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Autumn Rhythm (no 30) (1950), Jackson Pollock

Autumn Rhythm (no 30) (1950), Jackson Pollock

In the 1950s, American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock became the poster child for freedom-loving consumer culture capitalism. His epic-sized drip paintings vibrated with an energy and spontaneity that contrasted vividly with the tired aesthetics of Communist Russia and ‘Old World’ Europe. For the first time, post-war America and this new generation of American artists were exciting.

Autumn Rhythm (no 30) is 17 feet wide and 8 feet tall and consists of drips, splashes and pours of paint building up to a frenzied energised mass. Completed on the floor, Pollock would walk around his canvas, lashing the surface with paint from a simple wooden stick. His movements would be rhythmical, based on instinct, while he tried to ensure his gestures were entirely unconscious. The culmination feels like a painterly interpretation of a musical composition and his works have often been associated with Jazz. Like the work of other American Abstract Expressionists, the viewer is allowed to determine their own meaning, lose themselves in the work, dismiss it entirely or argue about its artistic merit. When confronted with chaos, human instinct is to discover or discern patterns. Part of the endless fascination with Pollock’s drip paintings is our desire to understand them, but this has to start with an understanding of the man himself – and his biggest influences.

Autumn Rhythm is emblematic of the drip-style painting that Pollock is now famous for. But winding the clock back only a few years reveals an uncertain Pollock struggling to find his artistic voice. His works are figurative and heavily influenced by European artists including, Picasso. A modern art critic might dismiss these early pieces as ‘derivative’, and it’s true – they were widely ignored at the time.

His style began to evolve after he took classes from the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros rejected the paintbrush, calling it the ‘Stick with hairs on its end’, a philosophy that later became integral to Pollock. At these workshops, Pollock witnessed the placing of the canvas on the floor, something else he also would later become famous for doing. Lastly, at these classes and others, he witnessed the painterly rhythms – movements in the body that would go on to inform his approach to making drip paintings.

At this time, Pollock was receiving therapy sessions with Dr Joseph Henderson and Dr Violet Staub De Laszlo. He developed an interest in Jungian psychology and the dynamics between the conscious and subconscious mind. In his art, he attempted to depict figurative interpretations of the unconscious mind before finally, incorporating the idea of unconsciousness in his art-making practice.

The core ingredients of his practice were now in place. He was channeling his unconscious mind to direct his gestures and he had borrowed a host of learnings from Mexican muralists. But read a standard biography of Pollock and these influences rarely make the cut. German Jungian psychology and Mexican muralists don’t fit the all-American narrative.

Influential art critic and historian Clement Greenberg was partly responsible for this erasure. He established a narrative that American modernism, heralded by Pollock, was a baton that had passed from the hands of the European avant-garde to the American abstract expressionists. In reality, Pollock’s drip painting and abstract expressionism was a homegrown art movement, birthed through creative collaboration between intellectuals and artists of diverse cultural heritage.

Pollock’s drip paintings became wrapped up in their own mythology representing the American Dream and Freedom. The myth of the lone genius artist was more compelling than the reality of the artistic collective engaged in intellectual explorations and developing new artistic expressions.

Jackson Pollock died aged 44 in an alcohol fuelled car accident, further contributing to the myth of the tortured, all-American artist. But modern academics are reassessing his story, stripping away the pro-American propaganda that has long distorted the truth. His wife Lee Krasner is now seen as instrumental in shaping his style and finally, the Mexican muralists, once erased from history, are reclaiming their place as part of the collective that inspired his art.

When viewed with an understanding of his influences and life, Autumn Rhythm (no 30) might still defy interpretation. But there’s so much more to see if you know how to look.

The work can be currently viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


February 14, 2024


App Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art


1950s, American Abstract Expressionism, American Dream, American modernism, artistic collective, artistic influences, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), Clement Greenberg, consumer culture capitalism, David Alfaro Siqueiros, drip paintings, European avant-garde, Jackson Pollock, Jungian psychology, Lee Krasner, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mexican muralists, mythology of the artist, Picasso, unconscious mind