Jackson breaks the ice

Andrew Forge

  • Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
    Barrie and Jenkins, 934 pp, £19.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 7126 3866 0
  • Abstract Expressionism by David Anfam
    Thames and Hudson, 216 pp, £5.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 500 20243 5
  • Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer
    Thames and Hudson, 256 pp, £8.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 500 27633 1

It was a small world that New York artists shared in the Thirties, defined by philistine hostility or Francophile indifference. The Great Depression that had made so much useless made the uselessness of art irrefutable and absurd. Then came the miracle of the WPA. Painters were paid just to paint.

Talk, all accounts agree, was the thing. It was as if a century of brooding about America and Europe, the past and the future, art and society, influence and self-reliance, was coming to a head in a gush of discussion. The issues raised by the Regionalists, the Mexican muralists, by the question of abstract art, or by Surrealism, were all pointing in the same direction – towards the definition of a truly American avant-garde. The critical moment was November 1943, Jackson Pollock’s exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. It was widely reviewed. It was supported by people who until now had only been interested in European art. A few pictures sold. The power of pictures like She Wolf and Guardians of the Gate was recognised even by people who found them baffling and chaotic.

‘Jackson broke the ice.’ The phrase attributed to de Kooning has been repeated so many times that it has come to sound like the title of a historic event like the Boston Tea Party or the Relief of Mafeking. Within a short time the breach had become a flood. The phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism, New York Painting – whatever one wants to call it – gathered momentum at an extraordinary speed and within ten years the old stockade existed only as a sentimental memory, its atmosphere, its solidarity and angst to be recreated over a thousand beers by survivors now vastly outnumbered by recruits from the provinces.

Jackson Pollock is subtitled ‘An American Saga’. As a saga should be, it is based on oral tradition: the authors have spent years interviewing more than eight hundred people, recording ten million words. They show a remarkable command of scale, moving adroitly between the broad outlines of social history and the daily detail of Pollock’s life. They take the view that Pollock’s mother destroyed his father and that Jackson was under her spell for the whole of his life. He never relinquished the privileged dependence of infancy and the storms of anger and envy that go with it. Nor, they tell us, was he able to come to terms with his own sexuality. There are villains: Dr Henderson, Pollock’s Jungian analyst, Robert Motherwell, Clement Greenberg; and heroes and heroines: the sad, remote father, the brothers, particularly Sande, and his wife Arloie, Reuben Kadish, Roger Wilcox, Rita Benton. They write with respect about Lee Krasner and without parti pris. My impression is that the book is written with justice. Many of their witnesses are still very much alive. The book – which in certain passages could be mistaken for a compendium of old gossip – has aroused controversy of the I-was-there variety and some dusting-off of ancient weapons.

There are two stories here – of the Pollock family and of the New York art world, set on collision course a continent apart, Titanic and iceberg. We know how it will end. ‘They put you up so they can cut you down,’ hero Pollock said, his greatness and his doom indistinguishable. It reads more like art than life, but then as Paul Delany reminded us in a recent article in this journal (24 January), life ‘too is “written” – shaped, selected, mythologised – by the same rules that govern the creation of literary texts’. Here, each of the countless fragments of memory out of which the epic is built has been shaped, selected and mythologised. Such is the polishing action of fame.

Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five boys. Both his parents were of Irish stock, farm people from Iowa. His father LeRoy McCoy had been adopted by farmers called Pollock. He seems to have been a silent, introverted man, a hard worker and a secret drinker. For a few years during Jackson’s early childhood he had a small farm outside Phoenix but it did not prosper. The centre of the family was Stella Pollock. She was a prodigious housekeeper, cooking vast meals, canning, bottling, making shirts for the boys out of the best material, but also extravagant, a big spender, and obsessed with ideas of gentility and betterment that were fuelled by women’s magazines. This craving for a more genteel existence translated into an insatiable restlessness. Once she had achieved the uprooting from the Phoenix farm, she was to move the family no less than seven times in the next six years.

At a certain point the father pulled out, finding work in surveying camps and road construction, faithful with his cheques home. Charles, the eldest of the five brothers, had shown an aptitude for drawing. Encouraged by Stella, he left to study painting in Los Angeles. From Los Angeles he would send home copies of the Dial which would have been Jackson’s very first intimation of modern art. He and Sande, the brother next to him in age, decided to become artists when they grew up. Sande had ability, like Charles. Jackson had none. For all his extreme sensitivity, he seems to have been incorrigibly clumsy. Charles was his adored idol, and bitterest rival. His pugnacious ambition was aimed directly at him.

