Jackson Pollock:An American Saga

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9780517560846: Jackson Pollock:An American Saga

Based on interviews with more than 850 people, this illustrated biography profiles the troubled life of the enigmatic avant-garde artist whose controversial work changed the definition of modern art

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From the Prologue: "I'm going to kill myself."

Tony Smith recognized Jackson Pollock's whiskey voice. The late night call was not unusual for Jackson. Even talk of suicide had the air of ritual about it. Yet there was something in Pollock's voice that Smith hadn't heard before, a harder edge that alarmed him. With his ample Irish charm he tried to calm the distant voice, but Pollock was inconsolable. "Hold on," Smith finally said. "I'll be out." He put down the phone and drove off into the night in the middle of an early spring downpour. It would be hours before he could reach Pollock's house at the eastern end of Long Island--hours in which, knowing Jackson, anything could happen.

It was March 1952, only two years after Pollock's breakthrough 1949 show at the Betty Parsons Gallery gave the emerging avant-garde art world its first bright, bumptious triumph; only a little more than a year after the vast, luminous landscapes of Autumn Rhythm and Lavender Mist dazzled and confounded the critics; only five years after Clement Greenberg pronounced him "the most powerful painter in contemporary America"; only two and a half years after Life magazine thrust him into the spotlight of America's celebrity-mad postwar media, making him, virtually overnight, American art's first "star."

As the drive through the darkness and the downpour stretched into its fourth hour, Tony smith must have wondered, as many others had, what strange, reverse alchemy could have transformed so much acclamation into such self-destructive agony.

Smith knew that Pollock was drinking again. After two enormously productive and relatively dry years--even in the driest seasons he kept cooking sherry buried in the backyard--Jackson had gone back to the bottle. He had always been, in Greenberg's phrase, "an alcoholic in excelsis," but drinking itself was never the problem. Even when it began with beer in the morning and ended with bourbon at night; even when its roots reached back to junior high school, or further, to an alcoholic father; even when his life dissolved, as it had several times over the last twenty years, into a series of drunken binges punctuated by hospitalization, drinking alone could not explain what was happening to Pollock. It couldn't explain the long, plaintive discussions about suicide with friends. "It's a way out," he told Roger Wilcox one day, to which Wilcox replied, "How the hell do you know? You may get yourself into worse trouble."

Drinking alone couldn't explain why, just a few months earlier, Pollock's new Cadillac convertible--bought as a boast of success--had skidded off a dry road and wrapped itself around a tree. Jackson walked away unhurt, but those who knew him, like Tony Smith, knew that he would try again--and not because of alcohol. There was something behind the drinking that was pushing at Jackson from within, tormenting him, even trying to kill him. Jackson Pollock had demons inside. Everyone could see that. But no one knew where they came from or what they wanted.

Review:

"In their monumental and impressive biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith strive to achieve nothing less than a full understanding of the complex social and psychological forces that lay behind the work of an artist considered by many to be America’s greatest abstract painter."--William Drozdiak, The Washington Post

"The most thoroughly detailed portrait ever of a U.S. artist. It's as imposing as a history book, as entertaining as a novel and as close as the reader may ever come to sharing the breadth - and sensing the madness - of artistic genius and the genesis of a masterpiece."--David Zimmerman, USA Today

"Amazing. ... An extraordinarily riveting work, full of miraculous research." Meryle Secrest, Chicago Sun-Times

"Brilliant and definitive ... so absorbing in its narrative drive and so exhaustively detailed that it makes everything that came before seem like trial balloons."--Edward J. Sozanski, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Unprecedented. ... Never before have we had such a thorough and affecting account of an American artist. Narratives this broad, detailed and coherent usually are produced only by popular epic novelists or, alternately, social historians of superior talent. But by confidently linking their huge, colorful canvas to critical points in the emotional and aesthetic framework of Pollock’s art, the remarkable Naifeh and Smith have provided us with something that’s as entertaining as a novel, as persuasive as superior history an as uniquely informative as a kind of catalogue raisonne of the social and psychological components of vital 20th-century painting." Artelia Court, The Los Angeles Times

"Clearly the definitive work." Stephen Amidon, Financial Times (London)

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