Jackson Pollock's name hidden in his painting Mural?

 Artimages Jackson Pollock
A new article in Smithsonian posits that Jackson Pollock hid his full name in the abstractions of his famed piece Mural. The article's author, art historian Henry Adams, says that his wife, also an art scholar, was the first to notice the letters. From Smithsonian:
I was researching a book about Pollock's lifelong relationship with his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, the famed regionalist and muralist, when I sat puzzling over a reproduction of Mural after breakfast one morning with Marianne, herself an art historian. She suddenly said she could make out the letters S-O-N in blackish paint in the upper right area of the mural. Then she realized JACKSON ran across the entire top. And finally she saw POLLOCK below that.

The characters are unorthodox, even ambiguous, and largely hidden. But, she pointed out, it could hardly be random coincidence to find just those letters in that sequence...

Pollock's possibly writing his name in Mural testifies to an overlooked feature of his works: they have a structure, contrary to the popular notion that they could be done by any 5-year-old with a knack for splatters. In my view, Pollock organized the painting around his name according to a compositional system–vertical markings that serve as the loci of rhythmic spirals–borrowed directly from his mentor, Benton.
"Decoding Jackson Pollock"


  1. I wonder if this is one of those face in the trees things. I mean, pick a letter, J for example, and see how many times you can find it. Pick a word, ROCKET for example. BOING BOING. Now, see how many times you can find a face.

    What would really impress me is if someone crossed their eyes and saw a dolphin.

  2. When I took my 6-year-old to the Art Institute in Chicago a couple of months ago, we spent some time hunkered in front of one of the Pollocks, finding letters and numbers and people and animals in the hazy soup.

    I don’t doubt for a moment that Pollock’s work has structure, but I think the nature of that structure is pretty subjective. I see lots of things in the image above, but I recognize they might exist more in my head than on the canvas.

  3. I can hear Dan Brown’s footprint as he rushes to his word processor to bang out another “code” book…

    Joke aside, this is clearly a case of Apophenia*, the experience of seeing patterns in random data.

    *A word I learned reading William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition.

  4. Pollock was much more structured in his art than a lot of people realize. (Which is why Pollock-ish art tends to look like crap.) I’d be surprised if it was taken to this level, but not terribly surprised.

  5. This looks to me like pareidolia- the perception of random stimulus as having a pattern. It is tough to tell. Given the possibility of priming the claim “it could hardly be random coincidence to find just those letters in that sequence” is a really non-persuasive argument.

  6. Sure. AE painters are always dicking around that way, especially the post-Pollock dripsters that didn’t quite get that he was into elaborate layering. Whatever, It’s a cute enough gag to say “I’ll sign this one before I start, not after I finish.”

  7. Yeah, there’s a ton of graffiti that’s just this way. “Oh yeah, that’s the latest burner by Dicey. Can’t you see? He’s spelling out his name in wildstyle lettering!”

  8. A lot of Pollock’s paintings have fractal structure.
    This might be one of the reasons why it is hard to imitate his style.

  9. … on the other hand, a “5-year-old with a knack for splatters” could’ve written his name on a piece of paper and intentionally covered up his bad handwriting with more paint.

  10. Compare and contrast: the sigils of Austin Osman Spare, and the calligraphy of Brion Gysin. Both involved the writing over and over again of words, phrases, letters over each other, beyond readability.
    I’d post links, but I read all this stuff in books years ago.

  11. Did anyone else immediately think of the illegible calligraphic killing machine from Kafka’s Penal Colony?

  12. wait… wait… now i see the entire text of the complete works of James Joyce.

    This painting does genuinely contain a bunch of letter-like-shapes. More so than most Pollock’s.

  13. “contrary to the popular notion that they could be done by any 5-year-old with a knack for splatters.”

    That’s true! It wasn’t until I was at least 7 years old that I could both write my name AND splatter paint.

  14. But, she pointed out, it could hardly be random coincidence to find just those letters in that sequence…

    No, because your brain is thinking about Jackson Pollock and you’re looking for those letters.


  15. I wouldn’t put such juvenile shenanigans past pollock… he had the intellect and sophistication of a 12 year old.
    It’s a shame that he has become the icon of ab-ex (I elect dekooning, or better yet, motherwell).
    Thanks TIME magazine.

  16. #31 Couldn’t agree more. As an artist, Dekooning is much more worthy of adulation and exploration. It is indeed a shame that Pollock is still considered a genius.

  17. “it could hardly be random coincidence to find just those letters in that sequence…”

    Oh, I can agree with that. Given that psychological experiments have shown that we humans are great at finding patterns, to the extent that we’ll easily find non-existent ones in truly random data at the slightest hint that there is one.

    So it’s not random coincidence. If someone gets the idea Pollock’s name is in there, they’ll probably find it.

  18. I’d like to add my voice to those pointing out that Pollock’s work usually had some sort of naturalistic structure. I ain’t no expert, but I grew up in Iowa City and have probably spent over 40 hours looking at that painting – the University’s art museum was one of my regular haunts as an arty high school and university student, and this is probably one of my all-time favorite paintings. (It’s an excellent museum, hopefully recovering from the floods. There’s a good Motherwell in there too, or at least there was back then.) “Mural” is quite big and worth a good long view up close. (While doing so, it’s also fun to contemplate the rumor that it hung in the student union cafeteria for years because the UI art faculty had no idea who Pollock was, lol….)

