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Geniuses Together

John Updike’s novel Seek My Face is the life story, told mostly in the first person singular, of an American woman called Hope Chafetz. She is presented to us as the wife and widow of a major figure in the history of American painting.

The painter in question is identified in Seek My Face as Zack McCoy. Even if the reader does not know that the Pollocks harbored McCoys in their family tree, Zack McCoy is unmistakably and from start to finish modeled on Jackson Pollock. The author acknowledges his debt both to the biography of Pollock by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (1989) and to an anthology called Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, edited and introduced by Clifford Ross (1990). Mr. Updike also warns us that “this is a work of fiction. Nothing in it is necessarily true.” As to that, an informed reader will note that already on page 6 Hope Chafetz says that her maiden name was Ouderkirk. She says that she came from Dutch Quaker stock and was raised in Germantown, Pennsylvania, “where invisible real-estate agents kept Jews out.” She remembers the quality of silence in Quaker meetings, and the furniture at home, some of which she still has in her house in Vermont. She remembers the Quaker phrases that her grandfather used, and she remembers driving past the Philadelphia museum in the family Packard. “How strange,” she says of her furniture, “that things trail us from place to place, more loyal than organic friends, who desert us by dying.”

This brief opening section is in itself highly persuasive. But not a word of it is true. The first and only wife of Jackson Pollock was not born Ouderkirk. She was not raised as a Quaker in Germantown. Her family never had a Packard. Nor did she have in childhood the easy chair with “faded coarse plaid and broad arms of orangish varnished oak” that many years later sat in Vermont on “floorboards painted the shiny black-red of Bing cherries.” The shaping hand in her story, here and elsewhere, is not the speaker’s but the author’s.

John Updike has given the wife of Jackson Pollock not only a new name but a new identity and a whole series of new adventures. He has also given her a much longer life. The obituaries record her death in 1984, but Mr. Updike has her alive and talking freely and in detail to an interviewer at the age of seventy-nine in the year 2001.

Why did he do it? Mrs. Pollock was born in 1908 in Brooklyn. Her name was Lenore Krassner and she was the daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents. Her father came from Odessa and ran a fruit store in New York. She herself had leftist sympathies and had worked as a waitress and as a fashion designer’s model. A natural for the New York art world, she was quick to learn and a good judge of other people. She spotted for instance that, among the many foreign artists who came to New York as émigrés, only Piet Mondrian thought that there was something to be learned from the locals.

She had in her nature nothing of the Pennsylvania Quakers. She was born, bred, and raised as a big-city person. If she went in her youth to an artists’ dance dressed primarily in coal dust, she didn’t mind if most of the coal dust came off. So we are entitled to wonder why Mr. Updike should want to put the reader off the scent with the genteel particularity of the opening scenes in Germantown. The question to be answered is not how but why Seek My Face came into being. The moment of ignition can plausibly be dated to December 1998, when Mr. Updike went to the extensive survey of Jackson Pollock’s career that had been organized by Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

By his own account in the pages of this magazine,* a total stranger urged him to get the Acoustiguide to the show. One of the people quoted in that guide was Lee Krasner. Of her five contributions, four were necessarily read for her. But in the last one, she herself was heard in a recording made late in her life. It is worth quoting in full:

Jackson was secure in his work. In that he was sure of himself. But I can’t say he was a happy man. There were times when he was happy; he loved his house, he loved to fool in his garden, he liked to go out and look at the dunes, the gulls…. It is a myth that he wasn’t verbal…. He was lucid, intelligent; it was simply that he didn’t want to talk art. If he was quiet, it was because he didn’t believe in talking. He believed in doing.

Here was, literally, a voice from the grave. (“A wise-girl voice, reminiscing,” John Updike called it.) The limpid candor of her remarks makes its effect even in print. As spoken by Lee Krasner herself, and as if whispered in his ear, her words might well have aroused a novelist’s prehensile curiosity. And, sure enough, it was almost in loco parentis that Mr. Updike, with no small audacity, set out to match the known “what” of her life to an imagined “what if?”

Past and present could be extended. Lee Krasner need not die in 1984. Nor need her lengthened life be without incident. She could marry again, twice, and have children, have success as a painter, and flourish in a world that was all in the future when she made her recording. There was no lack of leads. During and after her years with Pollock, who died in 1956, Lee Krasner was acquainted with just about everyone of consequence in the New York art scene. She knew the art, and she knew the people who made it, from Mondrian onward. Some of them she knew more than well, and sometimes she tells the reader what they were like. If the character based on Barnett Newman is described as stinking of sweat and tobacco after she had made love with him, this is still “a work of fiction,” in which nothing “is necessarily true.” The fictional Krasner has unselfconscious powers of recall.

Lee Krasner’s actual life is well worth studying on its own account, quite apart from Updike’s fiction. An exemplary and much-put-upon wife, and long familiar with the ways and the wiles of the New York art world, Lee Krasner was a painter (better than most) and became in due time the faithful guardian of Jackson Pollock’s miscellaneous leavings. (She was 100 percent behind the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, by which many artists have been helped.) Strong, determined, principled, and upright, she would stand no nonsense. “A great lady” was the estimate of a reliable judge who had worked with her after Pollock’s death.

