Colin Fleming

The art of Jackson Pollock doesn’t polarize museum-goers as it once did, given his canonization as the patron saint of Abstract Expressionism. But when Pollock was tabbed a mid-century gallery god, there were plenty of people who wondered if his art—like that of Ornette Coleman’s in the late 1950s—wasn’t an outright piss-take. A case of “this isn’t really intended seriously, is it? Surely he’s having a laugh on all of us.” But Americans have come to esteem non-representative painters in a way they’ve never really cared for their native naturalists and portraitists. Perhaps it’s the attendant quality of enigma, or maybe it’s because you could make the argument that Abstract Expressionism is this country’s one indigenous art form. Jazz—a medium that Pollock loved—often gets that credit, but if you went back in time in Africa to some fervently-danced tribal ceremony, you probably wouldn’t come away thinking that it would take some guys in New Orleans to get things going. So chalk one up for the Action painters.

People tend to think of Pollock as a sort of bipolar savant, a “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” figure, almost like Uncle Sam’s answer to Van Gogh. The latter was one of painting’s best letter writers, and while this volume reveals Pollock as not being quite up to that level, it also affords us unprecedented access to his formative years. And his most familial years, if you will. Pollock’s own letters make up but a fraction of this collection. Most of the epistles come from his brothers Sanford and Charles, with mothers, fathers, wives, and children chirping in as well. We first hear from Jackson in  October 1929. He is being kicked out of school. Soon, he’s riding the rails and spending the occasional night in jail. The Pollock brood is by no means the happiest you’ll encounter, as depression filters through the various layers of family, but it appears to be one of the more loving. And eccentric, too—as if they were in the running to be cast in You Can’t Take It with You. They send money to each other, offer assistance with jobs, take care of mom’s failing teeth, share paint-mixing recipes, offer various agitprop political theories, and provide encouragement in a way that a competitive person might find baffling. When one brother wants to be a painter, and his sibling is better at it, selfless advice and support probably aren’t your typical result, but Jackson is encouraged and prodded on his way, despite the fears of Sanford that a public life might be too arduous for him. Lots of confliction in these letters.

A conscience-riddled missive from fall 1941 from Sanford to Charles comes clean on a subject that had clearly resulted in much hand-wringing, as regards the burgeoning Jackson. “In the summer of 39 he was hospitalized for six months in a psychiatric institution.” The epiphany, after reading through numerous letters between the brothers over those interim years without any mention of Jackson’s situation, is startling enough that you’re likely to skim back a bit and see if you might have missed anything. For these were men who loved unconditionally, and who favored candor over obeisance, even if it threatened their personal security. This was the era of the great Red hunts, with Commies lurking in every closet and under every box spring. If one brother kept a secret from another, there was doubtless reason and anguish in doing so. But what’s especially revealing for gawking art buffs everywhere is Sanford’s sense of his brother’s developing art. Keep in mind—this is before the drip period, and even before any kind of critical acclaim, or even much in the way of “hey, this is not rotten, at least” praise. Sanford provides Charles with a pro and con list on Jackson. On the negative side of the ledger: alcoholism, a self-destructive streak, depressive mania, over-anxiety. On the positive: art. “His thinking is, I think, related to that of men like Beckman, Orozco and Picasso. We are sure that if he is able to hold himself together his work will become of real significance. His painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality.” Yep—that pretty much nails it. But as anyone knows, some “ifs” are simply bigger than others.

Jackson himself sounds perfectly balanced in his own correspondence. His letters feature none of those qualities of the mad sage or the radical postmodernist that one might expect. Instead, they’re levelheaded, and, at times, touchingly human, as when the painter gets his first breaks: participation in some shows, a couple of magazine reproductions, and an introduction to his patroness/savior, Peggy Guggenheim. There’s a genuine giddiness in his letters to his mother and brothers, and one wonders if Pollock’s true apex, in terms of living a life, didn’t actually precede his critical one. Of course, dawns have a knack for being sweeter—and more poetic—than high noon scenes—and so perhaps it is appropriate that this book breaks off when it does. A caesura in the name of kith and kin.

Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook. His work appears in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Criterion, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review.

American Letters 1927-1947: Jackson Pollock and Family
Jackson Pollock and family
April 2011
Polity Press
$25 hardcover, ISBN 0745651550
252 pages