    It is impossible to escape the idea that there is structure behind that painting (and many other Pollock works), but I think the reason this is the first time anyone has seriously suggested that the written word is behind it is because…. it isn’t. Of course I could be wrong, but I think I’ve put in the requisite time puzzling it out, and I don’t think there are words there. Pollock always seemed more gestural to me, depicting naturalistic, fluid motion. I suppose much has been written on that, but we see what we want to see, trompe l’oeil, etc.

    Oh well, if this post goes on it’ll turn into an old fart’s story with no point. (Did I mention that I wore an onion on my belt back then, as was the custom at the time?) Thanks, BoingBoing, for the memories of those days and the opportunity to consider Pollock’s masterpiece once again after so many years. To all the critics, I’d urge you to appreciate this painting for the thing of beauty that it is, without getting too wrapped around the axle with regard to who Pollock was, what his intent might have been, whether he was a genius, charlatan and/or lout, etc… life’s too short for that.

  19. Consider this myth busted. Wishful thinking that Pollock did anything but splatter paint. What’s hilarious, is that when I looked specifically for the words “Jackson Pollock”, I found them (of course!) BUT they weren’t the same letters that are depicted in this story. PS, I also found my own name pretty easily.

  20. Haven’t you seen the film of him *working* a canvas? He did NOT spatter the paint, you fucking philistines, he layered it as if he were using a brush (in many instances he was). It was all intentional and thoughtful work. Although the jury is out on how good he was, it certainly rules in his favor on originality — which is more than can be said for the many hackneyed comments on this thread.

  21. How many noteworthy artists followed Pollock’s style? I think ZERO is the correct answer. Compare that “record” to other notable artists. Possible conclusion: Pollock’s famous art is nearly all “idea” with very little skill behind it. Other artists who tried exploring the same terrain found that (a) it was unrewarding art and (b) everyone said “Oh, you are doing a Pollock…”. Personally I’ll take Raphael/Velazquez/David any day over Pollock.

  22. @ the usual “my kid could paint that” Pollock haters:

    Subsequent analysis has shown that most of his paintings are fractal in nature. There is a bit of debate regarding some of the nuances regarding the exact number of the fractal dimension from piece to piece, though there’s little question as to the general nature of the patterning.

    Thus, Pollock was in a way recreating nature more accurately than a stereotypical landscape painting. Perhaps in some ways “your kid” could do this as well, but if so, even that should be wondered at as a thing of beauty.


  23. I used to be amazed at Jackson Pollock. I didn’t understand or appreciate his work, but I was amazed. Then I saw the documentary ‘Who the @#$% is Jackson Pollock’ and the bags of crap that art experts are, and now I understand Jackson Pollock and am no longer amazed – except for the part that people actually pay money for something they could have done themselves. While drunk. As he was when he did.

  24. Note that being art critics, they didn’t go and look at the actual object before making utter abject idiots of themselves.

  25. Pah, the letters are clearly visible in the bottom left corner of the painting.

    Anyone who disputes this can’t read.

    My name however is always hidden, in every painting he ever did. He sure did love me.

    Sarcasm aside, I like the guy. Blue Poles is a fantastic painting.

  26. It is funny how here we are 40 years after the article in LIFE magazine asked if Jackson Pollock was the most influential artist at the time and DeKooning, et al are mentioned only as “also ran” in the America Abstract expressionist movement.
    Seems the ‘SplatterMeister’ can still fire debate over his genius or lack thereof.

  27. I was required to study Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists as part of the art history portion of my degree.

    I read a couple of biographies / academic studies of his work at the time. The details are a bit hazy now, but he definitely went through a period when he studied a lot of Jungian Analysis (quite fashionable in artistic circles at the time). There are existing drawings where ‘archetypes’ are clearly drawn out in the looping splatter style: animals, faces and objects appear. They’re quite Picasso-ish. His work got more abstract as he went on – he started out strongly affected by the surrealists and the mexican muralists.

    He was, of course, lionised by Clement Greenberg, the art critic. Greenberg’s work was incredibly politically founded, setting up the ‘pure abstraction’ of the abstract impressionists against the ‘kitsch’ ‘bad’ figurative art of soviet Russia. American abstract impressionism became a tool of the cold war; consequently, a lot of discussion of the figurative roots of their work was obscured by the cultural bias of the time.

    So, there, some fragments to possibly change the way you look at his work. Wish I could remember the name of the books I remember this from. There’s a nice little bio here: http://www.brain-juice.com/cgi-bin/show_bio.cgi?p_id=92 and this bio http://www.learn.columbia.edu/pollock/ discusses the jungian symbolist roots of his work.

    His Wikipedia bio glosses over a lot of this critical discussion. Guess I have a job for a weekend, sometime, then…

  28. Pollack would never stoop so low as to do something so trite to his painting.

    “Pollock’s possibly writing his name in Mural testifies to an overlooked feature of his works: they have a structure”

    What utter nonsense. Pollock’s work has always had structure. It is the composition of the paint. To say Pollack’s work now has structure because it has recognizable figures – something which goes against everything Pollack was about – is an insult to his true genius.

    I wish Pollack was alive to defend himself.

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