Art history likes to tell three stories about Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism:
- The story of him as a tortured genius who ultimately succumbed to his demons
- The story of how the CIA co-opted abstract expressionism as a tool against socialist realism during the Cold War
- Or the story of how Pollock’s work was influenced by primitivism and Native American art
All three stories have been told again and again, but it is the last one that might still be somewhat of a surprise to many, maybe more so in Germany than in the United States. The influence especially of Native American art runs deep in his work; from his early work in the 1930s up until the time of his death, it profoundly shaped his work both in terms of aesthetics and composition as well as in the way that he viewed and understood his art.
Pollock was not the only one. In the early decades of the 20th century, the interest in indigenous culture from all over the world was widespread among artists in the United States and in Europe. It was a reaction to the advancement of technology and science, the rise of fascism and to the horrors of the first world war, which many European artists experienced firsthand. In the United States, it was also a reaction to the Great Depression and in its later years to the cultural and political conservatism of the McCarthy era.
Indigenous cultures were seen as “primitive”, which for the modernists had a positive connotation: it stood for a culture that was not yet tainted by the technological and scientific advancements of modern life. Artists such as Barnett Newman, John D. Graham or Jackson Pollock also believed that it embodied a “hyper-spirituality” that held the key to unlocking one’s unconscious which they co-opted it to express their critique of the materialism, secularism and the focus on science in modern life and they thought that the “vitality, and spirituality of Indian life, as embodied in its art, could make a positive contribution to the America of the future.”1 This and primitive culture’s apparent intrinsic knowledge of the universe and the self were also recurring themes in the work of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung, whose theories were very popular in artistic and literary circles.
Pollock’s interest in indigenous art and culture can be traced back to his youth and continued into adulthood. He regularly visited museums or exhibitions of indigenous art and in New York, he often spoke of having witnessed Native American rituals as a boy in California.2 At the time of his death, his library included a number of books on the subject as well as titles on animism and shamanism. He was also a reader of Wolfgang Paalen’s surrealist magazine DYNand together with his brother Charles, he had purchased twelve volumes of the Bureau of American Ethnology’s annual reports (BAE reports for short) on Native American culture.3
These provided him with detailed descriptions, illustrated and photographs of rituals, ceremonies, myths, and beliefs. Pollock was also familiar with the writing of John D. Graham, the Russian born painter, and writer, who wrote extensively on the aesthetic and spiritual quality of Native American art. He greatly admired him and his work on indigenous art and abstraction as well as its presumed connection to the Jungian conceptive of the collective unconscious had a huge impact on Pollock.4
Pollock also studied the work of Picasso and Miró but his early work was largely shaped by the regionalism of his teacher and mentor at the Art Students League, Thomas Hart Benton. Throughout the 1930s, his work became more and more abstract until he finally arrived at his signature drip style of painting in 1940s. His fascination with Native American mythology and themes was visible throughout all of his career. His early still figurative paintings are filled with visual references to the mythology, symbolism, and imagery of various tribes and groups across the United States. These include, for example, the totems and masks of the northwest coast tribes, the Hopi kiva or “altars”, horse effigies that are reminiscent of those created by the Plains tribes as well as dancing figures. By the early 1940s Pollock had switched to almost complete abstraction but his fascination with indigenous culture still shines through: it was now all about movement and the rhythm with which he dripped and poured and flung the paint on to the canvas that was spread out on the floor, using wooden sticks or turkey basters instead of brushes. It seems as if painting had become a ritualistic act for him. Art historian W. Jackson Rushing has stated that Pollock’s affinity for Native American culture is most obvious in his early work, but I believe that it is in his later work where it is the most intense.
