Friday, March 1, 2013

"Jackson Pollock: An American Saga": a Review

Jackson Pollock: An American SagaJackson Pollock: An American Saga by Gregory White Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very good and well-researched biography of an extraordinary man and artist.

Pollock was notorious for reticence in expressing himself in words, other than short cryptic utterances, because they never seemed to say the full truth, although he could talk clearly and simply about art when he was comfortable with doing so. He was a man in a great deal of pain, and experienced the world in ways that cut him off from others; the authors suggest that he saw the world in a flashing ever-changing and somewhat threatening yet beautiful flux that was better suited to express in his use of fluid paint than in more traditional media. He was also a classic artist maudit, alcoholic, trouble maker, given to immense rages, and strangely sweet and charismatic moods, insecure about his masculinity, strangely boyish in his immaturity.

The problem with artist biographies is that there is a tendency to "explain" every aspect of their art in one to one correspondence to specific features of their life, when in a sense you are more interested in the struggle to create the art itself (or at least I am). One is more interested in the food at a fine restaurant that the state of the kitchen (I've been there, you don't want to know.) This is the aspect of Pollock that I most valued in the book; being human the obviously sensational train wreck of his life story was also of great interest, of course. Pollock's development was anything but smooth, and he gave little obvious indications of "talent" in his early work; his teacher, Benton, however, sensed in him, something deeper than facile skill, a hunger that would drive him to do extraordinary and tremendously innovative work

The authors seem to have engaged in a degree of heavy psychological archaeology to reconstruct private portions of his life, that when examining the footnotes seem a bit thin to say the least, and based on hearsay. Admittedly, given that reticence to justify and explain it is an overwhelming temptation--the polar opposite of the problem of their other subject, van Gogh, who was so verbose and eager to justify and explain that they were forced into endless cycles of fact checking. This is probably the chief criticism that I would level against the book.

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