JACKSON POLLOCK by Ellen G. Landau, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 283 pp., $75
EVERYONE knows Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) as the ``drip and blob'' artist (or as ``Jack the Dripper,'' as Time magazine once called him), but few know how long it took him to become that - or how complex a process it was.
Many are also uncertain about his importance and the quality of his work. Was he, as some claim, the first truly great American painter, the major innovative genius of the mid-20th century? Or was his fame more the product of hype and vaulting ambition, and he himself merely a talented but befuddled artist whose achievements never matched his drive?
Ellen Landau, in her recently published ``Jackson Pollock,'' comes closer than anyone yet has to answering these and many other questions about Pollock the artist and the man. Thanks to her highly readable and well-researched text, the book's 270 excellent illustrations (105 in color), and her thorough grasp of the 1936-56 period in American art, she has managed to paint a sharper and more three-dimensional portrait of Pollock than any to date.
In the process, Ms. Landau leads the reader from Pollock's birth in the Wild West town of Cody, Wyoming, through his early years as a student of Thomas Hart Benton and a disciple of Picasso, to his short reign as an internationally-acclaimed painter, and finally to his tragic death in an autobile accident at age 44.
Most important, she traces the evolution of his work from its tentative, Benton and Orozco-inspired beginnings, to its most powerful and successful ``dribbled'' manifestations in the late 1940s and very early 1950s, and then to its dissolution.
Throughout, she treats Pollock more as a real and highly vulnerable human being struggling - often desperately - to realize himself than as the mythic, larger-than-life art-world figure he has become. To do so, she interviewed many of those who knew him, including his wife Lee Krasner, and examined all available written, printed and photographic material, works of art and films that presumably or actually influenced him and his art.
The result is an extraordinary amount of background information, against which Pollock's life and character gradually take shape. Early in the book, she gives a significant clue to Pollock's character by suggesting that Tennessee Williams might have had Pollock in mind when he wrote the part of Stanley Kowalski in ``A Streetcar Named Desire.'' Williams did know Pollock and his wife fairly well.
Pollock, as he emerges from the book, was a brooding, difficult, often violent man. But he was also an artist possessed, if not of a vision, then certainly of an overwhelming need to create. How he finally found his ``voice'' occupies the major portion of this book and gives it its special stamp and importance.
I doubt anyone can come away from it without thinking more favorably of this powerful and lonely artist who did so much to alter the world's opinion of American art.