Stroke of Genius

updated 11/23/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

There is nothing to see in a classic Jackson Pollock painting but the paint itself, layer upon layer, splashed, dribbled and scribbled across enormous canvases with wild energy. Stand near or back, you'll never discover a hidden image—a flower, a star, an eye. If America's most famous abstract artist noticed such a thing emerging as he worked, he made sure to splatter over it. "If you want to see a face," said Pollock in 1949, "look at one."

Yet for half a century people have kept on scrutinizing both Pollock and the roughly 340 paintings he left behind in 1956 when he died, drunk, in a car crash at 44 and sealed his legend as one of the great '50s rebels, alongside Beat novelist Jack Kerouac and actor James Dean. In fact, next April actor Ed Harris will direct himself in a film about Pollock. For now, with the opening of a landmark retrospective, the first in America in 30 years, visitors crowding New York City's Museum of Modern Art can marvel at the volcanic passion that produced such masterworks as Autumn Rhythm, and Blue Poles.

Certainly some are asking the question that Pollock's career has always provoked: "Why is this art?" Because Pollock made it so, with "soul, concentration, gut," his friend, artist Barnett Newman, once said. And, of course, with drips. Sometime in 1947, Pollock was inspired to remove his canvas from the easel and lay it flat on the floor of his studio outside East Hampton, N.Y. He poured puddles of paint directly onto the canvas, then picked up a brush (or a stick or trowel) and flicked on a dense web of color. Even in an age that had witnessed cubism and surrealism, the result was revolutionary. "It seemed raw," says Kirk Varnedoe, curator of the new exhibit. "In the 1950s it had a kind of recklessness and violence that people felt was very much a part of the world."

Though Pollock never sold a painting for more than $10,000 in his lifetime—his works have since fetched up to $18 million—the revolutionary became a celebrity. Americans had thought of abstract art as "effete, a European contagion," says Varnedoe. Pollock was closer to Brando. Tough-looking and inarticulate (his friends titled most of his pictures), he led a rough life, with years lost in drink and depression before he produced the bulk of his greatest works in a burst between 1947 and 1950. His was the sort of tragic, romantic career ideal for biographies—he has been the subject of at least five—and now Hollywood.

But the rugged appearance was somewhat deceptive. Born on a farm in Cody, Wyo., Pollock—the last of five boys—never milked a cow and feared horses, says biographer Jeffrey Potter (To a Violent Grave). His mother, Stella, longed for a genteel life and spoke of art reverentially to her sons—three of whom became painters, with Jackson the most successful by far. Like her youngest son, "Stella was enormously shy," says Potter, "yet very strong." She held the family together while her husband, Roy, sank into depression and alcoholism. He worked at a string of manual jobs, moving his family around the Western states before finally abandoning them in the 1920s.

At the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, the city where Stella Pollock settled the family in 1928, "Jack was a rebellious sort at all times," recalls his classmate and friend, artist Harold Lehman. He grew his hair long and helped pen a manifesto denouncing athletics, even though "he had a muscular build and the school wanted to put him on the football team," says former teacher Doug Lemon.

It took years of struggle before Pollock proved as radical a painter as he had been a student. In 1930, he followed his oldest brother, Charles, to New York City and began studying with painter Thomas Hart Benton, who deplored his pupil's lack of basic artistic skill. As had his father, Pollock fell into battle with alcoholism—in the Greenwich Village art scene, the usually monosyllabic painter was dreaded as a reckless, argumentative drinker—and depression. "He could project his pain," says Potter. "People felt it."

Still, Pollock slowly made headway as an artist of semiabstract paintings. He earned the financial support of heiress Peggy Guggenheim and, most important, the love of painter Lee Krasner, whom he wed in 1945. When she first saw his paintings, "they bowled me over," Krasner, who died in 1984, once said. "Then I met him, and that was it."

Krasner became Pollock's unofficial nurse and mother. She cut his fingernails for him, helped him experiment with homeopathic cures for his drinking and spoke for him in conversations. It was her idea to remove him from the boozy bohemia of Manhattan's Greenwich Village to a small house at The Springs, near East Hampton, after their marriage. "Lee never took her eyes off him," says Potter.

There, during those brief years of sobriety, Pollock developed his unique means of expressing his emotions. With his drip technique, he explained, "I feel the painting." Grabbing buckets and brushes and constantly moving around the canvas, "he almost danced his painting," recalls his friend and eventual biographer B.H. Friedman. "It was very athletic."

And sensational, both loathed and revered. One critic noted in 1955, "Even persons normally apathetic to modern art can be wrathful over his apparently aimless spilling of paint." Yet by 1949, Pollocks had been bought by five museums and more than 20 collectors. But his reign was tragically brief. Within a few years, he was drinking heavily again. When he began an affair with an aspiring artist named Ruth Kligman, Krasner left for Europe. She was still abroad on Aug. 11, 1956, when Pollock, after leaving a bar, lost control of his car while speeding around a curve near his home. Kligman survived, but Pollock and a friend of Kligman's, Edith Metzger, were killed instantly.

Pollock's daring has continued to inspire artists, whether pop, conceptual or graffiti. "He gave people freedom to work in many different directions," says abstract painter Terry Winters. Pollock himself had only one direction—inward. "Beneath the behavioral nonsense and drinking," says Potter, "there was the light of innocence."

Tom Gliatto
Nina Burleigh in New York City and Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles

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