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Pollock's Legend Still Splattered On Art World

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Even a century since his birth, American "splatter artist" Jackson Pollock still provokes heated debate about the very definition of art.

Was a man who placed a canvas on the floor and dripped paint straight from the can actually creating a work of art?

"It's very hard if you try to build the paint up to this extent with this many colors and not achieve mud," says National Gallery of Art curator Harry Cooper.

"He didn't achieve mud here — I think he achieved something quite beautiful," Cooper tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "And in the process, he opened up a whole new way of thinking about what a painting could be, how you could make a painting, what it could do in an abstract way."

The public perception at the time, though, was distinctly different than that of art critics.

"In the popular mind, he was Jack the Dripper," Cooper says. "I think all of those feelings and associations have remained with the work, no matter how many books and how many retrospectives he has."

In 2006, one of Pollock's works sold for $140 million — the most ever paid for a painting. He remains polarizing, a man whose work is as derided as it is desired.

Born in Cody, Wyo., on Jan. 28, 1912, Paul Jackson Pollock trained under the acclaimed American naturalist Thomas Hart Benton. During that time, Pollock's paintings were indistinguishable from Benton's — clear human forms with enhanced curves, as if windblown or carved like riverbeds.

Over time, Pollock's forms would become more surreal, like Picasso's. Surprisingly, the trademark splatter work doesn't make an appearance until Pollock's mid-30s.

"In fact, by the end of 1950 and '51, he's not doing the drips anymore," Cooper says. "He returns to the figure and spends his last years doing something quite different."

Pollock died tragically at the age of 44. After a lifetime struggling with alcoholism, he crashed his car while driving drunk. His death befit the legend that grew around his life.

"He was a macho man from Cody, Wyoming," Cooper says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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