Was Jackson Pollock the Greatest Painter of the 20th Century?

Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock poses for his 1949 LIFE magazine article with the half-mocking headline, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"

Jackson Pollock drank.

He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food, compulsively, in fear and trembling.

I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking, but because he quit living.

That is how the story ends for Jackson Pollock, heart bursting, body cooling and forsaken in the wreckage of his Oldsmobile convertible.

Was Jackson Pollock the greatest painter of the 20th century?

Was his work the pinnacle of achievement of the modernist painters of his time?

These questions strike at the heart of post-modernism. And answering them may never be an easy task for any art historian.

Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming and moved to New York City in his late teens.

Shop now for Jackson Pollock art prints

He took art classes at the Art Students’ League in Manhattan. There he studied landscape and figurative drawing and oil painting under Thomas Hart Benton.

Pollock once said, “Benton was a powerful personality to go up against.”

Thomas Hart Benton was a renowned and internationally acclaimed landscape painter by the time Pollock arrived in New York City.

And Pollock’s work was very much influenced by Benton in his earlier, more formative years.

But Pollock would abandon Benton’s representational style in favor of Abstract Expressionism. He would follow in the footsteps of his friends, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns.

After some experimentation, Pollock finally developed and perfected his controversial method and style: the drip.

Dripping the paint from sticks and large brushes onto the canvas gave Pollock the direction that his work would take until his early death at age 44.

At the time, the drip was new and controversial.  It was heralded by New York City art critics as genius.

And Pollock’s career and place in art history was sealed.

Peggy Guggenheim was the first patron of Jackson Pollock, and represented him in her Manhattan

Jackson Pollock
Convergence by Jackson Pollock. Click the image above to get your art print reproduction of this work by Pollock.

She purchased Pollock and his wife, Edith Kravits, a home in the Hamptons in exchange for commissions from paintings that were sold in her gallery.

In 1949, LIFE magazine featured Pollock on the front cover with this now famous half-mocking headline: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

The question is still out and it haunts many art historians.

Even today, there is conflict among expert opinions.

Perhaps it will never be answered.

Let us know your thoughts about Pollock in the comments below.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. pamholl Pamela Holl Hunt

    Wow! So great to hear his thoughts about his work. I’ve seen this clip before but always with narrative voice overs. This is a revelation for me.
    Thank you!

    1. Gary Bolyer

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

  2. Jamy

    This is a great article with the exception of one very important detail.(I am aware this article is over a year old) Jackson Pollock was married to Lee Krasner. Not Edith Kravits. Lee Krasner was also a painter and played very important role in the evolution of abstract expressionism as well. She carried her own unique attributes, had a strong will and constantly evolved in her work. I believe it’s time Lee Krasner was given the credit she deserves.

  3. Ellen Hinson

    Sorry, but i don’t consider any modern abstract painters of the 20th century eligible to be considered the greatest painter of that century. He may have come up with new concepts and ideas of painting, but what is the meaning of these paintings? What will future mankind learn from such art? Since you asked ———

  4. Richard griego

    I just ordered the book about Jackson pollack and Thomas Hart benton, can’t wait to start reading it.

  5. Kathy

    No, Jackson Pollock is not the greatest painter of the 20th century! That title should go to Georgia O’Keeffe. Her art far surpasses his in its eloquent beauty. Although Pollock was instrumental in ushering in abstract expressionism as an innovative style during that era, his works are now overshadowed by postmodern painters, who seek their own unique artistic visions. Let’s not forget other painters, such as John Sloan and Pablo Picasso, who, like Georgia O’Keeffe, were just as influential in the art world during the 20th century.

  6. Kent Steine

    “We may not all agree all the time, but most people can intuitively see the value of a Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or William Bouguereau. And if people were not brainwashed, they would pretty much be able to see the actual truth about a canvas with disorganized
    globs of paint on it: that it is something which takes virtually no skill to make and lacks any genuine means of communication.”

    *excerpted from Frederick Ross’ keynote address to the Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists, February 7, 2014.

  7. My take away from Pollock was his philosophy: one must use the materials and thoughts of this day and not of yesterday to create art relevant in modern times. If all an artist is to be is to be compared to the past masters, what will his unique contribution be to his own time? An artist should always be the lone wolf to their perception in the innocence of the dictating of how or what to be in their own creation otherwise they become imitations of yesterday’s musings. Pollock life, long or short, as a speaking as for being a drunk: sobriety conceals what alcohol reveals, . . , as for an artist, and being an artist, isn’t that point? Are we all not here as artists to reveal what sobriety and society chooses to oppress? Many sober definitions that do not attempt to explore perceptions that are of chaos and serendipity of a child’s play miss the point: that all creativity is just intelligence of any genius merely having fun!

  8. Mike Alix

    Pollock was a Twentieth Century artist, a predominant one, insofar as he contributed to creating art as an environment. A web, a grid, a pattern, an expansion from the center toward the sides and imaginatively outward yet.

  9. Patricia Richards

    You don’t mention that Pollock killed a young woman when he crashed his car while drunk. Also that his work was derived from the work of Janel Sobel. Of course, Pollock being a man who created a mythology was the one who became famous.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.