Jackson Pollock’s First Love Was Sculpture, Not Painting
Jackson Pollock’s status as a household name hinges on the radical Abstract Expressionist paintings he made between 1946 and 1952—particularly the image of the artist working, hunched over in his studio, flinging paint from a bucket onto a massive canvas on the floor.
But the AbEx master also had a little-known penchant for sculpting, a medium he was enamored with from the very start of his whirlwind career. Though he’s only known to have made a dozen three-dimensional works in his lifetime (and only six remain today), Pollock was deeply invested in his sculpting practice—in fact, it’s likely how he made the final works of his life.
Pollock’s love affair with sculpture began in a high school classroom in Los Angeles in 1930, when he enrolled in a clay-modeling course. Soon afterwards, the budding 18-year-old artist took off to New York in hopes of pursuing an artistic career. His childhood friend and fellow artist Tony Smith later recalled the reason for Pollock’s move: “He had wanted to become a great sculptor like Michelangelo.”
Jackson Pollock, Stone Head, c. 1930-33. © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Jason McCoy Gallery.
He took classes in clay modeling and stone carving in Greenwich Village, studying under the sculptor Ahron Ben-Shmuel. There, he practiced “direct carving”—a technique pioneered by Constantin Brancusi some 25 years earlier, in which artists cut into a block of stone without the guidance of a preparatory drawing or model. These studies resulted in Pollock’s first known sculpture, Untitled (1930–33), a four-inch lump of black basalt that the young artist carved into a mask-like head. In his later splatter paintings, he would similarly rely on chance and spontaneity—a method likely informed by his sculpting lessons from these early years.
By 1933, Pollock was so enamored with sculpture that he stopped going to other classes he was enrolled in. He went so far as to abandon his paintbrush for roughly a year. “Cutting in stone holds my interest deeply,” he wrote in a letter to his father. “I like it better than painting.”
Pollock, now in his early twenties, began to integrate himself even further into the New York sculpting community. He studied under the figural sculptor Robert Laurent at the influential Art Students League, and, according to art historian Eileen Costello, started experimenting with wax in 1938 while completing a mural for the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.
Sculpting took on an even more intimate role for Pollock that year, when his heavy drinking landed him in a treatment center for alcoholism. Part of the program involved therapeutic artmaking of any sort, but he chose to focus solely on sculpture. His only surviving work from the summer of 1938, an 18-inch-wide circular copper relief, features several nude, intertwining muscular bodies; it is one of Pollock’s most blatantly figurative works.
By the 1940s, however, Pollock turned his attention towards painting again, largely to address what he saw as “the problems of modern painting”: too much reliance on the easel, on idleness, on tradition. Painting was a dying form, he wrote in 1947—a year after he arrived at his signature drip painting method and two years before LIFE magazine posed the rather leading question: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
Thus, Pollock’s sculptural output was put on pause for nearly a decade. The large-scale paintings that made him famous had little in common with his sculptural work, at least visually: They were big, messy, abstract, and layered with color. Pollock’s penchant at this time for things both gigantic and multicolored seem to explain his prolonged break from sculpting, a practice he would resume only after relocating to Long Island in 1945 with his wife, fellow artist Lee Krasner.
Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956. © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.
The Hamptons promised not only peace and quiet, but something else especially appealing to Pollock: space. “One of the reasons for our move,” Krasner recalled, “was that Jackson wanted to do sculpture.” Though the upstairs bedroom proved too small a studio for Pollock to both paint and sculpt (the former of which paid the bills), he still found ways to get his sculpting fix. He’d go on walks, pick up bits of nature off the ground, and use them to create ephemeral sculptural objects, such as a now-lost abstraction made from branches and twigs.
Pollock also called upon his early lessons in clay to make painted terracotta sculptures in the late ’40s. He allegedly gifted one of them to Willem de Kooning, while another was featured in a traveling Museum of Modern Art exhibition between 1949 and 1951. The only remaining work of this period, Untitled (c. 1949–50), resembles one of the artist’s flattened canvases come to near-life, with darkly painted mounds twisting to form a rectangular mass.
But Pollock still wanted to make sculptures that could rival the scale of his paintings, as evidenced by the excavation of massive boulders from his East Hampton land that he undertook in spring 1956. As a result, “there was a large junk pile of iron in the backyard he expected to use,” Krasner recalled. That year was a particularly difficult one for Pollock, who had been facing a prolonged artistic block caused by worsening hardships with alcoholism and depression. The boulders sat untouched for months.
Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956. © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.
As his condition deteriorated, Pollock traveled to New Jersey that summer to spend a weekend with his old friend, Smith. There, the artist worked with a unique method called sand casting, pouring damp plaster into molded sand. “Sand casting leaves a gritty finish,” Costello explained in a 2012 essay, “which creates the expressive, heavily textured surface that [Pollock] often sought in his paintings.” Pollock used his hands to mold the resulting semi-solid material into jagged forms, connected by thin wire.
“Accidental, improvisational shapes evolved in the process,” Costello continued, “evidencing a tension between chance and control, accident and discipline, a mainstay of Pollock’s work and Abstract Expressionism in general.”
After his death in a car accident the following month, one of the 50-ton boulders that had been in Pollock’s East Hampton backyard—which he had always intended on sculpting, someday—was lugged up a hill in the Green River Cemetery by a group of the late artist’s friends and family. Though he would never work with the slanted stone himself, it has since been carved to fit a bronze plaque that bears his name—an appropriate gesture for the painter whose career both started and ended with sculpture.