As we have recently passed the anniversary of Jackson Pollock’s death (Aug. 11) I thought it time to repost this old entry from 2012, the centennial of his birth:
I address you by your first name because I want to talk to the young artist, before the hype, before Life magazine, before the legend. In this letter Jackson Pollock does not yet exist, though “Jackson” was sometimes used as a slang word, a name tossed about by the young, the generation in love with swing music and the jitterbug. What was specific for you was generic for others. Did you ever listen to the Jack Benny program? Phil Harris used to make his entrance by saying, “Hiya, Jackson!”
I find it hard to imagine you jitterbugging.
In the famous photographs and film that Hans Namuth took of you I do not recall seeing a radio. If there is one, it’s easier to imagine a more macho program coming from it – Gangbusters, perhaps – than Jack Benny. But that’s the legend intruding itself. The photos are in your future, but my past. That is one of the mysteries of art: it reshapes time. This mystery is one of the things you will come to understand.
I write this one hundred years after your birth. This is hard to imagine, both for you, who will not live to your centenary, and for us, on the far side of the legend. The art world has spun many times in its orbit since your day, and has entered territories diverse and perplexing. The 1950s, the decade most associated with your art, have an antique quality about them, subject to the distorting lenses of nostalgia and contempt. They have the same stylized look – laughable, at times – as a John Wayne movie. But art, as I wrote earlier, overcomes all that. It makes itself new.
I’ve been trying to put myself in your place, to gain some understanding as to how an artist becomes fully realized. To that end I’ve been looking at Jose Clemente Orozco’s murals: “Prometheus” at Pomona College, and “The Epic of American Civilization,” at Dartmouth University, which you made a special trip to see. They had a profound effect on you. I don’t have to say that as a question because it shows in your work. The great muralists of Mexico, Orozco, Siquieros, and Rivera, were deeply influential, the first two in particular. Together they affected you as much or even more than Picasso. One day, long after your tragic death – in keeping with legends you will not have a happy ending – there will be paintings by Fernando Botero of tortured prisoners that, I think, have something in common with Orozco’s figures. Did you recognize in Orozco and Rivera something about painting – the way that even in still stretches their paintings are dense and alive – that influenced the painting for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, the one you called “Mural”? They are there in the painting, their imagery having been absorbed and transformed into your own, very different, language.
The calacas, traditional skeleton figurines of the Dia de los Muertos – did you ever see them? Perhaps in the lithographs by the great Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, or transformed into stately, undead Professors in Orozco’s “Gods of the Modern World,” a panel from the Dartmouth mural. We’re still using bones, Paul: in platinum skulls encrusted with diamonds celebrating Mammon, in augmented reality works commemorating those who died trying to make their way into the US from Mexico illegally. You took the skeleton apart, disassembled the outlines until nothing was delineated; only line and color remained. Mostly color.
“New needs need new techniques,” you said, which has proven only partially true. Artists find ways to bring the old and the new together, remaking them both. Abstraction and figuration trade places every so often, but neither vanquishes the other. The prophecy that abstraction would reign was foolish – as if we would ever lose interest in ourselves! Painting, said to have died several times, continues to live. Death requires an ending, and art never ends. You knew that.
Your birthday passed with little notice. There was a retrospective exhibition in Japan (radiation is haunting Japan again, Paul, this time self-inflicted), and a smaller show, “Men of Fire” at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth, showing how you moved from Thomas Hart Benton’s influence through Orozco’s. Remember Benton? You said of him, “Studying with Tom Benton gave me a lot to rebel against,” which, in its way, is high praise for a teacher. Benton’s art has settled into a mellow and marginal age of appreciation. He has no legend, and his raw and obstreperous personality is slowly becoming separate from his art, while you are inseparable from yours. After the Hood, “Men of Fire” moved to the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, but I won’t say too much about that. The name “Lee Krasner” – have you heard it yet? She is still in your future, a happy note amid the tragic. She’s an artist, too, already sure of herself while you are still learning, and productive well after your death. Yes, in keeping with the traditional formula she will fall in your shadow, and for years after be underappreciated. A pity, as you and she fed off each other and both of you gained from the association. That won’t last, Paul – women as rarities in the art world. You’ll learn that first with Lee. Her opinion will matter to you above all others.
In the end you live up to the tragic hero legend, defining it for your generation better than any other artist, though some others come close. You will become a one-name artist, like Picasso, or Warhol – you don’t know his name, and never will. He changed the story even more dramatically than you; strangely enough, not by inventing some new technique. And after that…well, what’s the point of telling you? I think you would like some facets of minimalism, and land art – all that pushing earth around, hard honest labor. But Pop, and conceptualism? No. The world changes, Paul, as you did, and as you do. The stereotype of the artist as ever-restless, ever-evolving – a fact of life that Picasso turned into a grim obligation – will catch up with you also. In the end you lose Lee, you lose your way as a painter, and finally, your life. Nothing of Paul will be left for us. Only Jackson will remain.