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.

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