The image of Jackson Pollock as the archetypal American artist, making big gestures on giant canvases, is firmly entrenched in the public consciousness. Dripping paint on canvases laid out on the floor, working in rather than working on his art, Pollock epitomizes the rebellious artist, disregarding the figurative in a whirl of energy touched by higher inspiration. "Jackson Pollock, A Centennial Retrospective," currently showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, adds some depth to that depiction of the controversial and polarizing painter.

During the artist's troubled lifetime — characterized by drinking and depression — Japan was quick to bring in individual new Pollock paintings to exhibit to its public eager to see modern Western art. This traveling show, marking the 100th year after the artist's birth, is surprisingly, the first full retrospective of his work that has been held in the country.

The show opens with some early works that show the influence of Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock's teacher at the Art Students League in New York. Although Pollock later downplayed Benton's importance on his own artistic development, the brushstrokes in Pollock's "Cotton Pickers" (1935) clearly depict a rhythmic energy similar to that visible in the work of his early mentor. That vitality would later come to the fore as the key element of Pollock's style.