There's a movie just out that I have to see. It's about the life of Jackson Pollock, an artist perhaps unfamiliar to the average person. Critics have been lukewarm toward the film. Actor Ed Harris directed and played Pollock, and it's worth seeing for his work, they say. He was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actor category. Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Pollock's wife, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
If you have heard of Pollock, you may remember that he was famous in the 1950s for his bizarre technique of painting huge canvases fastened to the floor on which he dripped and dribbled paint, smeared it with his hands, and flung it by the bucket, dancing in a kind of ecstasy over his work.
He was an alcoholic, and he died in a car crash in 1956 at the age of 44. In spite of the controversy that plagued his career (Time magazine once called him Jack the Dripper), by the '60s, he was considered to be the most important painter in the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Pollock's contribution to the art world is not the reason I must see this movie, however. Rather, it's a belated tribute to him for teaching me a very important lesson a long time ago.
I had gone back to college in the mid-'60s. I was 30 and the mother of two small children and intended to finish the degree in art and English I'd started 10 years earlier. I fancied myself to be a pretty good artist. As it turned out, I had more talent for shooting my mouth off than wielding a paintbrush.
My art professor, fresh out of grad school himself, was showing the class slides of paintings done by contemporary American artists one day in Art History 101. A Jackson Pollock work popped onto the screen in the darkened room. I stared at it, seeing a mass of colored scribbles with no discernible images at all.
I muttered sarcastically, "That's a painting? It looks like scrambled eggs and brains to me."
The professor shot me a look that would have reduced me to ashes had I been sitting any closer. When class was dismissed, he called me to his desk. He fumbled through a pile of colored photos, and thrust one in my face. It was the Pollock painting I had ridiculed.
"I want you to do a series of black-and-white studies of this painting, demonstrating the form and structure in it," he said.
"But, but, there isn't any form and structure," I stammered.
"Do it," he said. "It's due in a week."
I took the picture home and started to work on what I believed to be a hopeless, cruel assignment. Anger and pride made me stick with it night after night producing failure after failure. Then, like somebody suddenly handed me a new pair of eyes, I saw it the imagery, shapes, the elusive structure I had sworn wasn't there.
I took my studies to class and deposited them triumphantly on my teacher's desk. He managed to crack a smile. I ended up with an A in Art History 101, but that wasn't all. My wrestling match with Jackson Pollock did more than change my attitude. My painting style changed from tedious, self-conscious, superficiality to freer, more passionate expression, albeit with skill and discipline, thanks to the help of my stern teacher. I began to grasp the meaning of abstraction. Moreover, I learned how to let go and live more tolerantly and openly.
Some 30 years later, I visited an art museum and stood in awe before a real-life Pollock painting much like the one that had so affected my life. It felt familiar, even after so many years. The "scribbles and dribbles" of vibrant colors danced and glowed, making the huge canvas seem alive and powerful.
Not at all like scrambled eggs and brains.
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