The Discovery of An American Icon: Extract from ‘Jackson Pollock’ by Evelyn Toynton

Jackson Pollock’s revolutionary ‘drip paintings’ put American art on the map, representing the first real break with the formal structures of European art. Evelyn Toynton’s fresh, fascinating portrait of Pollock explores his work, his influence and his legend in the context of both art and cultural history of mid-20th-century America. In this exclusive extract, Toynton tells the story of the infamous Life article that brought Pollock instant fame (and notoriety).

Extract from the Introduction of Jackson Pollock by Evelyn Toynton

In October 1948, the photojournalism magazine Life featured a roundtable discussion in which an international panel of figures from the world of culture was asked to give its views on whether “modern art, considered as a whole, [was] a good or bad development.” Life, at that time the leading weekly in the United States, was conservative in its politics and much concerned with issues of morality. Its implicit disapproval of modern art was based on a belief that the work of contemporary painters was divorced from any moral purpose, “with no ethical or theological references.” The terms of the debate echoed the controversy in England in the last years of the Victorian era, another age of morality, when figures like Oscar Wilde and the “Frenchified” poets known as the Decadents outraged the general public by spurning the idea that art must provide uplift and instruction. Instead, they espoused the creed known as art for art’s sake (l’art pour l’art)—a “theology” of art that removes it from the realm of ordinary morality and claims allegiance to beauty alone.

Clement Greenberg, the art critic for the Nation and Jackson Pollock’s greatest champion, was on the Life panel, and Pollock’s highly abstract painting Cathedral was one of the “extremist” works that the members were asked to consider, and that was reproduced in color in the magazine. Somber in coloring, largely white and black and metallic gray, with very thin sparse lines in orange and yellow flashing upward here and there, and the black paint looping along its surface like coils of delicate barbed wire, it has an almost chilling Gothic quality that makes its name appropriate. Greenberg extolled it as “one of the best paintings recently produced in this country,” while such notables as the writer Aldous Huxley and the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum remained unconvinced. Said Huxley, “It seems to me like a panel for a wallpaper which is repeated indefinitely around the wall.” A professor of philosophy remarked that it would make “a pleasant design for a necktie.” None of the experts, however, explicitly condemned the painting as immoral or decadent.

Despite the skepticism of the panel, four months later Life sent the photographer Arnold Newman to Pollock’s studio, and the shots Newman came back with convinced them to go ahead with an article they had been considering. Pollock himself, though he had his doubts, decided to go ahead with it too. In July, he and his wife, Lee Krasner, dressed in their most respectable clothes, presented themselves at Life’s offices in New York, where they were jointly interviewed, with Krasner amplifying and clarifying Pollock’s responses.

In August 1949, Life’s five million readers were confronted with a two-and-a-half-page spread, in both black-and-white and color, under a headline that turned a statement Greenberg had made about Pollock into a deliberately provocative question: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Life received over five hundred letters in response to the piece, more than any other article they had run all year. Having invited people, in what may have been a spirit of mischief, to answer the question of Pollock’s greatness for themselves, the magazine’s inhouse skeptics were probably not displeased with the furious reaction they got. Most of their readers expressed indignation at the  notion that this artist who “drooled” paint, whose work consisted of whorls and skeins of paint flung, dripped, and sometimes spread with sticks across the canvas, could be producing anything more aesthetically valid than a child’s finger painting or the splattered drop cloths that were the residue of their own home improvement projects. Nor had the Life article been aimed at fending off such comments. Though the editors did not come out and say what they thought of Pollock’s work themselves, or of Greenberg’s claims for it, the tone of the piece was fairly tongue-in-cheek.

