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Rebel behind the American movement

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Rebel behind the American movement

Corinna Lotz

Jackson Pollock achieved iconic status after his tragic death in a car crash in 1956 when he became to painting what James Dean became to the cinema. He was a key figure in the American movement which marked a crucial switch by which New York replaced Paris as the pivotal centre of artistic innovation.

The physical impact of his work must to be seen to be appreciated. The Tate's show is a unique chance to see some of Pollock's greatest works, such as Lavender Mist, and Blue Poles, and the Mural from 1943.

The harsh opposites in Pollock's life and work are an elemental destructiveness combined with tremendous life and energy. He was a rebel from his early days at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, proud of his Communist sympathies. The revolutionary Mexican mural movement led by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros was a formative influence.

When the United States entered the war, Pollock was exempted from military service due to his drink problem. New York curator Kirk Varnedoe discusses the roots of Pollock's emotional and mental problems, which led to his eventually fatal alcoholism. He links the artist's pre-war crisis with disillusionment with the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

From the "external world" aesthetic found in the Mexican and North American mural movement of the 1930s, Pollock moved towards a more "internal" world, seeking to express the great themes of humanity life, death, pro-creation and birth. He found a way to do this at the end of 1943, at a moment when, as Varnedoe remarks, the future of modern art and culture appeared to be at an all-time low.

Pollock ranks as a 20th century artistic original. In his grand paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s he pioneered a new concept of pictorial space, created by the action of dripping and swirling paint in rhythmic patterns and varying layers on his canvases.

He was hostile to the notion that his art was simply spontaneous or came easily. In fact, he was not a naturally gifted painter or draughtsman. He found it extremely difficult to create images which would allow others to relate to his feelings.

He integrated what he learned from the Mexicans and from Picasso with his awareness of himself as a physical human being. The overwhelming message that comes across is a sense of infinite energy and vitality.

He felt an urgent need to express himself, to integrate the mental and emotional with the physical. He said he considered the painting itself to be indestructible, that he enabled it to come out of itself. "I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through," he said.

Jackson Pollock at the Tate Gallery, Millbank until 6 June. Admission 7.50/5. Open daily 1017.40. Saturday 1019.40.