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?”

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.

He took art classes at the Art Students’ League in Manhattan. There he studied landscape and figurative drawing and 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 gallery.  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.



  1. 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!

  2. 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. 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 ———

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