By the time Jackson was at high school the family had moved to Los Angeles. At his school, by one of those common but always surprising coincidences, was another famous painter-to-be, Philip Guston. It was a reactionary time and place, with red-baiting, strike-breaking and an active Klan. Both Guston and Pollock ran foul of the authorities. Pollock had already started to drink seriously. He dropped in and out of school. He was attracted to Theosophy and visited the meeting-ground at Ojai where Krishnamurti preached his gospel of personal fulfilment. He refused to play football, grew his hair long and was roughed up by jocks.

Charles moved to New York to study under the Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students’ League. He became one of Benton’s favourite students and an intimate of the Benton family. On a trip hack to California he persuaded Jackson, at a loose end, to come to New York and study at the League. Jackson, too, fell under Benton’s spell. He proceeded to displace Charles. The authors now digress in order to consolidate one of the major themes of the book.

Benton was the son and grandson of Congressmen from Missouri. Theodore Roosevelt had written his grandfather’s biography. In spite of the social differences, there were parallels between Benton’s upbringing and Pollock’s. In both families the mothers were the centres of emotional power and the guardians of culture. The province of the father was defined by hard work and the assertion of manhood. Beauty was feminine, work masculine. How to be a painter and a Man at the same time? Benton, who was as fixated on his mother as Pollock, had found his answer in drinking, swearing, whoring, boasting and fag-bashing his way towards a public stance as the defender of a healthy, popular American art and the scourge of sick European Modernism – the aestheticism of the ‘curving wrist and the outthrust hip’, in his horrible phrase. Benton gave Pollock the permission he needed. But his imagination seethed with far ghastlier monsters than Benton ever dreamed of. The he-man pose was an essential camouflage but no life solution. His orientation remained in doubt. He was hopeless with women, tongue-tied sober, abusive drunk, utterly distrusted by his brothers’ wives, who saw nothing but techniques of manipulation in his alternations of charm, morose depression and boorish violence. Rumours of shadowy homosexuality abound. ‘Jackson always left you with a feeling of emptiness,’ the painter George MacNeil commented, ‘as if he was living in an abyss.’

The brothers assumed that under Charles’s protection Jackson would find his feet. There was no sign of this happening and reluctantly they came to admit that he was a problem that was not going to go away. At this point Sande arrived from the West to take over from Charles. Sande was next to Jackson in age, a swaggering cocky fighter dressed in cowboy gear – and something of a saint. His destiny, it seemed, was to look after his baby brother. He had done it when they were children. It was a dirtier business now. ‘There was something ... provocative in Sande’s solicitude, a licence to screw up that Jackson understood only too well.’ For the next six years, until Lee Krasner appeared, Sande was Jackson’s minder, rescuing him from police, bouncers, the gutter, or laying him out cold when there was no other way of calming him down. It was Sande who initiated the encounters with psychotherapy, of which there were many besides the famous Dr Henderson who was later to make so much of Pollock’s ‘Jungian’ drawings. Nothing worked, of course. Pollock never showed the slightest interest in cure, even after a major breakdown that put him in hospital for several months.

Both brothers signed on when the Federal Government started to support artists in 1935. By now, Pollock was beginning to attract the attention of other painters, Jack Tworkov remembered hearing him spoken of by the head of the mural division of the WPA as a great hope for American painting. When Siqueiros came to New York in 1936, with his intoxicating mixture of political activism and technical experiment, the Pollock brothers joined his May Day workshop.

Pollock was distancing himself from Benton. Some time in the late Thirties he began to frequent John Graham, that most mysterious of all the gurus of European Modernism. Graham took him up, reinforcing his faith in unconscious imagery. From now on, Pollock transferred his admiration and his envy to Picasso, enlarging his ambition to a world scale. Guernica arrived in New York in the winter of 1939, and Pollock saw it many times.

It was Graham, indirectly, who brought Lee Krasner to Pollock’s studio. He had invited both of them to take part in an exhibition in which there were also European big names. Having decided that Pollock was to be her cause, Krasner moved into Sande’s shoes as his main defence against the world. For the next few years her ambitions as a painter were to take second place.

Now everything speeds up. Krasner had many more connections than Pollock, and a strong social sense. James Johnson Sweeney became interested in Pollock and recommended him to Peggy Guggenheim who, in the throes of a break with the émigré Surrealists, was planning a juried show for young artists. Mondrian was one of the jurors. The story of Mondrian’s Nod is that Guggenheim had sorted through the entries herself, segregating the duds, among them Pollock’s Stenographic Figure. On the day of the jury Mondrian showed up before the others and Guggenheim found him looking intently at the Pollock. ‘Awful, isn’t it? ... This young man has serious problems ...’ To which Mondrian is said to have replied that it was the most interesting painting he had seen in America, and then, in response to Guggenheim’s incredulous reaction: ‘The way I paint and the way I think are two different things.’ The most respected abstract painter in the world had given a lesson in open-minded judgment to the wife of Max Ernst. ‘For American artists,’ the authors observe, ‘the story came to signify the passing of the true flame ...’ Not long after this happened, Guggenheim made a contract with Pollock, an unheard of thing, giving him a monthly salary against his work, and the promise of an exhibition.

