Pollock and Koons: January Genius
January shares the honors of being the birth month of two artists both equally brash and influential. On January 21, Jeff Koons turns 61. A week later, on January 28, Jackson Pollock would have celebrated his 103rd birthday. Although the methodology of these two men are radically different, they are linked by a shared interest in the artistic process. Their unique work has changed the way we think about art in the 20th century.
Before he was dubbed “Jack the Dripper” by Time magazine in 1956, Jackson Pollock studied with Thomas Hart Benton. With his emphasis on rhythmic balance, dynamic sequence, and “muscular action patterns,” Benton was to have an important bearing on Pollock’s art. However, Pollock felt his teacher’s influence to be detrimental to his own work, and he struggled to free his creativity. In the late 1930s, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy for alcoholic depression. His doctor encouraged him to make expressive drawings, in order to unyoke him from Benton’s teachings and from his mental problems. By the late 1940s, Pollock developed his unique style of drip painting, applying paint to unprimed canvases in sweeping gestures with sticks, trowels, and knives. His process, to be “in” the painting and allow it to have a life of its own, set a new standard for American art, especially for later Color Field painters and those who admire Pollock’s approach to process.
On May 21, 2015, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers had the honor to sell two drawings from Pollock’s psychoanalytic period of the late 1930s; these drawings were included in the collection of noted Chicago philanthropist Claudia R. Luebbers. The often mythic and primeval themes that Pollock explored at this time can be seen in both Number 22 and Number 62, sold for $18,750 and $50,000, respectively. The high prices commanded by these striking drawings reveal the desirability of works by this noted artist.
Equally entranced with process and gesture, but with a very different approach than Pollock, Jeff Koons tests the boundaries between high art and mass production. His 16,000 square foot Chelsea factory is staffed by 90 to 120 regular assistants who produce Koons’ work according to a color-by-numbers system. In a 2007 New Yorker article, the artist explained his artistic ethos: “I think art takes you outside yourself, takes you past yourself. I believe that my journey has really been to remove my own anxiety. That’s the key. The more anxiety you can remove, the more free you are to make that gesture, whatever the gesture is” (Calvin Tomkins, “Jeff Koons: The Turnaround Artist, Up from Banality,” New Yorker, April 23, 2007, p. 67).
Often working in series, in 1994 Koons conceived of Celebration, named to honor his hope of the return of his son Ludwig, at that time in the custody of his first wife. Centered on children’s delights, the works include Valentine hearts, birthday cakes, flowers, and highly reflective stainless-steel balloon dogs. Originally standing at 10 feet high, the balloon dogs were also translated into limited edition series, but miniaturized and executed in metalized porcelain. These editions were sold by Koons in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to support the museum’s endowment. More accessible to collectors, these sculptures occasionally appear on the auction market. For instance, on May 21, 2015, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers sold a 2002 version of Balloon Dog (Blue), for $17,500 against an estimate of $10,000-15,000. With a full sized version of Balloon Dog selling at $58,405,000 in 2013, this price seems a relative bargain!
Although the artwork of Pollock and Koons seem startingly different from each other, the process is and was especially important to each. For Pollock, it was his powerful, sweeping gestures and innate sensibility of where the paint should land that had the most value. For Koons, it is the ability to transcend the hand of the artist to create icons that manifest the essence of popular culture. Linked by both birth month and the desire to create their own, unique approach, both Pollock and Koons have profoundly shaped the American artistic landscape today as we know it.