock worked with Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who in 1936 established a short-lived experimental workshop in New York. There Pollock first encountered the use of enamel paint and was encouraged to try unorthodox techniques such as pouring and flinging paint to achieve spontaneous effects.

Pollock had his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1943. In addition to showing well-known European artists, Guggenheim set out to discover American-born artists as well, helping legitimize several artists who would soon form the nucleus of the New York School. By the time her gallery closed in 1947, New York had replaced Paris as the center for modern art. Jackson Pollock’s imagery did not simply rework European precedents. His unique approach, using interlacing lines of dripped and poured paint, offered a new approach to making art that seemed both novel and completely American.
–Adapted from an essay by Lucy Flint Gohlke

About this work

Enchanted Forest, 1947

During the winter of 1946-47, Pollock instituted a new way of creating paintings. Moving around the unprimed canvas, which was laid flat on the wooden floor of his Long Island studio, Pollock poured, splattered, and dripped paint and enamel using his entire body in the process. This approach reinvented the methods and tools of traditional easel painting and came to be known as Action Painting, a style that demanded the total physical involvement of the artist. Pollock’s all-over style of painting avoided any points of emphasis producing intricate interlaced patterns that reflected Pollock’s gestures and movements around the canvas. His paints were thinned so they would flow more readily. Using sticks, basting syringes, and dried-out brushes, he worked from all sides, creating an edge-to-edge network of looping lines. Pollock explained, “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”

Titles for Pollock’s paintings were added once the work was complete, frequently at the suggestion of others. Enchanted Forest suggests a fable or myth while also referring to the tangled lines typical of the artist’s drip paintings. In this work Pollock leaves large areas of white amidst the network of moving lines. The palette is limited to gold, black, red, and white.

Pollock provided an articulate summation of himself and his work:

Technic is the result of a need—
new needs demand new technics—
total control—denial of the accident—
States of order—
organic intensity—
energy and motion made visible—
memories arrested in space, human needs and motives —
acceptance— [1]

Pollock’s innovations helped to establish international prestige for American art while altering the traditional methods of painting and placing a new emphasis on process rather than product.

Footnotes:
1. Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene Victor Thaw, eds. Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, p. 253.

View + Discuss

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
Enchanted Forest, 1947
Oil on canvas, 87 1/8 x 45 1/8 inches (221 x 115 cm)
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 76.2553
© 2005 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1. What do you see? Describe this work as fully as possible.

2. How do you think this painting was made? Describe the steps that the artist went through in the creation of this work.

3. Focus in on a single line within this painting. Stand up and re-create the movement that the artist might have used to make this line. What part or parts of your body did you need to use?

4. Which marks are in the background? Which are closest to the surface? How can you tell?

5. Take a look at the entire work. What words would you use to describe the mood or feeling it communicates. Why?

6. Pollock would usually title his works after they were completed. This work is titled Enchanted Forest. Does this seem like an appropriate title to you? Why? Why not? What title would you give to this painting?

Art Explorations

To emulate Pollock’s method of painting you will need the following supplies:

  • plastic sheeting to protect against spills;
  • unprimed canvas or cotton duck approximately 3 x 2 feet;
  • tempera or latex house paint in a few different colors, thinned with water to a consistency that will pour and flow;
  • wooden sticks, old stiff household brushes.

Pollock’s painting studio was located in a barn where he could boldly fling paint around. If you don’t have an empty barn or painting studio, experiment with Pollock’s technique outside. Cover a wide area of asphalt or pavement with a plastic tarpaulin to protect it from splatters. On top, lay a smaller piece of unprimed canvas or cotton duck purchased from an art supply or fabric store. Either tempera or latex house paints can be used. Limit your palette to no more than four colors (Pollock limited his palette to a few colors too). In plastic containers, mix the paint with water until it reaches a thick but flowing consistency. Using the wooden sticks and dried brushes as applicators, experiment with various ways of dripping, spattering, and pouring paint onto the surface. Try repeating a gesture several times as you move around the canvas trying to recreate Pollock’s all-over approach. Repeat with various colors layering the lines and inventing new gestures, movements, and rhythms as you go. When your painting is complete discuss the process. How did making a painting in this way change your ideas about Pollock’s work?

Although Pollock received great acclaim as an innovative and inventive artist, he also was severely criticized. Many were skeptical of his unconventional working methods and labeled him “Jack the Dripper.” Battle lines were drawn between Pollock’s “highbrow” supporters and his “lowbrow” detractors, who couldn’t understand why drips and spatters should be deemed art. In your classroom stage a debate, waging the most convincing arguments to support or assail Pollock’s art.

Additional Resources

Clark, Timothy J. “Jackson Pollock’s Abstraction.” Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945–1964. Serge Guilbaut, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990, pp. 172–238.

Landau, Ellen G., Jackson Pollock, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

O’Connor, Francis V., and Eugene Victor Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, 4 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Varnedoe, Kirk, and Pepe Karmel, eds., Jackson Pollock: New Approaches (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999.

Greenberg, Jan, and Jordan, Sandra, Action Jackson, Connecticut: Roaring Brook Press, Brookfield, 2002.

WEB SITES

The Pollock-Krasner Home and Study Center

National Gallery of Art

Vocabulary 

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM Movement in mid-20th-century painting that was primarily concerned with the spontaneous assertion of the individual through the act of painting. Generally, abstract expressionist art is without recognizable images. The abstract expressionist movement centered in New York City and is also called the New York school.

ACTION PAINTING A term coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to a style within abstract expressionism that focused on the physical qualities of paint and the gestures of the artist. Artists associated with this approach include Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline.

SURREALISM A 20th-century movement in art and literature that sought to express what is in the subconscious mind by depicting objects and events as seen in dreams. 

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