Brain Pickings

Jackson Pollock on Art, Labels, and Morality, Shortly Before His Death

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“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

In 1957, writer, public intellectual, lifelong art aficionado, and self-described “aging anthologist” Selden Rodman collected several dozen of his informal, lively, amusing, and insightful interviews with iconic artists and architects — including Frank Lloyd Wright, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg — in Conversations with Artists (public library). Among the conversations is one with Jackson Pollockbeloved artist and son of one particularly great dad — which took place eight weeks before Pollock, driving under the influence of alcohol, crashed in his Oldsmobile convertible into a tree and died.

But on that June evening in 1956, Rodman bumped into a tipsy Pollock en route to a dive bar party following the opening of Willem de Kooning’s show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. When Rodman, tipsy as well, runs into Pollock near Astor Place, the painter suddenly reaches out, grabs the runt of a nearby tree, and weaves into an oddly philosophical meditation:

“What’s the use of going further than this?,” he muttered. “The tree’s got everythin’. Leave it alone and it’ll grow and grow an’ be beautiful. … No need to leave New York at all. … Thish tree’s got everythin’ … beautiful … beautiful …!” And he drifted off into the moonlit fog of dawn, dropping a package of matches. I stopped over and picked it up. The words printed on it said: “There are good jobs for everyone in the telephone business.”

About a month later, Rodman calls Pollock — who famously doesn’t answer letters — to arrange a visit. He coordinates with his wife, Lee Krasner, an abstract painter herself. Eventually, he makes his way to the family’s home in East Hampton, where Pollock emerges to greet him “in nondescript blue slacks and a T-shirt, bearded and bleary-eyed, like a bear.” Pollock’s way of conversation, Rodman notes, bespeaks a great deal of his character:

He talks with difficulty, searching painfully, almost agonizingly, for the right word, with constant apologies “for not being verbal.” The sincerity of the man is overwhelmingly apparent. He is uncouth and inarticulate and arrogant and very sure of his place in art and of the importance of the movement with which he is associated, but there is not a race of showmanship or phoniness in his make-up. He is friendly and warm-hearted — though he resists showing it, and no doubt would like to be though ruthless and without sentiment. In respect to his art, of course, he is; and this may be the tragic conflict that both makes his painting what it is and accounts for his inability to carry it further.

Jackson Pollock

When asked “to elaborate on the business of labels,” Pollock grunts:

“I don’t care for ‘abstract expressionism,’” he said, “and it’s certainly not ‘nonobjective’ and not ‘nonrepresentational’ either. I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge. We’re all of us influenced by Freud, I guess. I’ve been a Jungian for a long time.

When Rodman probes about Pollock’s process, the painter offers a strikingly articulate addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Something in me knows where I’m going, and — well, painting is a state of being. … Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.

Later in the conversation, Pollock reflects on the inherent duality of human character:

It’s a different age we live in. It’s an age of indeterminacy, perhaps. Morals are indeterminate compared with other times. YOu don’t call a thing or a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the way you could one. We know there’s good and bad in everyone. This indeterminacy comes out in our painting. Perhaps it’s why we’re not interested in making portraits. That would be too precise a statement to lend itself to painting as we practice it.

He admonishes against vacant imitation:

When you try to emulate the old masters … you get corn, real corn. Bits of Renaissance pastiche are still bits of Renaissance pastiche, no matter how blurred you make them.

'Autumn Rhythm' by Jackson Pollock, 1950, enamel on canvas

Later, he takes a jab at Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic cylindrical structure, and the very notion of museums:

As for Wright, he’s a great architect, I guess, but what a *%@#! That museum! We’ve had all this trouble in doing away with the frame — and now this. Paintings don’t need all this fooling around. The hell with museums! Put the paintings in a room and look at ‘em — isn’t that enough? You remember that old building where the Museum of Modern Art started? What was wrong with that? I was in a house designed by Mies once; I felt so taut I couldn’t say anything.

Pollock is equally dismissive of another facet of the art establishment, the critics and the press:

None of the art magazines are worth anything. Nobody takes them seriously. The’r a bunch of snobs.

'The Key' by Jackson Pollock, 1946, oil on canvas (Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago)

And just when you think Pollock’s delightfully curmudgeonly side has blossomed fully, an incident out of an old Hollywood movie: He invites Rodman to see his studio, but finds it padlocked, with no key in sight. So he does the most natural — at least to Pollock, evidently — thing:

We waited while he went back into the house. In about five minutes he returned, shaking his head. “Lee hasn’t got one either. There just isn’t any key,” he smiled wryly. “There’s something for the analyst!” he said “The painter locks himself out of his own studio. And then has to break it like a thief.”

Before we could stop him he had smashed a pane of glass.

“Couldn’t we force the window?” I said.

He tried, but without success. There were wedges nailed in from the inside.

“Damn!” With his elbow he smashed another pane, and then another, tearing away the wooden strips between them. “Wait. I’ll get a hammer and really go to work on this.” He ran back to the house while we collected the splintered glass in a pile. Returning with the hammer, he finally managed to raise the lower half of the window and, shoving a table covered with dusty sketches out of the way, stepped in. We followed him. The main studio was an extraordinary sight. Huge paintings, some of them twenty or more feet long, demonstrated clearly enough what he had meant. They weren’t French, or even American. They were simply Pollock. Paint laced, slashed or dripped on canvas after canvas, but always arrestingly, authoritatively, as only he can do it: undeniably the expression of a tormented but vital personality.

As the afternoon’s adventure comes to an end, Pollock’s singular blend of single-mindedness and sensitivity shines through:

As we walked toward the window to climb out, he took a look back into the lair of creative devastation.

“These paintings, the ones I’ve kept, are my securities. They’re all I’ve got left.” He leaned out the window and looked at the view of the distant pond.

“Painting is my whole life…”

Conversations with Artists is a treasure trove in its entirety — highly recommended.

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