Friday, June 06, 2008

Flashback Friday! Jackson Pollock: An American Saga - Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

I read this book back in the spring of 2000, immediately after being impressed by the movie Pollock. Luckily, there was a hardcover copy at the Sedalia Public Library. Wow, it was a doorstop of a book -- around 800 pages, maybe weighing in at four or five pounds.

Professionally, I was in a slump, but I knew I wouldn't be there long. Working part-time in the evenings teaching ESL to adults in Kansas City, I had all day to lie on the bed and read, and I did just that. I still remember the weight of this book on my stomach and the cool, comfortable silence in the small old house broken only by the flick of pages turning.

Like all good biographies, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (first published in 1989) isn't just about Pollock, who became a huge success in the art world with his drip/action painting technique of painting. As other reviewers have pointed out, trendsetters don't just emerge from a vacuum or emerge overnight.

The book provides lengthy research about Jackson's family, beginning with his grandparents. Jackson, the youngest of several children, was born in Wyoming in 1912. In the early 1930s, he followed his brother Charles to New York and they both began studying under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students' League. Soon after that, he began working for the WPA Federal Art Project. Pollock was also influenced by sand painting, John Kenneth Graham and Jungian analysis. Naifeh and Smith include extensive and meticulous research on all these influences, as well as painter Lee Krasner, who Pollock married in 1945. Krasner back-burnered her own considerable talent in favor of encouraging Jackson and getting his name and work out to the important patrons and art critics of their time.

For such a large book, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga moves fairly quickly. Pollock is far from likable -- in fact, inarticulate, drunk, boorish and infantile seem to be his default positions -- but his artistic progress is interesting and somehow Naifeh and Smith seem to be able to generate reader sympathy as he moves quickly from success into a self-inflicted downward course that ended with his stupid and unnecessary death at 44 in a drunken car crash that also killed one of his passengers.

Engrossing, educational and entertaining, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga is a book that I would like to read again someday.


jenclair said...

I have a friend who had a Jackson Pollack party several years ago. She and her husband had large banners spread out on the ground and the guests created Pollack "masterpieces." She also made Pollack pins to wear. I need to see if I can find mine!

This biography sounds interesting, especially in the development of Pollack's style. He may not have lived long or been very likable, but he certainly made an impression, didn't he?

Jeane said...

That sounds like a interesting but very hefty book! I read a biography once on Picasso that seems similar- very detailed, not only on the artist but his influences- and also very very long.

Anonymous said...

I believe I read this book many moons ago...and like you, I was impressed with the book. For some reason, I've always been drawn to Pollock's work, so reading about him seemed only natural...I also like your idea for Flashback Friday. It might be something I do as well, if you don't mind.

Tara said...

We've been reading a kids bio of Pollack. My daughter learned about him at school and loves doing Pollock inspired artwork. I think learning about modern art has been so freeing for her as she (and her mother!) are not great natural artists and Pollack sure makes it look like in art - anything goes.

Bybee said...

That sounds like a fun party!

I'm pretty sure Naifeh and Smith don't have an art background, so it looks like they had to learn as they researched and they explain it all so lucidly, which I really appreciated.

Sure, you can do Flashback Friday! Not sure you need my permission...I don't have it copyrighted, or anything. I look forward to reading your posts.

I'm sure that modern art was freeing for Pollock as well. The book shows some of his work when he was first starting out, and he could draw, but just barely. He just basically tagged after his brother --who was much more talented -- to NYC.

Anonymous said...

If I do Flashback Friday, I'll give you credit though (every time). Maybe you'll start something, if it catches on with others.

new book said...

When will you be reading, "Swish: Maria in the Mourning?" There are 23 five-star reviews on