Many of the figures from the New York art world who appear in this book are given thinly disguised names—“Korgi” is Arshile Gorky, “Bernie Nova” is Barnett Newman. From time to time, the author’s imagination goes into overdrive. Bernie Nova is said more than once in Seek My Face to have married for money and lived comfortably ever after on the earnings of his wife, who was an up-market interior decorator. The truth is that Annalee Newman taught school for most of her life to allow Newman to get on with his work. After her death, she was honored by a ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum that was one of the most memorable occasions of its kind.

New forms of art are routinely scorned by those who feel threatened by them. Those who admired and defended Pollock through the years in which he was near to starving were often furious when younger names came to be held in high regard. In the interview that ends Seek My Face Updike allows Hope Chafetz to blather on about the “Bed” by Rauschenberg which was acquired for the Museum of Modern Art in 1988. “What an outrage!” she says. “He had to go out and find any old bed and paint it up and present it as art.” The reader is evidently expected to snigger at this point. But the truth—obvious to any knowledgeable observer—is that the “Bed” ranks as art because it is Rauschenberg’s own bed.

When faced with a novel about people who have already been discussed for many years, the reader is entitled to ask for a renewed sense of actuality. What was the specific character of the New York scene in which Pollock and Lee Krasner first got together? And what was it really like to be alone in the studio, or the bedroom, in the Hamptons with Jackson Pollock?

Seek My Face does well on both counts. Updike’s Hope Chafetz/Lee Krasner never forgot the still-young McCoy/Pollock in New York, with his

bad-boy face, its three muscular dents, deep dimples as if in amplification of her own lone dimple, and with his face the look of the Manhattan streets back then, before glass-skin architecture and plastic garbage bags.

As for Manhattan itself, she remembers plenty:

The curbs of East Ninth Street crowded on collection days with corroded galvanized trash cans, angrily dented on the dump truck’s hydraulically lifted lip, and the huge metal noise they made in the middle of the night, the trash men getting their own back at all those sleeping safe above them. The cans smelled plainly of garbage then, and class war was unconcealed, unions versus management, the Reds against the rich. You were not asked to have a nice day;…each block formed a little village, with a shoe repairman, a barber shop, a notions shop run by a pair of sisters, a Chinese laundry, a coal-and-wood cellar, a drugstore with a marble soda counter.

Pollock was in his thirties when they first got together. In the interview in Seek My Face we are told that

his narrow hips, his chest and shoulders [were] coated with blond wool, even his bare feet were beautiful, knobbly and broad across the toes, and the insteps as white as the skin inside a woman’s arm.

Almost as tall as he was, she felt like an Eve made to match with him and was at one, in her imagination, with Old Master paintings of Eve before the Fall, unrepentant, with “the cleft of her sex not hidden, nor Adam’s penis.”

Many years later, she would think in Seek My Face that “sex sours, wealth melts, and fame is for fifteen minutes.” She would also say that “men run dry. They do what they came for, and then they leave.” But with McCoy the case was different:

It wasn’t Zack’s painting I was attracted to. It was Zack himself, his body, his face. He was beautiful, and it was a beauty that took some creativity to discover. You can’t do a beautiful person, item by item. There was the unity, there was a swing to his body, a thrust I guess we can say without getting too Freudian that used to take my breath away when he wasn’t aware that I was looking at him.
Neither of them was monogamous by nature. Apparently Zack in his days as a portraitist would sometimes go to bed with his well-to-do women sitters and make little of it. His wife, by her account here,

had come late to sex, and it was like a glorious toy. It was power and submission and danger, it was a way of getting to know somebody and having them know you. It was a way of weaving a kind of costume of secrets. Isn’t that how it still is?
On the dance floor, by his widow’s account, Zack was hopeless. “He just couldn’t match his steps to yours, or let you match his.” But there was another kind of dance—one of his own invention—at which he had no rival. This was the one that he performed spontaneously when he laid the canvas on the floor, stood on it, and poured the oil straight from the can. While doing this he moved this way and that in a way that his wife never forgot. As she put it later,

There is so much innocence in that man dancing and kneeling around the piece of canvas on the floor, such sweet childish absorption in the doing, that I wanted to hug him and beg his forgiveness for bringing him out to where he could wrestle beauty to a fall and yet be unable to show him how to get any lasting happiness out of his having done it.

This happened at first in privacy. The Hamptons in the winter then had their dismal side, and the nearest neighbor was a mile away. Pollock was doing something with paint that had never been done before, and the last thing that he wanted was an intruder. But, as is well known, a photographic record of Pollock at work was made in 1950 by Hans Namuth, a gifted photographer and a longtime resident nearby. The greatest coup of his career was the photographs that he made of Pollock pouring (not dripping) paint on a canvas laid flat on the floor. They have an air of spontaneity and immediacy that has been accepted in art history as self-evident. No big museum show of Pollock has seemed complete without them. But Updike’s Mrs. Pollock detested them, and here his account seems particularly convincing. It was her contention that Zack hated to be intruded upon at a crucial moment in his career. Even less did he wish to take part in a pantomime version of himself at work.