The shift toward total abstraction did not occur suddenly but was a process. It took him years of not only experimenting with different methods of application but also thinking through what it was that he wanted to say and how to get to that place. The shift happened during his most productive period as a painter. He was in a better place personally and had his drinking and mental health problems largely under control. In 1939, he had begun therapy with two Jungian psychoanalysts, and it must have had a positive influence on him – Pollock was not a good or very productive painter when drunk. Another significant event that most likely had a strong influence on the development of his drip technique was a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in 1941 to see the exhibition Indian Art of the United States, where he observed a group of Navajo shamans creating a sand painting. Sandpaintings were part of Navajo healing rituals meant to restore a patients’ health or rid him of ghosts or ugliness. This was probably the first time that he actually observed it, but he was most likely already familiar with them through the BAE reports that he owned. 5 Through his therapists, he might also have been aware of the connection between Jung and sand painting; Jung had traveled to New Mexico in 1925 and met a Hopi sandpainter6 while there, which is probably another reason why this appealed to Pollock. Jung’s theories played an important role in his artistic process and in the way that he understood it, though he was understandably not as open with this aspect of his work as he was with his interest in US American indigenous culture.
If we look at films of Pollock painting that were made in 1950 by the German-born photographer Hans Namuth, we can see how the techniques of the Native American sand painters were appropriated and adapted by him. In the film, we see first Pollock outside his studio in Springs in upstate New York putting on his shoes and beginning to work on what would become One: Number 31, 1950. He then begins to apply white paint to the canvas, that is spread out on the ground, applying it on top of an already dried layer of black paint. Cigarette hanging from his lips, he moves across the canvas from left to right and then back again, in a fluid movement, almost like dancing, while we hear his voice speak the following statement:
“I don’t work from drawings or color sketches. My painting is direct. I usually paint on the floor. I enjoy working on a large canvas. I feel more at home, more at ease, in a big area. Having the canvas on the floor, I feel nearer, more a part of the painting. This way I can work around it, work from all four sides and be in the painting. Similar to the Indian sand painters of the west. Sometimes I use a brush but prefer using a stick. Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can. I like to use a dripping, fluid paint. I also use sand, broken glass, pebbles, string, nails or other foreign matter. A method of painting is a natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement. When I am painting, I have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of the paint. There is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end. Sometimes I lose a painting. But I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image, because a painting a life of its own, I try to let it live.”
In his statement Pollock directly references Navajo sand painting but also Jungian psychoanalysis: when he describes painting as a “natural growth out of a need” he is referring the Jung’s idea of tapping in to one’s unconsciousness through automatic drawing and again when he says “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement. […] I can control the flow of paint.” In these sentences, Pollock is suggesting that he understands painting as a method of individuation. Individuation was the process through which the unconscious and the conscious were brought together to achieve wholeness of the self. Sandpaintings, in turn, were created to heal a sick patient, they were drawn from memory and tailored to the patient’s healing request. They were meant to restore the patients’ health and to exorcize ghosts, violence or ugliness.7 Pollock knew this from the BAE report on Navajo sand painting. That he read the report is obvious when he speaks of being in the painting; the report describes how the patient steps into the painting as part of the ritual. In his drip paintings, he brings these two things together; Jung’s belief that bringing the unconscious into a balanced relationship with conscious would uncover hidden meanings about the self and the healing quality that Native Americans ascribed to their sand paintings. Pollock was both shaman and patient, trying to heal himself.
When Pollock claimed to paint from the unconscious, we should not take this literally. The unconscious is not a concept or category that exists outside of social and historical conditions; it “[…] originates in social processes of identity production and confirmation.”8 Thus, what he declared a visual representation of his inner self, was shaped by the visual lexicon of Jungian psychoanalysis and Native American art and religion as seen through the eyes of his settler colonial identity.
Pollock and his peers might have had a positive attitude towards Native Americans and valued their art and mythology, but they still contributed to the development a one-dimensional view of indigenous people that was and is widespread in art and popular culture and was re-affirmed in their writing and their painting. There are several reasons as to why they were drawn to indigenous and Native American art in the first place. There was the view of “the Indian as a symbol of an unspoiled Arcadian past and as a critique of modern society.”9 Jung’s teachings also led them to understand “primitive” or indigenous art as “a manifestation of a universal stage of primordial consciousness that still existed in the contents of the unconscious mind.”10 This is especially obvious in Pollock’s appropriation of Native American culture.
