We've all got them. Stashed away in the back of some closet, or the bottom of some box stashed away in the back of some closet, or perhaps in a bank safe deposit box--what we jokingly refer to as our "early work." We have saved it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which may be for when we need a good laugh. Perhaps too, we've saved them for sentimental reasons, or to look back upon to chart our progress as artists; all of which are perfectly valid, practical reasons to have saved some of our first paintings, drawings, photos, etc. And for some of us, they've been saved simply because no one would buy them or even wanted them. However buried deep in the back of our minds, maybe in our subconscious, is the persistent thought that maybe, just maybe, soon as our obituary hits the streets (or perhaps today, the Internet), museums all over the country will be calling our survivors, wishing to acquire a piece of our "early work" to flesh out their collections and give their exhibits "perspective." I'm exaggerating of course, but the point is these pieces do, in fact, do just that.
Take Jackson Pollock for example. The man died on August, 20, 1956, in a smash-up, while speeding his convertible down a backroad toward his farm near East Hampton, New York, located out on the eastern end of Long Island. A heavy drinker, he was no doubt drunk. He was 44. The next day, hardly before the body was cold, his paintings doubled in value, whether hanging on museum walls or still spread out across the paint-splattered floor of his studio. His name and his work were not quite "household" at the times, but now are so familiar just the mention of them brings vividly to mind the colourful, controlled, rhythmic gyrations of his body as he dripped, slung, and splattered paint over his gigantic canvases with an instinctive harmony of colour, line, and mass that today makes his work impossible to forge. If anyone else tries it, the results look like spaghetti with a bad marinara sauce.
Having died in his prime, Pollock, like Marilyn Monroe or Jack Kennedy who came later, he became an icon, more image than living figure. And being an artist, Pollock's work therefore is also frozen in our minds as if it all erupted at once in a single nightmarish jag of creative frenzy. We all know it didn't happen that way but by the same token, few if any of us can bring to mind a single image from Pollock's "early work." History tells us he was a student of Thomas Hart Benton during Benton's tenure at the Art Students League in the 1930s after he ran away from home at the tender age of sixteen to study art. In fact, Benton used Pollock as a model for the harmonica player in his 1934 Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. One of Pollock's earliest, "school boy" works, Going West from 1934, has some of the swirling masses of Benton's work but less of his dynamic realism. It's more abstract, yet recalls the frontier heritage of Pollock's Wyoming home. Pollock's sketchbook from the period contains nearly 500 drawings from the historic masterpieces Benton required his students to study. With all its planar dynamism, it is today, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As a hungry young artist, Pollock's late 1930s Flame though still done with a brush and still quite modest in size, shows a further movement in the direction of his classic work. His 1941 Bird shows the influence of Mexican muralists. And Orange Head, from the same period, vividly details his nervous breakdown and subsequent Jungian (Carl Jung) psychotherapy. It also defines his interest in Picasso's iconographic imagery. During the war years, we see Pollock's work being influenced by Miró's linear dream works as seen in Stenographic Figure. His 1943 She Wolf illustrates an interest in Palaeolithic cave painting. And finally (he's moving quickly now), in his 1943 Guardians of the Secret, the first seminal peek at his mature style as he synthesises all this into a daring, wall-size composition packed with archaic forms and his hallmark swirls of dripped paint first seeing the light of day. His Gothic from 1944 and his Shimmering Substance find him immerse in totally non-representational work by the end of the war.
In 1950, Pollock had his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City. It was a smashing critical success--one of the high-water marks of the entire Abstract Expressionist period. Yet only one painting sold, Pollock's No. 1 (1950), Lavender Mist. Despite this, both his mature style and his career had arrived. For the next six years, Pollock was the darling of Peggy Guggenheim, Harold Rosenblum, and the whole New York art world as he lived up to his "Jack the Dripper" image with all the hard drinking, hard living, hard painting, hard edged wilfulness he possessed. And by 1956, his early death was as predictable as his work had become. But were it not for the few sparse castaway efforts snapped up by museums in the weeks and months after his tragic demise, we would know little more about where this man and his work came from beyond the name of his hometown, Cody, Wyoming.