People around here understand why I would take an interest in “genius” artists with strong wives, though they think in terms of Charlie and Nancy Russell. “Jackson Pollock: Love and death on Long Island” (1999) is another example. This 45-minute BBC documentary is framed by a straight reading of the formal report about the car accident that killed Pollock and maimed his passenger by a mock cop. Much more is revealed by clips from the famous movie made from underneath a panel of plastic while Pollock painted on it, bits of interview with his contemporary artists and insights from Ed Harris, who inhabited the man while preparing his own movie.
Like so much we’re still confronting in our lives, abstract expressionism was in some ways “caused” by WWII. An influx of European refugees to Manhattan, mostly leftist, maybe Jewish, in functioning marriages of considerable sophistication, formed a community fertile with ideas and accomplishment. Pollock, who was born in Cody, Wyoming, but never forked a horse, and was actually more of an LA valley sort of person, came to “the Village” and dwelt around the fringes of the group. Lee Krasner, whom onlookers agreed was a better artist but struggling with the handicap of being female, gripped Pollock with a knowing and energetic passion that for a few years after 1950 made him famous.
Colluding with this was Life magazine, geared up for war with fine photographers and writers, and feeding the hunger of displaced persons, traumatized men, and voracious business forces. They looked around for “the generation’s greatest American artist” and, according to this film’s point of view, were more or less obliged to pick Pollock because he was about the only one who was American born. A little guy with an enormous defensive persona full of mock-violent macho and obscenity, he started so many fights at the artists’ hangout, the Cedars Bar, that he was finally forbidden to come in. Krasner, on the other hand, never lost her cool. When Pollock overturned the dinner table, she simply announced to the guests that “coffee will be served in the living room.”
Pollock was definitely onto something with his huge complexifications of whatever paint he could afford, swizzling and dribbling with a stick as often as with a paintbrush, causing one to wonder who invented paintbrushes and what for? Evocative and baffling, they seemed to be an accurate snapshot of the inside of his head. These days they would stick him in an fMRI, rather than getting him to paint onto clear plastic, and try to interpret what his “real” brain was doing. Autism? Bipolar? Schizophrenic? Alcohol damage? All likely to some degree.
But he was NOT scholarly or philosophical or reflective, as were the rest of the abstract expressionist community. They didn’t really approve of him. The newly popular category had boomed as suddenly as the Western art explosion in the American SW “outback” with many of the same dynamics. Maybe French impressionism was the same. But it helped to be able to talk about abstractions -- what was this one or that one expressing? Pollock could not have said -- he just “felt” it and did it. Lee could talk about it.
But the times were often as interested in the person, the creator, as they were in the creations. Picasso taught them that. The underlying structure of Pollock’s worldview seems to have derived from a mother who had intense but frustrated artistic aspirations and a father who scoffed at the whole idea. He was trapped in double-bind-land, a box canyon, a blind corral. This fragility/vulnerability kept him beating himself up and then numbing the pain with alcohol. Well, that’s one theory anyway. Maybe he just had loose wiring.
A minister’s joke is about expectations that are too high for anyone to fulfill: “Church member to Jesus: ‘Of course I remember the Crucifixion, but what have done for me LATELY?'” In the Jewish community, where mothers expect their sons to be brain surgeons, it goes, “Have you met my son, the Redeemer?” For every huge dynamic breakthrough painting Pollock did, his audience, the gallery owners, and customers wanted another one even more startling and admirable. One of the aged artists interviewed says sadly, “It a trap. You get into one technique and it’s a trap. You can’t escape. And it exhausts you. You jump through the hoop, you got to land on your feet and keep your balance for the next one, but eventually you can’t. You fall and lie there. But you can’t do that.” His wife sits by his side, nodding in agreement and making rueful faces.
There seems to be a consensus that the painting on plastic idea was fatal, a gimmick that made Pollock so self-conscious that he couldn’t help but watch himself paint. He began to feel the gimmickry of his own dribble style, the indignity of it, the Disney aspect. After two years of sobriety he returned to booze. By then he and Krasner were attacking each other and he was famous enough to attract groupies, including the woman he nearly killed in the car crash. The sexy groupie, very proud, insists that she was madly in love with Pollock and he with her and it was all due to that narrow-minded Krasner who couldn’t adjust. In reality, Lee got outta Dodge to give it a rest, which turned out to be eternal.
Book-ended by the police report, the painful recitations and judgments of the interior of the film are laced with the kind of nature images that pass for religion in America -- eternal horizons over the sea, seething tall grass, a snowstorm on the windshield, flights of birds. The suggestion is that this is really what Pollock was trying to paint, what was really in his head. It’s as good a theory as the others, an American emotional theory that doesn’t need to be intellectualized in a Village bar.
The whole magilla has been internalized by people who don’t even know any artists. They look at a Pollock and think, “Hell, I could do that. Maybe I have an Inner Artist. Maybe I’m worth a lotta money, too.” And who knows? Maybe they’re right. The helluvit is, there’s no Life magazine to make them famous.