EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Out behind a small farmhouse on a Long Island country road sits an old grey barn where a tormented artist dripped paint off brushes, sticks — even turkey basters — onto canvasses spread out on a wooden floor. Besides making quite a mess of things, leaving splash marks everywhere, Jackson Pollock also created some of the 20th century’s greatest masterpieces.
Pollock, who would have turned 100 this year, is being remembered at a New York City fundraiser later this month honouring a charity that aids struggling artists, along with the Academy Award-nominated actor and filmmaker Ed Harris who spent nearly a decade making the 2000 film Pollock.
There also are exhibitions in Washington, D.C., and at the home Pollock shared with his wife, artist Lee Krasner, in the Springs community of East Hampton — now a museum and study centre. And shoe manufacturer Crocs is releasing a Pollock-inspired shoe this June, fashioned after the paint-splashed floor that visitors can still see in the artist’s barn.
“I think Pollock’s art is incredible,” Harris said. “I think it was revolutionary at the time and I think it kind of holds up that way and it is really exquisite.”
The fundraiser honouring Harris, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which has given $56.3 million in grants to artists in 72 countries since 1985, is intended to help finance and expand the work of a separate Stony Brook University-based organization that runs the Pollock-Krasner home.
“What we try to give people here is insights into who these people were, what it was that stimulated them creatively and where that took them in terms of their art,” said Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.
Harris said that before he started filming in 1999 — the exteriors of the Pollock-Krasner home and scenes from a nearby general store were filmed on location in Springs; the interiors re-created on a Brooklyn sound stage — he spent a couple of nights sleeping in Pollock’s bedroom.
“I was hoping for a visitation which didn’t quite happen,” joked Harris, who was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in the film, which also was his directorial debut.
“I can’t even express how invaluable it was to me,” he said of the home. “I don’t think the film would have really have had the richness and authenticity it did if we weren’t filming there. Just on an emotional level, or a metaphysical level of some kind, you know you’re filming a story about this man and this is where he lived.”
Pollock, a lifelong alcoholic who died behind the wheel in a drunken-driving crash at the age of 44, was a controversial artist reviled by some critics and lionized by others. His best-known paintings were created by dripping paint, seemingly haphazardly, across canvasses large and small. Some feature popping bright colours, others are stark black-and-whites.
“I like to describe his work as ’energy made visible,”’ said Pepe Karmel, a Pollock expert and assistant professor in the art history department at New York University. “The lines curving through space, changing direction, the colours; it is an amazing image of the world that could represent many things. It’s totally opened ended. What they all have in common is the fantastic energy that characterizes modern society.”
Pollock was already an artist of some note working in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, but the move to Long Island in late 1945 was the key to unlocking his genius, many experts say. They also agree Krasner’s motive in separating Pollock from his drinking buddies in Manhattan succeeded in focusing his attention on his artwork, albeit temporarily. Marcia Gay Harden won a best supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of Krasner, who was an artist in her own right, living in the home until her death in 1984 at age 75.
“He looks out and he sees Mother Nature, which is his great stimulation,” Harrison said. “And then he thinks back to his childhood in Arizona and California and the wide open spaces. These things all came flooding back to him, and he has an epiphany.”
Adds Karmel: “In a very general way, the landscape did inspire him. The immensity of the ocean, being on the beach; that is certainly feeling akin to being out west.”
Today, Pollock artworks sell for tens of millions — one painting in 2006 reportedly sold to an unidentified collector for $140 million — but when the couple lived in East Hampton in the late ’40s and ’50s, they struggled to pay their bills. Harrison says there was one bounced check found amid Pollock’s papers for $4, and it was several years before the home was equipped with electricity and plumbing.
A key turning point came in 1949, when Life magazine did a profile of Pollock, asking the question, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
The publicity “put him on the map in a huge way,” Harrison said, noting he sold $4,000 in paintings soon after the article appeared. “He called a plumber, shingled the house, paid off the mortgage. They were normal people except for the fact they were artistic geniuses. Other than that they lived a normal life.”
Pollock, who descended into a deep alcoholic haze and may have suffered from depression or other mental illness — he was never properly diagnosed, says Harrison — was having an affair with artist Ruth Klingman at the time of his death in August 1956. While Krasner was vacationing in Europe, Pollock smashed his Oldsmobile convertible in a drunken stupor about a mile from his home in Springs. Klingman survived the crash (she died in 2010), but a friend, Edith Metzger, was killed.
“I don’t mind the fact that he was a mean son of a bitch at times, and had a lot of personal problems that he fought through,” Harris said. “The one thing that I feel harms his legacy is that he basically was responsible for the death of Edith Metzger.”
Besides the April 25 fundraiser in Manhattan, a centennial tribute of Pollock’s art continues at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington, D.C. until May 15. An exhibit, “The Persistence of Pollock,” will be on display at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center from May 3-July 28, and a lecture on Pollock and Krasner will be held at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton on July 22.
Crocs will introduce a limited edition “Jackson Pollock Crocs Classic” shoe, featuring a replica of a photo taken from the floor of Pollock’s studio in mid-June. The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center will receive a royalty on each pair, which list for $50, said Harrison.
She recalls working as a reporter for The New York Times in the late 1980s, and being sent to Springs when the paint-stained wooden floor was found under Masonite floorboards that Pollock installed in 1952.
“All of a sudden the conservators start to make little noises, ooh ah, oh,” Harrison said. “So we get down on our hands and knees and we start looking, and the colours keep coming and pretty soon we were all doing it. The joke was Jackson must have put it down when he was drunk, because the sticky side was up.” Actually a handyman did the work, she later discovered.
“You think, it’s just a paint-covered floor. It’s just kind of a mess, really, but it’s a fascinating mess because it’s got all of the colours, all of the gestures and all of the energy that’s in his poured paintings and there it is right there on the floor.”
It’s impossible to put a price on its value, she said. “It’s a document; it’s not a work of art because it’s an accumulation over time. This covers a seven-year period of his work, the most productive and innovative period.”