On 8 August 1949, Abstract Expressionism decisively entered the American national psyche when the popular weekly magazine LIFE asked of Jackson Pollock, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ Leaning against one of his enigmatic ‘drip’ canvases, cigarette in mouth and oozing anti-establishment cool in a pose reminiscent of Hollywood heroes of the era such as James Dean, Pollock immediately became the poster boy for this controversial new movement in American art.
The ambiguous title and article in LIFE, which appeared both to praise and mock Pollock and his art, marked the turning point when American abstraction went from the margins to the mainstream. While Abstract Expressionism would continue to be celebrated and vilified in equal measure, the movement spearheaded the establishment of New York as the global centre for the artistic avant-garde and came to represent the country’s national artistic identity during the early Cold War.
The 1949 photoshoot with Pollock can be viewed on the LIFE website.
Image: LIFE, Vol. 27, No. 6, 8 August 1949. Photography by Martha Holmes. Courtesy Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images