Jackson Pollock: A Biography

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As Evelyn Toynton's reminds us, though, Pollock was less a Freudian than a Jungian: a destructive depressive, he underwent analysis that put the emphasis not on childhood and sex but on spiritual wellbeing and the cosmic soul. Though he started out as a surrealist, he had no hopes that the lines and loops of his "automatic" drawing might subconsciously coalesce into coherent images.

The accidents of creation were enough for him. Not that he was any kind of rarefied romantic. Certainly he wasn't precious about his work. When Peggy Guggenheim commissioned him to make a painting to fit one wall of her apartment, Pollock got the measurements wrong.

Jackson Pollock by Evelyn Toynton – review

Though we think of him swaggering gaily around his canvases, prints from his hobnailed boots can be seen all over the paintings. Often, says Toynton, you'll find "detritus from the studio… cigarette ends, matches, nails, tacks" stuck in there too.

Paintings like Autumn Rhythm and Blue Poles have been subject to reams of high-flown hermeneutic flummery. But we would do well to remember that Pollock's work was never far from the trash and trample of the workshop floor. A mean and mouthy drunk, Pollock spent more than one night with his head in the gutter after picking another fight he was way too small to win.

Like Hemingway before him, and like Brando after, he could never quite accept that art was any kind of a way for a man to make a living. Toynton candidly admits that she can't be sure whether the story about Pollock taking a leak in the fireplace at one of Guggenheim's parties is true, but she knows such macho posturing would hardly have been out of character.

The more horrifying the world, Paul Klee once said, the more abstract the art.

Biography of Jackson Pollock

But while efforts to read Pollock's work as neurotic visions of the post-Hiroshima nightmare have never rung true, there is no denying that he came of age as a painter at the right time. Just as cubism had unconsciously found a way of objectifying the dilated space and time of Einstein's universe, so Pollock's vision embodied the fissile indeterminacy of the quantum world.

Like all great abstractionists, he was more concrete than he knew. Krasner was deeply in love with her husband, both heroically self-sacrificing and infuriatingly suffocating, putting her career on hold in order to take care of him and rescue him from his alcoholic binges, making homes for him in New York City and in a Long Island fishing village called The Springs, but also tracking his every move. Smith have their psychoanalytic formulas for her, and they condescend to her as an artist ''Her fire didn't burn hot enough'' ; but they admire and respect her, as she deserves to be admired and respected.

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Moreover, they are to be praised for exposing the popular view of Pollock as a gifted bad boy for the nonsense that it is. The Pollock they reconstruct has a distinctly repulsive side. In addition to being an alcoholic, it appears that, as his relationship with Krasner deteriorated, he abused her verbally and sometimes beat her. Anyone with a shred of romantic softness for Pollock needs to know the full range of his destructive behavior; he was not, at his worst, a tormented innocent, a 50's rebel without a cause, but vicious and hurtful to those he loved.

It's interesting to learn that Pollock appears to have struggled with homosexual desires and experiences. Smith cite friends of Pollock who claim to have definite knowledge of his homosexual activities.

He spent time with people in the New York gay subculture in the mid's, particularly in the circle surrounding the art dealer Peggy Guggenheim. At the same time it's difficult to know what to do with this information, since it is no more integrated into some deeper understanding of Pollock than any other fact about him in the book. All that emerges finally is that he was as tormented about sexual matters as about everything else, not particularly successful as a lover with his wife or other women and in enormous chronic pain about his inadequacies.

Throughout the book the authors keep up a running commentary on Pollock's painting, the development of which they see primarily in terms of Pollock's attempts to express his ''unconscious,'' a word they use interchangeably with ''subconscious. Smith know everything about Pollock and understand almost nothing. Their book is bad biography because instead of offering a conception of Pollock rich enough to turn their facts into compelling truths, they cut him down to size, diminishing both the man and his art in an unending chronicle of self-destructive defeat and humiliation.

Fortunately, Ellen G. Landau's monograph is both more modest and more successful. For Ms. Landau, who teaches art history at Case Western Reserve University, Pollock was an artist, and an intelligent one at that. She finds his intelligence in the work. For instance, about his early drawings she writes, ''Despite Benton's later assessment that Jackson Pollock did not have a very logical mind, numerous pages from the younger artist's sketchbooks dating just after his study at the [Art Students] League demonstrate an ability to correctly analyze the cubic arrangement of elements in space.

For instance, she points out that in the sketches Pollock showed to Joseph Henderson, the Jungian analyst he saw in the late 30's, anyone with some sophistication in art history ''would have recognized. Landau of course does accept the centrality of Pollock's psychological problems and points out that by the early 40's ''a relentless and 'fanatical' conviction had begun to form in his mind: becoming a truly great artist was the only way he could ever come to terms with his constantly threatening emotional turmoil. Smith see his art as mired in that turmoil, Ms.

Landau sees it - at least the great periods and the great works - as a victory over it, and a victory that must be spelled out in terms of art history, of intelligence and decision and imagination. Hers is the quieter, but immeasurably the better, of the two books. Aware always of the problem of treating Pollock's life and work ''as if they were totally indivisible,'' she remarks that many of those closest to Pollock ''have maintained to the contrary that Pollock's mature work, which was often lyrical and quite beautiful, often had only a marginal relationship to his immature personality, which could often be quite ugly.

Smith give us a raucous, drunken, foulmouthed, movie-version Pollock, but also a trivialized Pollock, a reduced and shrunken man whose achievement has something accidental, unearned and pathetic about it.

- The Washington Post

Landau leaves us with a Pollock about whom it is possible to have a sense of wonder that survives what she insists must also be our inevitable sense of waste. Log In.

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