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Jackson Pollock’s Male and Female: Symbolism and Contested Inferences

Male and Female, one of Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) earlier works, which preceded his “action” paintings with his signature “drip” technique, was painted during 1942 and 1943.  This oil-on-canvas, measuring over six feet high and nearly five feet wide, made its debut at his first solo exhibition at the Art of This Century gallery run by the famous patron of the arts Peggy Guggenheim in November of 1943. In fact, it was the only work chosen to illustrate the cover of the catalog for this show that featured 15 of his paintings. Male and Female can now be found in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Jackson Pollock's Male and FemaleThe Onset of the Drip Technique
The Male and Female painting shows areas where paint has been obviously splashed or poured onto the canvas. It is the first time that this doing appears in Pollock’s work and, hence, it is deemed to be what would later be labeled the “drip” technique of “action paintings”, an approach that earned Pollock the derogatory nickname of “Jack the Dripper” among his detractors.

Various Interpretations
Fascinating is the fact that there is some disagreement as to which figure is the male and which is the female. Many assume that the figure on the left is the female as it has prominent eyelashes along with a very curvy red torso, and the figure on the right is believed to be the male because it features a long column of numbers. The sensuality of the figure on the left seems to stand in opposition to the logic of the figure on the right, falling neatly into many people’s general preconceived notions of what is male and what is female.

This interpretation may very well be too simplistic, however. One observation that can turn this inference upside down is that many males have naturally long and prominent eyelashes while women often embellish theirs with mascara or artificial lashes. Therefore, the eyelashes alone cannot be taken as confirmation of the figure’s gender. And although the left figure’s red torso may seem like a feminine bust, a closer look reveals that the figure on the right has a more outstanding pair of pink breasts protruding from one side of its form. Now add into this line of attack the long curving phallus twisting through the legs of the left figure and it becomes a pretty credible indicator that the gender is male. Moreover, below the “breasts” on the right figure is an important yellow triangle, often deemed by viewers to be a symbol for the female genitalia. Suddenly it is not so easy to firmly say which figure represents what gender.

Probable Intent
The ambiguity of the figures may indeed be the purposeful point of the subject matter. There exists in Male and Female a unity of opposites that cuts across the differences, perhaps a conscious or subconscious desire in the artist to connect extremes. It is significant to note that the painting was done around the time that Pollock met Lee Krasner, a female artist who moved into Pollock’s studio in 1942 and then married him in 1945. The swirling and opposing forces of genders were very real in Pollock’s life at that time, inspiring him to make those powers explode onto a canvas in enigmatic fashion.


Jack the Dripper
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