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Tag Archives: American Art

Not that Pollock himself was bipolar (although some observers think he might have been). He was a serious alcoholic, but the bipolar thing is pure speculation at this point. No, I’m taking about the way Pollock seems to polarize discussions about art as soon as his name is brought up. People seem to either praise his work effusively or say something along the lines of “Oh my God, does THAT suck!” Not much middle ground there.

It’s this aspect of Pollock’s legacy that Mat Gleason discusses in his recent offering on Huffington Post commemorating the artist’s 100th birthday. Gleason, founder of the Coagula Journal, is his usual hip and thought provoking self and he raises issues about the art universe that I, as an outsider, think about all the time.

I tend to come down on the “Pollock Sucks” side of the equation.  I think his career was the product of luck and timing, coupled with a great deal of promotion. He could actually paint in a representational style, as Going West clearly indicates. but abandoned this style to pursue increasingly abstracted forms.

Going West (Jackson Pollock: 1934)

His career really didn’t take off, though, until after World War II By then he had started producing his now-famous abstractions by pouring, dripping, and spattering paint on canvas. It didn’t hurt that he was more or less adopted by socialite/art collector Peggy Guggenheim. It was very helpful that some of the era’s most influential art critics raved about his work and helped advance the cause of Abstract Expressionism as America shook off the chains of European convention and boldly explored a new brand of creativity.  It has even been alleged that  the Central Intelligence Agency provided covert support for the Expressionists as a part of some Cold War effort to show the world how free America was.

Killing himself in a drunken car wreck in 1956, at the height of his popularity, was icing on that big Public Relations cake. America never seems to stop loving a dead celebrity.

Regardless of how you feel about Pollock’s work, he’s a fixture in American art history. Museums all over the world own Pollocks. Even the Iranians have one.

Number 1, 1950 (Jackson Pollock: 1950)

I doubt that real Art People are going to care much what I think, nor should they. Gleason’s right: it doesn’t matter so much whether you think Pollock is America’s greatest creative genius or firmly believe that your three-year-old kid could paint just as well. He gets us talking about art. That’s a good thing.



The other day, I posted about artist Ben Shahn, who was as American an artist as I can imagine even though he was born in Lithuania. Today, I’m going to talk about James Abbott McNeil Whistler, who was born on this day in 1834. Whistler’s trajectory was exactly the opposite of Shahn’s; he was born in Massachusetts but acquired most of his training and lived most of his life in France and England, even going to the extreme of denying his American birth, preferring instead to claim that he was born in Russia. His influences were European, his patrons were European, nevertheless, we claim Whistler as an American artist and count his most famous painting, Whistler’s Mother (more accurately known as Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), among America’s iconic paintings.

Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (James Abbot McNeil Whistler - 1871)

The painting is seen by many as stirring and timeless representation of motherhood. I’m not seeing it. Were it not for the title, I would challenge anyone to point out what, if anything, is motherly about this image. It’s an old women sitting in a chair, painted in profile. She could as easily be a spinster or the mother of 10. Nothing about this image sorts this out for us. That didn’t stop anyone from assigning whatever meaning they wanted, and Motherhood was the meaning they liked best. When the US Postal Service (then known as the Post Office Department) went looking for an image to commemorate Motherhood in 1934, this is the one they chose.

Motherhood Commemorative Stamp of 1934

The bigger question, in my mind, is why have we been so quick to to embrace Whistler as an AMERICAN painter. It’s true that in Whistler’s day there was arguably no truly American art. Just about every notable American artist of the period, and well up into the 20th Century, went overseas for training, most often to Paris, and returned home afterwards. Even the most “American” art of the 19th Century, like the Hudson River School, was a hybrid of American and European influences, with the visual part decidedly European. The American art of the early 20th century, like the Ashcan School and the constellation of painters that coalesced around Alfred Stieglitz, maintained those strong ties to Europe, with Georgia O’Keeffe being a notable exception to the rule.

Conventions of Art History aside, Whistler was no American artist. The same can be said of Mary Cassatt, who’s path was remarkably similar to Whistler’s but who is also frequently cited as an “American”. This is not to denigrate the work of either artist or minimize our debt to our European cousins, but the very best things about American art are borne of the American Experience. I mean only to suggest that our art heritage might be better served if we spent more time celebrating people like Shahn, or photographers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, or painters like O’Keeffe, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper. They are among those truly American artists who, regardless of where the came from or where they were trained, brought the quintessence of America into our visual consciousness.