Krasner and Pollock moved to Springs on Long Island in the winter of 1945. It was here that Pollock began to work with his canvas flat on the floor. Clement Greenberg, already a strong supporter, gave his blessing to the ‘allover’ compositions which fitted his critical scheme for the evolution of Modernist painting. The drip paintings, in which all vestiges of imagery had disappeared, were shown in 1948, ’49 and ’50. Fame arrived: the claims that Greenberg had been making on Pollock’s behalf to the readers of the Nation and Horizon were picked up by Life with a long article and the headline ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ Pollock was shown with several others at the Venice Biennale of 1950 and at the same time Peggy Guggenheim put her Pollocks on exhibition in the Museo Correr. Bruno Alfieri introduced him as ‘the painter who sits at the extreme apex of the most advanced and unprejudiced avantgarde’, and concluded, as if with a special message to Pollock, by claiming that, beside him, Picasso ‘becomes a conformist, a painter of the past’.

From this extreme apex it was steadily downhill. He had stopped drinking during the two years from 1948 to 1950. He started again after finishing the film that Hans Namuth made of him working – perhaps, the authors suggest, in defence against the inauthenticity of what he had been doing in front of the camera. Krasner had excommunicated his drinking partners and the old community of painters had largely closed ranks against his success. Greenberg withdrew his support. The barren periods when he could not paint grew longer and when he did paint it was with waning conviction. When at last his car hit a tree and killed him it was as if he had been rushing towards his death for a long time.

Talking about watching Pollock work, Herbert Matter said: ‘The way he stood, the way he looked at the canvas, the way he worked it, always made me think of a farmer.’ For Pollock the identification was precise. He spoke of memories that would come to him as he worked of standing by his father and watching him pissing on a flat rock. Pissing features a good deal in these pages. It was often the coda to an evening, in bars, on carpets, into fireplaces and countless beds. ‘I can piss on the whole world!’ someone heard him shouting as he sprayed a snow bank in a New York street.

Pollock’s name will always be associated with the drip paintings. They were his release from the burden of images. They are the only works in which his vitality and elegance show clearly on the surface, the only works where one does not feel the weight of concealment and anxiety. In discovering this way of working it seems that he was able, for a short time, to place distance between his fantasy and the fact of the canvas. He could draw in the air, omnipotently. ‘Empty of imagery,’ David Anfam writes in a beautiful description of the drip paintings, ‘they feel intensely full; lacking overt reference to nature, the organic patterns of growth nevertheless engulf us; rather monochromatic overall, strong and metallic hues shimmer through their interstices; heavy with the quiddity of paint, their space floats and dances in front of our eyes.’

It is hard to think of another artist whose life more completely fulfilled public expectations. Everything about him was right, in his casting as Hemingway-painter: not Ivy League, not out of Ellis Island, but really American from beyond the Mississippi – like ‘some guy who works at a service station pumping gas’, de Kooning said of the famous Life photograph. The expansiveness, recklessness, unbounded energy, materiality, the fact that there was no culture to mediate between the act of making and what you saw – all this corresponded to a state of mind. It was recognised.

At the same time another, older myth was invoked, that of the peintre maudit. Pollock’s misery was public. Simply by asserting his high ambition he was claiming a certain licence and a certain intimacy with unresolved suffering. His path was well-worn, as old as Romanticism. This is where private suffering and public myth rub together. ‘A man’s life is his work; his work is his life,’ he told someone towards the end, and as he said it he laced together the fingers of both hands to show what he meant. It was the same gesture that Gasquet describes Cézanne making as he explained the connection between his canvas and his motif. Was the echo in the action, or in the telling of it?

David Anfam’s book, warm towards the paintings, is refreshingly cool towards the myths and dogmas that have grown up around Abstract Expressionism. He is good at exploding the notion of the sudden miraculous break-through, and at bringing out the continuities in each painter’s work. He rejects the usual distinction between the ‘action’ painters – de Kooning, Kline – and the ‘colour’ painters – Newman, Rothko, Still – pointing out that what mattered for all of them was the creation of a field ‘which melds figure and ground into a totality’ and confronts the onlooker in such a way that his perceptual efforts become one with the content of the painting. This is as true of Still as it is of de Kooning. It was the underlying enterprise, far more important to our understanding of Abstract Expressionism than surface differences. He develops this argument with great subtlety. His lines on certain pictures of Barnett Newman and Clifford Still are the best things I have read about these painters.

