Jackson Whole

America loves an emblematic life, and the Pollock show at the Museum of Modern Art is arranged to tell a tale of long struggle, high triumph, and swift fall. The category of “the heroic,” no longer applicable to political figures (mendacious bean-counters) and soldiers (dull tools of wicked warmongers) and athletes (at those salaries!), can still be applied to artists, especially Abstract Expressionists. They worked on a heroic scale, and made heroic breakthroughs into sublime simplifications-Rothko’s hovering rectangles of color, Kline’s sweeping bars of black, De Kooning’s infernos of flickering, flashing strokes, and above all Pollock’s epic drips.

Happily, Pollock, though a terrible abuser of his body with alcohol, was mostly on the wagon and in fine trim in the years 1948 to 1950, when the eyes of the publicity machine turned upon him. The photographic images, captured by Martha Holmes for an August 1949 article in Life and by Hans Namuth in 1950 for Harper’s Bazaar, of a handsome, intent, hard-bodied man, in blue jeans and T-shirt, with a bald pate, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and a dimple in the center of his chin, prowlingly, dancingly dripping and splashing paint upon a canvas on the floor of his studio, defined “action painting” and planted an icon, to be jeered or cheered, in the national imagination. His sudden death by automobile, at the age of forty-four, the year after James Dean’s fatal crash, cemented the romantic fable: a beautiful, reckless rebel perished of-what? Of success and the attendant self-disgust.

According to the biographical chronology at the back of curator Kirk Varnedoe’s sumptuous and instructive (but indexless) catalog, Pollock took his first drink in two years the Saturday that Namuth, who made movies of the painter at work as well as stills, had at last ceased his filming. The weather had turned cold, this outdoor exercise in publicity had turned uncomfortable, and Pollock, ever angrily alert to the possibility of phoniness, poured himself a belt, and then another. It was a quick skid downward thereafter.

But this gets us ahead of the story, to the last, sad room in the show. The first galleries show struggle, the struggle of a stubborn artistic vocation with a brooding, tangled temperament and a largely hidden talent. “Pollock, though he lacked any evident talent, fixed early on his vocation,” the wall placard tells us. He was the youngest of five sons of a peripatetic, poverty-prone family who moved around the West, from Wyoming to Arizona and California, under the guidance of a depressive, alcoholic, and, finally, absentee father. Yet this hardscrabble household produced three artists—Charles, the eldest, and Sande, the brother closest to Jackson. They, and the art teacher at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, “a fatherly and theatrical eccentric” with the flamboyant name of Frederic John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, offered the young Pollock most of the little tutelage he received. Jackson, who was always perhaps more interested in being an …

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