Yet the fact remained that by featuring Pollock in its pages, Life was at least acknowledging the possibility that his paintings, and Greenberg’s claims for them, were somehow significant. That was an extraordinary development in itself. And if Life failed to make a connection between the vast canvases on show and the stirring call to “create the first great American Century” that the magazine’s publisher, Henry Luce, had issued in a 1941 editorial, there were others who were beginning to recognize that Pollock’s “all-over” works were reflections of the vitality, the vast spaces, and the sense of infinite possibility unique to the American experience. “No limits, just edges,” he said of them, a triumphantly American credo.

Before Pollock’s breakthrough, American art was generally regarded, both in the United States and abroad, as, at best, a dim second cousin to the great art of Europe. (“The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges,” according to Marcel Duchamp.) When not simply a variation on some form of  European art, it was distinctively American mostly by virtue of its subject matter.

In the early thirties Pollock himself, under the influence of his teacher and mentor Thomas Hart Benton, had produced paintings of square dancers and brawny laborers and covered wagons. But the style of these paintings, like Benton’s own, was essentially derived from the Mannerism of the European Baroque. For all its ruggedness, its rather aggressive virility, Benton’s work, and Pollock’s under his tutelage, owed its technique to the Old Masters. The paintings of Pollock’s that appeared in Life, and the paintings he was to do in the following four years, were American in a very different way. Painted not on the easel, not on the wall, but on the floor, like the Navajo sand paintings that Pollock had seen in his boyhood in the  Southwest, they allowed for a whole new kind of freedom: the freedom to move around the painting as he worked—to be, as Pollock said, in the painting. They also represented a liberation from the last vestiges of European formalism.

Luce’s Messianic rallying cry to his fellow citizens called on all of them, “each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.” Strange as it would undoubtedly have seemed to Henry Luce, and uncomfortable though Pollock would have been with such rhetoric, in his own way he had been answering the call.

* * *

It wasn’t his paintings alone, however, that Life made famous. Pollock, as would be demonstrated over and over in the next few years, was spectacularly photogenic. The Life article showed him leaning up in front of one of his paintings in jeans and a denim jacket, ankles crossed, arms crossed, cigarette dangling from his mouth; both the cocky pose he adopts and the expression on his face convey his defiance, his refusal to cozy up to the camera. He does not look like a civilized man; he looks dangerous and sexy, full of latent power: a cowboy, or a motorcycle hoodlum. His fellow painter Willem de Kooning gibed that Pollock looked like “some guy who works at the service station pumping gas.” But that was  precisely the point. The very fact that his paintings had been made  not with gentlemanly oils but with the sort of industrial paints used by builders and laborers was further proof of his tough-guy status. This was no effete character in a smock and a beret; this was a portrait of the artist as America—and the rest of the world—had never seen him before.

The brooding rebelliousness of the Life photograph prefigured the screen personas who were to burst into the national consciousness a few years later, actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean, down and dirty American existentialists. (In fact, there are those who claim that Pollock was one of the models for Stanley Kowalski, the antihero of A Streetcar Named Desire and the role that first made Brando famous: a few years before Tennessee Williams wrote the play, he became acquainted with Pollock and observed his explosive behavior.) Above all, they were hailed as authentic, a quality seen as terribly important, and in increasingly short supply, in that time and place. It was not only J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield who, on his appearance in the pages of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, railed against phonies. There was a pervasive fear that some particularly American brand of honesty and integrity and independence of spirit was being lost for good.

But the sort of macho these new heroes represented was not of the old, self-assured kind, personified for an earlier generation by such figures as Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy. Wounded as well as alienated, they were not confidently manly figures, in control of their destinies, but raging, conflicted ones—as though in recognition that the age would not allow for control; that the forces lined up against the individual were too great, too complex, for him to master.

Jackson Pollock by Evelyn Toynton

Jackson Pollock by Evelyn Toynton

Evelyn Toynton, a frequent contributor to Harper’s and other publications, is the author of the novels Modern Art, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and The Oriental Wife, to be published by Other Press in 2011. She lives in Norfolk, England.

Jackson Pollock is available now from Yale University Press, and is part of the Icons of America series.

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