Retrospective: Pollock in LIFE

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Journalists follow a time-tested format. An example of this occurs in what is perhaps the most important article about art published in any magazine, LIFE’s feature on Jackson Pollock, published in 1949. It has become a journalistic template, an enduring post-war ideal of arts writing, still regularly conjured to reflect romanticized attitudes to contemporary art and reinforced by Hollywood movies such as Lust for Life, Basquiat, and, of course Ed Harris’s Pollock.

The title of the LIFE piece asks the question ”Jackson Pollock. Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” as though challenging the reader to arrive at a judgment. The magazine implies “yes” and does not offer alternatives.

The unattributed opinion of an unnamed critic, by all accounts Clement Greenberg, is adduced as proof: “Recently a formidably high-brow New York critic hailed the brooding, puzzled-looking man shown above as a major artist of our time.” The article goes on, “He is fast becoming the most talked-of and controversial U.S. painter,” though nothing specific about what is controversial in the art is mentioned. The artist’s process is as unfathomable as the art: “Finally, after days of brooding and doodling, Pollock decides the painting is finished, a deduction few others are equipped to make.” The work is said to fetch high prices, $1800 for the painting Number Nine, or as the magazine puts it, $100 per foot for the 3×18-foot piece.

Willem de Kooning famously said that Pollock in LIFE “broke the ice” for abstract painting. But, more truly, LIFE encased a concept of “abstract painting” or “Modern Art” in ice, as if to say that contemporary art cannot be understood very well, like the Theory of Relativity or a Buick’s drive shaft. However, with patience, free association, and perhaps the help of a critic, a sort of aesthetic mechanic, Modern Art is comprehensible. These assertions were followed throughout the 1950s in American Cold-War rhetoric by another essential truth, namely that abstract painting is free expression in a free country, however much you may not understand it.

Pollock’s art is put into perspective by his grocer, an everyman like the feature writer (who goes unnamed) and putative reader of LIFE: “He [Pollock] has also won a following among his own neighbors in the village of Springs, N.Y., who amuse themselves by trying to decide what his paintings are about. His grocer bought one which he identifies for bewildered visiting salesman as an aerial view of Siberia.”

Ten years after Pollock appeared in LIFE, the art historian E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion doesn’t do much better than the grocer’s reading of “Siberia.” Gombrich, wary of the “code-breaking sophistication” Pollock presumably assumes of the viewer, asserts that Gestalt psychology is a savvy approach. He characterizes an informed viewer as “only those who know how to apply the various traditional consistency tests and thereby discover the absence of any meaning except the highly ambiguous meaning of traces.” Though today’s sophisticated viewers are more likely to connect a new work of abstract art with a previous one (hence Walter Robinson’s recent term “zombie formalism”), the LIFE article’s audience had to overcome impulses that produced a representational work from an abstract painting.

Pollock in LIFE didn’t do much to unravel the complexities of his art for the magazine’s readership, but rather underscored issues related to American cultural nationalism. In the 1950s, branch-plant status was a growing concern, causing Clement Greenberg to remark:

If Pollock were a Frenchman, I feel sure that there would be no need by now to call attention to my own objectivity in praising him; people would already be calling him “maitre” and speculating on his pictures. Here in this country the museum directors, the collectors, and the newspaper critics will go on for a long time–out of fear if not out of incompetence – refusing to believe that we have at last produced the best painter of a whole generation; and they will go on believing everything but their own eyes.

Because picture magazines were as popular in 1949 as television would soon become (and what web-surfing is today), much of the post-war artworld outside of New York was introduced to Pollock’s art by LIFE’s article, the tail that wagged the dog of high culture. LIFE’s Pollock sailed over the heads of advanced art’s gatekeepers to arrive at the stoops of Americans –  and others (a later iteration would wink its reference, General Idea’s 1960s/’70s parody product, FILE Magazine). Denise Leclerc, in The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada, claims that both Art McKay and Jean-Paul Riopelle were introduced to Pollock’s work by way of LIFE.

Pollock’s artistic company in the magazine is inescapable to the contemporary reader. These subjects are portrayed as ordinary people who happen to paint, sculpt, or take photographs. On page 13, a Congolese village photographer named Mayola Amici holds up a finger as a way of saying “watch the birdie”; on page 80, an illustrator named Stevan Dohanos works on a painting for a Saturday Evening Post cover; on page 81, two artists named James and Laura Fraser wheel around their sculptures; also on page 81, an artist named Helen Hokinson sits primly on the lawn of her Westport house, “where she draws her famous cartoons of fat and fatuous ladies for the New Yorker magazine.” These little profiles compete for attention with articles on dime-store fashions, the Zurich zoo, a vertical wind tunnel, “respectable motorcyclists,” cardsharps, and a very strange cartoon contest by Al Capp.

By contrast, Pollock stands out as a proto-beatnik who peers defiantly off the page past his artistic company. He is American modernity writ large, even if it has yet to exchange its Dustbowl dungarees for Soho slacks. Pollock’s tough demeanor aligns well with what we know about the artist, his hard-drinking pals at the Cedar Tavern, and his early and abandoned mentor Thomas Hart Benton. But Pollock also heralds the emerging James-Dean era of popular culture in which the hard guy is vulnerable, too.

The 1967 Museum of Modern Art Pollock retrospective (the museum issued a second one in 1998) was the largest ever devoted to an American artist, but its catalogue did not include a critical essay. Instead, a chronology of Pollock’s life and career is presented, one that reinforces a mythology of the artist as issued in LIFE, complete with the same 1949 photographs, and one from 1928 (also featured in LIFE) that pictures Pollock as a Californian cowboy. In alignment with the dominance of American movies at the time, Pollock was made cinematic. Certainly Ed Harris’s 2000 film can be seen as the final triumph in this regard, though one, too, of LIFE’s enduring portrayal. The magazine may have encased Pollock in ice, but Harris built a glacier around him. We may still wonder, can the ice around our ideas about the avant-garde be broken?

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