As for Hans Namuth, he did not want to produce an image that was obviously untidy or in any way incomplete. But Pollock’s methods were not pre-planned. They were inspirational. Any intruder could break the spell, all the more so if he were darting around, clicking his camera, changing the film, and (worst of all) asking for retakes. The Pollocks came to regard that session as both misleading and calamitous.

Even so, the photographs are marvelously evocative. But what we see there was directed, throughout, by Hans Namuth. When the session was interrupted, he would, according to Krasner herself, talk to Pollock as if he were Fritz Lang in a movie studio in Weimar Berlin and Pollock was the great actor Emil Jannings. The subject was Pollock and his work, but Hans Namuth was directing the picture. For ever after, Mrs. Pollock saw him as “the bossy German.”

Hope Chafetz says to her interviewer that

Zack had this old-fashioned macho sense of honor. Putting himself on show like that was for him the betrayal of the only thing he cared about—painting. The pictures that he did on camera were useless to him, and he never looked at them or displayed them.

Even more ominous was the fact that, when the session was finally over, Pollock for the first time in a long while took a long, strong drink.

Hope Chafetz is also quoted as saying that “interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery, the indeterminacy that gives art life.” And Pollock, whether in fiction or in life, hated being interviewed. In Seek My Face, his alter ego’s wife says that “it offended his lower-class sense of dignity, of there being things one didn’t say.” He was also offended, she says, because his ideal of dignity was that the artist should not be a “performer and society leech but…a worker, and at least as worthy of respect as a preacher or a banker. It was one of the things about him I loved.”

In 2001, Hope Chafetz is slow to take to her interviewer, who at first seems to her not merely overdressed but “horsy and humorless.” The interviewer does not endear herself by arriving with an armful of computer printouts to help her keep the conversation on track, nor would anyone with any tact have begun with a reference to something that the artist had said in “the catalogue of your last show,” five years ago, “back in 1996.”

In the actual last years of Krasner and Pollock’s life together, both she and he were classic cases of matrimonial mishap. In Updike’s version, he once said to her, “You hoity-toity twat, the greatest painter in the world is giving you advice. Hang it up. Your work is crap. Pseudo-representational crap.” But even then she knew, she says, that he was stuck in his wounded alcoholic brain and that “she was no help, she was nothing to him, she was a figure in a haze so thick she could be there or not.”

Updike paces those developments with a steady hand until Pollock, hopelessly drunk, is killed in a car crash in 1956. After that, Mrs. Pollock at first saw herself as simply “a widow. At the age of Christ crucified, left with nothing but an old farmhouse and three acres and a barn-full of paintings nobody wanted to buy.”

Nonetheless, in the last and wholly invented part of Updike’s book, Hope Chafetz eventually picks up the ball and runs with it during the extra years that the author allows her. For many of them, she had a whole new life, both with veterans of Pollock’s own day and with a generation based on that of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol. In a New York art world that had a new public, new cabals, and new high-earning favorites, she got married again (first to “Pop Art’s super-successful boy wonder,” an Englishman named Guy Holloway). In the 1960s she lived in Manhattan and had a horse farm in Connecticut. She had three children and a number of auxiliary amours. She also had a solid success as a painter.

Except for the fictional Krasner’s success as an artist, most of this does not convince. The author’s command of the world of pop art is shaky, and neither the fictional Jasper Johns nor Robert Rauschenberg quite comes across. With later artists, none of whose work Lee Krasner ever saw, Updike’s touch is wildly askew. Richard Serra, for instance, appears as an unnamed “bully who put a big sheet of rusty iron across a nice little park downtown.”

At the time of the interview, in 2001, forty-five years after Pollock’s death, one of her subsequent husbands has Alzheimer’s and the other has died. Updike imagines her as a dwindling ancient who lives in a very small house, filled with one or two scraps of family furniture, in rural Vermont. Slithering around in lint-colored socks and Birkenstocks, she keeps herself alive with unsalted nuts and English oatmeal cookies called Carr’s Hob Nobs. By eight in the evening, she is “in her nightie” and off to bed. Once there, she remembers the treasure hunts that she had had as a child, among the furniture from Germantown which (we were already told) is still all around her. She thinks of having a treasure hunt then and there, but the thought of grunting on her knees on the oval rug puts her off, as does the “fear of finding nothing.” This final diminuendo is the more touching for being cut short just in time.

This is John Updike’s twentieth novel. Notwithstanding its lapses in understanding the post-Pollock art world, Seek My Face is panoramic in its descriptions and deft and economical in its storytelling. It is above all an act of chivalry toward Lee Krasner. She has too often been made to take second place to Pollock, not only as a painter (where there was no comparison) but as a human being; in fact, she did not have to take second place to anyone. Updike’s book is from beginning to end an act of restitution. Pollock is in no way slighted, but for once Lee Krasner gets her due, not least for having fired the imagination of John Updike.

  1. *

    Jackson Whole,” The New York Review, December 3, 1998.

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