Pollock's Savage Originality

Two books explore the troubled artist's life and the value of his legacy

JACKSON POLLOCK: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh, and Gregory White Smith, New York: Clarkson N. Potter,

934 pp, $29.95


by Ellen G. Landau, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 283 pp., $49.50

WHENEVER the spectre of Jackson Pollock is conjured up, passionate debate and troubled argument invariably follow. And near the end of a century - with artists, historians, and the public trying to assess the importance of major 20th-century artists - it's inevitable that much attention should focus on Pollock (1912-1956).

His complex life has resurfaced with the publication of two new biographies, one by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, and the other by Ellen G. Landau.

The Landau book is the more dispassionate, erudite, and subtle of the two - a carefully considered, carefully controlled documentation. No one would ever try to make a movie of this book (as is being done with the Naifeh/Smith version), but where it excels is in the sheer testimony of Pollock's paintings themselves: page after page of explosive color reproductions. It is only by seeing the works described in the text that a reader can approach an understanding of the immense forces that drove Pollock.

Reading about his life is hardly a picnic: There is the struggle with his mother's influence, his dependence upon his brothers (both emotionally and monetarily), his alcoholism, his abhorrent behavior toward women, his tortured self-image and suicidal tendencies. In fact, one question that neither biography satisfactorily answers is why so many people were drawn to Pollock in the first place, and once there, why they stayed so long.

If Pollock was such a pitiable human being - the conclusion one must draw from both books - how did he wind up at the top of the artistic heap, with so many people falling over themselves to pay homage to his savage originality? This is a question that both Landau and Naifeh/Smith try to answer, with varying degrees of success.

Part of the answer was timing. For decades, as both books inform us, American artists labored under the heavy aristocratic hand of Western European art tradition. Every major art movement had begun in Europe and migrated to the United States. Pollock came of age artistically during World War II, when the nation was experiencing a predictable surge in nationalism. Pollock had the advantage of being born in the West, a land of myths and cowboy lore, into a family that traced its roots back several generations. The art cognoscenti were looking for someone with the shattering originality and mold-breaking persona of the Spaniard Pablo Picasso. They wanted a home-grown abstract painter with pugnacious style.

Pollock filled the bill because he embodied, as both biographies point out, not only the physical characteristics of a rambunctious artist (an image he cultivated), but the image of melting-pot artist. His visual appetite was voracious, and his art went through dozens of stylistic transformations. Pollock had amazing skill at absorbing myriad influences and bringing them out again in works that expressed his intense inner world. These influences were as radically different as Thomas Hart Benton's rounded edges and circular sweeps, Picasso's distended and warped figures, Joan Mir'o's biomorphic shapes, Mexican political murals, and primitive tribal art.

The drip paintings that made Pollock famous are the culmination of his experiments. The drip technique was the means, as is evident from the Landau book and its illustrations, by which Pollock could go directly to the paint to express his emotions. He did not have to filter his vitality through the stilted conventions of analytical cubism, perspective, or composition. His composition was intuitively derived. Never before had paint taken on such a vivid, tactile, all-encompassing importance.

But the intuitive approach always left Pollock vulnerable to accusations that he was a failure as a draftsman, that he couldn't draw. Landau takes the side that Pollock, in fact, had mastered many of the problem-solving techniques of academic art, but Naifeh and Smith mention his life-long defensiveness on the question.

Another allegation of critics was that Pollock could hardly be considered an intellectual powerhouse. Naifeh and Smith seem to get closest to the type of intelligence Pollock possessed in a quote from one of the artist's therapists: ```[Jackson's] inability to express ideas went both ways - he couldn't absorb words and he couldn't use them, but he picked up the subtlest nonverbal signals....''' A friend declared, ``All his great feeling and intelligence is there in his painting.''

If his intellect didn't impress people, it was harder to ignore the fact of his art. It is unquestionably the Landau book that best mines the works one by one for physical, rather than psychological, impact. Her clear assessment of the aesthetic forces that Pollock pitted against one another is right on target. When Landau strays into areas of the artist's personal life, however, she sounds less expert.

A reader with the advantage of looking at both biographies gets the sense that Landau bought into the orthodox represention of Pollock as simply a ``bad boy.'' Her impeccable art history background gives her the greater credibility where artistic matters are concerned, but it seems unlikely that she got her hands dirty with the grittier research into Pollock and the personalities who swarmed around him.

Naifeh and Smith, on the other hand, take an irreverent slant on Pollock. They are clearly out to show that he was worse than the ``rebel without a cause'' the media portrayed. They delve into the fury and frustration behind Pollock's outbursts and hint that something more sinister was at work. (It's easy to imagine that the truth lies somewhere between the Landau version and that of Naifeh/Smith.)

There's a sleaziness in Naifeh's and Smith's insinuation of direct knowledge of the artist's activities, even to the point of inserting their own reading of a statement by a friend or family member - making the book more of an interpretive biography. They come on particularly strong with the conviction that Pollock had homosexual liaisons, and that his emotional instability was the fault of his domineering mother. They've also raised some critics' ire with their crude assertions about the drip paintings.

Naifeh and Smith's book is unquestionably readable, and it's fascinating in a voyeuristic sort of way. At times their scholarship shows through the tacky psychoanalysis: Particularly interesting was the inside look at the years of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which created jobs for thousands of artists during the Depression. For the first time artists, including Pollock and his brother, were able to live comfortably, thanks to the government. This sponsorship - with little accountability - would affect the attitudes of many artists for years to come.

Pollock, partly through reliance on the WPA and partly because he was incapable of performing the daily tasks of life, took on the attitude that the world owed him a living. It fell to his family to take care of his needs and keep him out of trouble, a task which eventually was transferred to Lee Krasner, who became his wife. It's truly heart-rending to read about Krasner - who, laid aside her own career as an artist, to play nanny to the increasingly self-destructive and abusive Pollock.

It's painful to dwell on a life consumed with inarticulate fury, on a talent so close to madness, on a personality so deeply in conflict. These are the things that make Pollock's story moving and frustrating at the same time. The two books beg the question on my mind: whether reading about an artist's tortured life makes for acceptance of his work, or simply makes it harder to like the art. Should generations of art lovers linger over Pollock's sensational life, or should they judge him by the paintings?

That's a question to be answered in the heart of every person who sees Pollock's art.

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