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How Life Magazine Vaulted Jackson Pollock's Career [by David Lehman]

LIFE 1949 PollockYou could plot out the rise of Abstract Expressionism by consulting selected issues of the popular magazines of the time, especially Life. Initially the press played its part by scoffing. In 1947 Time reproduced paintings by Pollock and Hofmann and a sculpture by David Smith as if the work were self-evidently junk. Pictures that did have Time's seal of approval appeared on the same page: John Singleton Copley's portrait of Paul Revere and, as an example of acceptable modern art, Max Beckmann's expressionist treatment of a girl in front of her mirror. But perhaps the more important happenstance was that the magazine had seen fit to broadcast nationally the claims that Clement Greenberg had made: Pollock was "the most powerful painter in America," Smith was the only other American artist who could be considered "major," and Hofmann's teaching made him "the most important figure in American art in the period since 1935."[i]

In its issue of August 8, 1949, with America's girl Debbie Reynolds pretty and wholesome in a straw hat on the cover, Life asked if Pollock was "the greatest living painter in the United States?" The question was asked with a jeer, yet it introduced a possibility that could not be dismissed. Although the intent may have been to mock, the strategy backfired for the simple reason that notoriety was the best possible publicity. To be sure, the magazine got in its digs. Some people, we're told in the lead paragraph, find Pollock's work "as unpalatable as yesterday's macaroni." He sometimes uses a trowel instead of a brush and "deliberately mixes sand, broken glass, nails, screws or other foreign matter" into his paintings. The editors had fun with the captions: "Pollock drools enamel paint in canvas," they wrote. But the editors were in a media predicament that has since become familiar. They were trapped by the inner workings of their own logic -- "if it's worth covering, it must be important." And so, in a magnificent example of a self-fulfilling prophecy: "Pollock, at the age of 37, has burst forth as the shining new phenomenon of American art."

The pictures in Life were always a thousand times more important than the words, and Arnold Newman's spread of photographs made Pollock seem a heroic man of action who just might be the great American hope in painting. In the lead photograph Pollock is shown standing with his arms folded, scowling, a tough guy with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wore neither suit nor tie and sported none of the accouterments that readers associated with European culture. De Kooning thought the picture made Pollock look like a gas station attendant.[ii] What could be more American than that? Pollock was "virtually unknown in 1944." Now "he is slated for a one-man show in avant garde Paris, where he is fast becoming the most talked of and controversial U. S. painter." It was as American a story as that of Life’s cover girl that week, Deborah Reynolds. Miss Reynolds "was working as a clerk in a food store" in Fairfield County, Connecticut, two years ago. "Now, at 20, she is a professional model." The best was yet to come for her, too.

The Life spread was the turning point. In a trice Pollock emerged as the art star with the greatest cachet. Not that critical hostility disappeared. Pollock was still the renegade artist that a venomous critic would dub "Jack the Dripper" as late as 1956, the year of the painter's death.[iii] But as of August 1949, he no longer toiled in obscurity. In America, where the border between notoriety and fame is quickly blurred, he had become the most notorious artist of his time. Three months later, when Pollock next showed his work, there was a celebratory buzz; collectors and curators came and formerly hostile critics prepared to make an about-face. Pollock, in de Kooning's oft-quoted formulation, had "broken the ice" for everybody else.[iv]

Once the press gave vent to its bewildered fascination, there was no stopping the New York School juggernaut. The media spread the word about these sexy rugged postwar artists with unprecedented efficiency to a public looking for a new kind of artistic hero. In January 1951 Life ran Nina Leen's group photograph of the leading Abstract Expressionists, and though the caption remained derisive ("from the dribblings of Pollock to the Cyclopean phantoms of Baziotes"), the photo itself cast the painters in a heroic light as the leaders of an avant-garde rebellion.[v] That year Pollock's abstractions were smart enough for Vogue. In the magazine's March 1951 issue, a fashion-spread of photographs by Cecil Beaton features "the dazzling and curious paintings of Jackson Pollock" as the backdrop against which the models were posed at Betty Parsons' Gallery in New York City. (Jacqueline Bouvier appears in the debutante pages of that issue.) Two years later Look (which was usually two years behind Life) showed its readers the new Hans Hofmann that a wealthy Wall Street investor had just acquired.[vi] And just two years after that, Fortune suggested that readers with the means to buy art should consider doing so as a solid long-term investment that would simultaneously protect against inflation and reduce income tax liability. Fortune used Picasso as its blue-chip standard; de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell, Still, Reinhardt, and Kline were among those rated as "speculative or `growth' issues." A Rothko purchased in 1955 or 1956 for $1,250 would, Fortune said, be worth four to five times that sum by 1960, and between $25,000 and $30,000 by 1965.[vii] Abstract art had gone pretty far pretty fast in gaining respectability. "In 1949 a bank would never have had an abstract painting on the wall," the painter Al Leslie noted. "In 1959 an abstract painting was the only painting a bank would put on the wall."[viii] Although no one was aware of this then, the whole episode attests to the growing importance of the media in determining the actuality they are naively supposed merely to reflect. While beginning as a mouthpiece for resistance to the new art, the media served willy-nilly as a publicity machine of greater power than anyone had supposed.

[i]. Time, December 1, 1947.

[ii]. Naifeh and Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, p. 595.

[iii]. Naifeh and Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, p. 753.

[iv]. "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" Life, August 8, 1949, pp. 42-45. "Broken the Ice": Naifeh and Smith, Jackson Pollock, p. 598; William Barrett, The Truants, p. 135.

[v]. Life, January 15, 1951.

[vi]. Look, November 3, 1953, p. 72.

[vii]. Eric Hodgins and Parker Lesley, "The Great International Art Market," Fortune, December 1955, pp. 118 ff., and January 1956, pp. 122 ff. Quoted in Breslin, Mark Rothko, pp. 340-341.

[viii]. Interview with Al Leslie, June 14, 1995.

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