‘There is nothing to do now but paint my life,’ Philip Guston told himself in a studio note (the words are quoted by Musa Mayer): ‘My dreams, surroundings, predicaments, desperation, Musa, love, need. Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures ...’ The tone is that of a man with his back to the wall. The words were written in 1970, when he had renounced abstract art, near the time when he first showed his late works, the KKK men in hoods riding around in funny cars. Among his peers, the show was a scandal. Many saw it as a betrayal, not only of abstract art but of high culture. Hilton Kramer in the New York Times doubted the authenticity of Guston’s clunky comic-strip images – ‘A mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum’ was the notorious title of his review. Guston was no stranger to doubts of this kind himself. Obsessed with questions of identity, hagridden by that anxiety that is specific to introspection, the twin impulses to reveal and to conceal gnawed at each other constantly.

The son of first-generation immigrants from Odessa, he had been Phillip Goldstein when Pollock knew him at high school. His father, an unhappy junk-man, had killed himself. Phillip, ten, found the hanging body. When, at Pollock’s urging, he left Los Angeles for New York, he left his family and his name for good. Later, he was to go to some lengths to conceal the change. His daughter was grownup before she knew of it.

Guston was precociously talented and had already done a good deal before he arrived in New York. He had painted several very large murals in public places, including one, with Reuben Kadish, of over a thousand square feet in Mexico City, an achievement that had been noticed by Time, which scolded them for its left-wing subject-matter. In New York he gained important mural commissions through the WPA. Jobs, prizes, publicity, honours and museum sales, all came his way during the Forties. The most important painting of this time was a scene of children’s games, composed with the grandeur and intricacy of an old master. The children are disguised and masked. The title is If this be not I.

He had left New York to teach in the Mid-West in 1941 and it was nine years before he came back. He was on the fringe during the crucial years, an infuriatingly successful semi-outsider. To Pollock, in particular, Guston’s work was a red rag to a bull. His transition to abstract painting in the Fifties was that of a late recruit, some said. But no external hostility could match his own doubts about his work. He lived on a rack of anxiety. He was bookish and his reading gave shapes to his terror. The canvas, he was fond of saying, is a courtroom in which the painter is judge, prosecutor, prisoner and jury. The thirty years from 1950 to his death in 1980 are like a lung penance, a lurching descent from elegance and scrupulous adjustment to crudity, from enchantment to the squalor of the last great images, the bulging eye and stubble chin stranded among piles of hob-nailed boots, cigarette butts, alarm clocks and french fries.

To adult eyes, Guston in his middle years was larger than life, tall, massive, his film-star good looks buried under the jowls of a ruined emperor, a brilliant talker, insatiably smoking, eating, drinking, his troubles for ever on his sleeve. He was in love, somebody said, with anyone who would listen to him. What can it have been like to be his child? Musa Mayer’s wonderful memoir of her father is most convincing because of its autobiographical honesty. He gave her far less than she wanted, resenting the slightest distraction from his work, shutting her out. Her beautiful mother, Musa McKim, a gifted painter who had put down her brushes years before, had shaped herself into a silent handmaiden. There is a lot of anger in Mayer’s indignant description of the omissions and abuses they both took from their sacred monster, but anger qualified by the appetites of love. It is a story of jealousy of a very complicated kind, and of its resolution. She was up against more than just adult selfishness. What makes her experience different from that of any only child of a famous workaholic is the presence of the Romantic Muse. His demand for solitude was underwritten by the compelling and mysterious authority of art. And of the great artist, her father, she was intensely proud. Yet, was that authority truly an absolute one? The question shows up like a tiny fissure in her description of her father’s stage-fright before an opening, and of her memory of herself as she witnessed it:

Pale and distracted on the trip uptown. Philip would unfold himself with difficulty from the taxi, then stop on the sidewalk outside the gallery rooted as if he couldn’t move. My mother fluttered ineffectually around him, patting him, trying to calm him down, urging him to go in, telling him that everything would be fine ... Embarrassed, I was aware of passers-by looking at us. Who was this raving, wild-eyed man? Ah, an artist. That explained it. His fears would rise to a crescendo. The whole thing was a mistake, a terrible mistake, he’d cry. He should be in Woodstock, working.

‘I took all of my father’s fears quite seriously,’ she comments, ‘rather as if he had a painful, but not mortal illness. It never occurred to me that I might view his torments as pitiable, or unnecessary, or even within his control.’