The Influence of Native American Art on the Works of Jackson Pollock

Paul Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was a well-known American artist who was influential in abstract and expressionist art. Although his short personal life, wrought with alcoholism and perhaps bipolar disorder, was arduous, his particular painting techniques, deemed to be drawn from Native American art, appeared effortless. Many critics agree that Pollock was unmistakably one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. To this day, his enigmatic work continues to be admired, studied, and analyzed by art students, critics, and enthusiasts.Art EducationPollock received a rather traditional art education at the Manual Arts High school in Los Angeles and later at the Art Students League in New York, with his brother, under the direction of Thomas Hart Benton. However, he soon strayed from the conventional and delved into his own unique forms of artistic expression. Having grown up in Arizona, Pollock had an intrinsic understanding of Native American art and culture that would prove to be career-altering exposure for this young artist.Art Techniques and MediaDuring the 1940s, Jackson Pollock’s techniques changed dramatically after he witnessed Native American Indian sand painting demonstrations at The Museum of Modern Art. Learning that Indian medicine men sprinkled colorful sands onto surfaces in a seemingly random and somewhat trance-like way, Pollock began to formulate a similar technique which he would later refer to as the “dripping method.”Pollock’s process consisted of pouring, flinging, and dripping paint onto a canvas on the ground while simultaneously circling the piece in a dance-like movement. The dance was never complete until the painting had revealed itself, at which point the artist would stop abruptly and announce that the masterpiece was finished. Because of his non-conventional techniques, Pollock came to be known as “Jack the Dripper.”Jackson Pollock’s media were about as varied as his methods. Trading in traditional paint brushes for all sorts of household items such as utensils and even sticks, Pollock experimented with the effects of each tool. He often found himself on the floor with his work, a position he came to prefer as he believed it fostered a certain intimacy between art and artist.Native American InfluencesAlthough Pollock never admitted an intentional imitation or following of Native American art, he did concede that any similarities were probably a result of his “early memories and enthusiasms.” Without doubt, similarities do exist. In addition to the methodology he adapted from the Indian medicine men of the West, Pollock expressed an interest in primitive subject matter akin to much of what is seen in traditional Native American art (i.e. birth, life cycles, nature, and animals). This symbolism is perhaps most apparent in his 1943 painting entitled ‘Guardians of the Secret’.Although ‘Guardians of the Secret’ is clearly abstract, as all of Pollock’s paintings are to some extent, some representational images in the composition are worthy of mention. These images appear to be two large guards, resembling totem poles, standing on opposite sides of a rectangular image which seems to be a painting within the painting. Some critics have suggested that this centerpiece is in fact “the secret” in question. Art analysts have also drawn the connection between this work of art and Pollock’s Native American influences since Indian sand paintings were often considered sacred and guarded in much the same way as the inner-painting in the ‘Guardians of the Secret’ is protected. The interpretation would suggest that the secret in the painting was Pollock’s artistic techniques embodied in the inner painting, but this may be an oversimplification of the message Pollock was trying to convey. Perhaps the inner painting-an overwhelmingly abstract piece with only one visible representational scheme appearing as a hieroglyph or code of sorts-points to something much more than Pollock’s artistic methods. If indeed Pollock intended that the image resemble an Indian sand-painting, then he undoubtedly meant for the message to be a profound one.Art critics will most likely continue to speculate as to the true meaning behind ‘Guardians of the Secret’. Since Jackson Pollock himself deferred to the painting, not the artist, as the controlling force behind the art, it could be that not even he knew the message that is guarded so intently. If the artist did know the secret, it was unfortunately buried with him in 1956 when he succumbed to his alcoholism in a one-car accident at the young age of 44.

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