TERRY FENTON

 

Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible By B.H. Friedman.
Published by McGraw-Hill, New York,
1972. 293 pp. 30 illustrations. $10.00

This originally appeared in The Print Collectors Newsletter Vol III No. 5 November-December 1972.

ARTISTS' LIVES SELDOM warrant book-length biographies. Unlike men of action and men of affairs, their lives tend to be short on the unique experiences that become the stuff of biography. The exceptions that come to mind -- Samuel Johnson, the Brontés, Van Gogh, maybe Picasso -- tend to prove the rule. B. H. Friedman's recent attempt to add Jackson Pollock to the list fails. Fails, in part, because the events of Pollock's life are not particularly unique, but in greater part because Friedman fails to do justice to Pollock's genius. That Pollock had genius I do not doubt, but it was a reticent and undeclarative. If he had the conviction of a Johnson, he lacked the ability or the inclination to turn conviction into opinion. He lacked Picasso's persona and flair (although it could be argued that Picasso's public personality developed as his artistic powers declined, something that wasn't granted to Pollock), and, although his life was self-destructive like Van Gogh's, Pollock left no correspondence to provide us with a "spiritual" biography. (Whether this proves that Pollock was inarticulate, as Friedman suggests, is another matter.) Pollock's life was colored primarily by alcoholism, and while the torment of an alcoholic is no less real than that endured by an emotionally unstable genius like Van Gogh, it is more resistant to interpretation as a variety of religious experience. Alcoholism, in our society is all too familiar; it blights too many lives. It relates to Pollock's genius about as closely as tuberculosis related to Keats'.

Despite a good deal of heavy-handed "interpretation," Friedman appears unable to appreciate the quality of Pollock's character and his art. In both cases, he has a wealth of material to draw upon, although it would appear that much of it is as off the mark as the book itself. For Pollock's character, there are the facts of his biography, the testimony of friends, and Friedman's own experience; for Pollock's art, there are the testimony of critics and Friedman's own experience. Unfortunately, Friedman's experience seems to have been muddled by art-world platitudes, as misguided in praise as in derision.

The facts of Pollock's life are familiar to most students of contemporary art. What perplexes me is that Friedman appears to have neglected some of the most obvious indices of Pollock's character in favor of pseudo-Freudian forays into Pollock's relationship with his mother and speculations about his discomfort with intellectuals. In fact, one of the most revealing chapters in the book is the one in which Friedman describes the "Club" an organization of New York abstract expressionist painters to which Pollock did not belong. Perhaps the best clue to this aspect of Pollock's character occurs in a phrase from a letter he wrote when he was seventeen: "People have always frightened and bored me . . ." and repeated, almost verbatim, by Betty Parsons years later: "He was either bored or terrified of society." That Friedman has missed these, especially when he quotes the material from which they are drawn, seems astonishing. They seem to touch on something essential to Pollock's genius and his torment. That Pollock could have been bored by the Club seems not to have entered Friedman's mind, despite the fact that the evidence points exactly there. Pollock was more than just a dumb country boy with a feeling for materials, he was a major artist, aware, as few people can be, of the continuity and importance of great art. The heady "intellectual" content of the Club may well have seemed totally irrelevant to him. A comparison of what many of the Club artists have said of their work with the few statements Pollock made of his own leaves no doubt as to who is articulate and who isn't.

Pollock's great strength--and Friedman's most serious weakness--is contained in the last sentence of Betty Parsons' reminiscence: "The thing about Pollock is that he was completely unmotivated--he was absolutely pure." This touches on one of the most unique aspects of Pollock's genius, what Clement Greenberg has called Pollock's "inability to be less than honest." The two statements point to the central failure of Friedman's book, his inability to understand the disinterestedness not only of creative genius but of a good deal of decent, human behavior. That some individuals choose to tell the truth even when motivated to do otherwise seems not to have crossed his mind. That Pollock could paint dispassionately when his personal life was in shambles seems equally foreign to him. The only people, who seem to have realized this, apart from Pollock's wife, were Betty Parsons and Clement Greenberg (notably, Friedman does not quote Greenberg on Pollock's character). When we place the details of Pollock's life beside his paintings, we can only be amazed at the disparity; can only conclude that something in his character was not only ruthlessly objective but extravagant and generous. What continues to separate his work from that of his contemporaries is the absence in it of the mannerisms of "good painting," whether American or French, and its resulting generosity and expressive power.

Friedman's failure to do justice to Pollock's character is paralleled by his failure to comprehend Pollock's art critically; only in this case it is bound up with his failure to appreciate Clement Greenberg's criticism and that critic's relationship with Pollock. In fact, at the mention of Greenberg's name, Friedman adopts a pose that has become tiresomely familiar. Granting that Greenberg was a superb judge of works of art, that he saw Pollock's genius early, earned his respect, and became, according to Robert Motherwell, the closest thing to a collaborator Pollock had, Friedman insinuates that Pollock and Greenberg could not have maintained their friendship out of admiration for one another's capabilities. No, there must have been some deeper motive, a father-son kind of thing, something Freudian and smacking of incest. After all, despite the fact that Greenberg knew how to "pick the winners," he had such obvious faults. He wasn't intellectual like Harold Rosenberg. He failed to appreciate Pollock's sense of color. The fact is, Greenberg's criticism of Pollock throughout his career still stands. He was the first to see Pollock's achievement in the 1940s; he was the first to see his decline after 1951.

Friedman's underestimation of Pollock's work prior to his drip paintings is one of the most ludicrous aspects of the book. According to Friedman, up to 1946 Pollock was "a minor surrealist.... if [he] had died then ... he would not have his 'place in history.' " His contention that "academically ... [Pollock was] not in the same class with Dali, Ernst, Masson, Matta, Tanguy, Gorky . . :' is either false or pointless, depending upon what he means by "academically." Pollock was a greater artist than any of them. To consider him in the same breath as Dali is simply embarrassing.

This, in fact the whole book, is more of the Time-Life estimation of Pollock that Friedman so derides. In fact, Friedman has offered little that is new, apart from an abundance of alcoholic episodes and art-world platitudes. Above all, he has failed to enlarge our appreciation of the man and his art, has failed to accomplish in a whole book what Clement Greenberg achieved in two pages in the April 1967, issue of Vogue. A misguided tribute is little better than an insult.