Yet their cross-cultural borrowing cannot mainly be understood as an appreciation of Native American art and culture, it needs to first and foremost be seen as an example of the unequal power relations between white Euro-American and indigenous culture, in which one, the indigenous culture, is always constructed as primitive and one-dimensional. As Michael Leja says; “Naming the other ‘primitive’ is itself an exercise of power which historically has coincided with other forms of direct and indirect economic and political exploitation.”11 Native Americans at the time were still subject to settle colonial government practices that were aimed at forced assimilation and were not only culturally marginalized but also politically. That the Abstract Expressionists drew parallels between their outsider status as leftists and the persecution that they were subject to under McCarthyism and the marginalization of Native Americans as suggested by David Craven is possible, but it is more than problematic. To believe that these two things are similar is also patronizing and belittling towards indigenous cultures struggle for sovereignty.
To add insult to injury, while white Europeans and Americans appropriated indigenous art, spirituality, mythology, and religion as both a means of creative expression and to find a deeper meaning in their existence, Native Americans themselves were not free to express their culture as they wanted.12 This one-dimensional image of Native Americans, as part of a primitive culture, a concept that only existed in the imagination of white people in the first place, and wise shamans, was also the image through which the white American modernists asserted their own artistic identity as distinctly US American painters. This only reinforces the myth of the “vanishing” Indian that keeps Native Americans forever locked in a romanticized past: “Primitivism has also been consistently a component of identity production and self-analysis in Western cultures, processes which often depart from some construction of opposition to an Other that is thought of being as simpler, closer to nature, and historically anterior.”13 This needs to be finally put away with, not only to have a better understanding of Abstract Expressionism and the work of Jackson Pollock, but it would also be a step towards acknowledging how art and art history is complicit in shaping the stereotypical views of Native Americans that persist to this day and are not only filled with racist prejudice but also with a romanticized and mythologized view of them as people locked in to American history.
[Image: Jackson Pollock, Unformed Figure (1953), Collection Museum Ludwig. Foto: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln]
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- Rushing, p. 97
- Rushing, p. 169 (Native American Art and the New York School)
- The reports were first published in 1879 and included detailed descriptions of art, stories, songs, beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals of the indigenous people of the United States accompanied by illustrations and photographs. The reports were dedicated to the study of native language, culture, religion, and mythology as remnants of a more ‘barbaric’ age whose survival was threatened by the Indian Removal Act (1830) and the so-called ‘decline’ of native life in the face of the aggressive settlement of the west. The head of the bureau saw Native American culture as coming from the “higher stages of barbarism” and as a culture in decline that would soon disappear due to the advancement of (white) civilization. This racist view towards indigenous people and their culture was not shared by all involved in the BAE reports and despite this, they remain one of the most detailed and most meticulously researched accounts and descriptions of Native American culture in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.
- Firestone believes that it was either Graham who made Pollock aware of this connection and if not, it was certainly made by either of his psychoanalysts, Joseph Henderson and Violet Staub de Laszlo, both Jungians.
- Navajo sandpainting was described in the VIII. Annual Report (1886-87). What the author observed was most likely a Holyway or Evilway ceremony, both of which last nine days and include a sand painting ritual on the last two days. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbu818861887smit
- Sand painting is practiced by both the Navajo and the Hopi and Jung most likely was interested due to his interest in mandalas.
- Griffin-Pierce, p. 41
- Leja, p. 127
- Rushing, p. 97
- Leja, p. 53
- Certain ceremonies and rites were for the longest time forbidden to be practiced by the United States and Canadian government, because they were either though to be a threat or because they were thought to be too violent. Examples are the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance.
- Leja, p. 53