Jackson Pollock's 1949 photoshoot for Life magazine.
NEW YORK - In August 1949, during the dog days of summer, Life magazine published a profile of a man in work clothes whom critics were calling the greatest painter in America. Life also published its evidence for that claim – tangles of paint dripped untidily onto vast canvases.
The art and especially the artist were nothing if not camera-ready. The paint-spattered Pollock, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, posed in front of Summertime for Life’s photographer, Arnold Newman. Even Pollock’s rough and ready friend Willem de Kooning was surprised at the spread in Life. “Look at him standing there,” de Kooning said. “He looks like some guy who works at a service station pumping gas.”
Or like a movie star. But for a leather cap on his baldhead, he could have been Marlon Brando, the screen’s sexiest rebel. A Streetcar Named Desire had just played on Broadway. But it was four years before The Wild One was released. In that movie, it would be Brando who looked like Pollock.
If you did not know why the art was important, at least you knew that the artist was cinematic. Whatever critics said about Abstract Expressionism, Pollock and company provided its face. Hans Namuth, another photographer, was drawn to the earthy artist whom Life dubbed Jack the Dripper. “His face was the reason I learned to like him sooner than I learned to appreciate his work,” Namuth observed later. Namuth filmed Pollock as he leapt around frames, dripping onto them. Painting was action, not a rarefied, perfumed pastime, ideal – at this moment, at least – for moving pictures.
Pollock would age noticeably from alcohol, tranquilizers and stress before his car crashed into a tree in 1956. But that physical decline was not enough to keep the man of 44 from exemplifying what an American artist might be, or what readers of weekly magazines thought he should look like – gruffly confident, forceful, masculine and ultimately vulnerable. His likeness, more than his paintings, became the public’s logo of Abstract Expressionism, a style nurtured in New York that seemed to turn its back on anything European, just as the United States became the world’s dominant
What better cultural hero than one who took painting, like a bull, by the horns? The fact that the hero resembled rebel outlaws in the movies, or that he self-destructed, was problematic, but it added drama – and more testosterone than tender art martyrs like Van Gogh or Modigliani.
In 2000, the enduring image reappeared in the film Pollock, directed by and starring Ed Harris. Interviewed when the film premiered, Harris recalled receiving a book about Pollock as a gift from his father, who once worked at the bookstore of the Art Institute of Chicago. “He looks a lot like you,” Harris remembered his father saying. “Maybe there’s a movie in it.” The actor hadn’t seen Pollock’s paintings when he first got the book. “I wasn’t familiar with him,” he said.
Soon after the 1989 publication of Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, a 900-page biography that won a Pulitzer Prize. Harris optioned it. Often an author thanks his agent, cashes the check and holds his nose when a scholarly book sells for a film adaptation. Not this time. The film complemented the book, and created new readers, says Steven Naifeh.
“We tried to stay out of the way and prayed it would work,” Naifeh says, speaking by phone from his home in Aiken, South Carolina. “Ed made so much more of it than you can on the pages of a book.”
“We understood that it would be a different artefact,” Naifeh notes. “It was not just a good film. There were moments of absolute magic, not only in the emotional tension between Jackson and Lee [Krasner], but the scene of Pollock creating the Guggenheim murals is one of the great depictions of art-making on film.”
Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden on the set of Pollock.
Having since published a more massive life of Vincent van Gogh (2011), Naifeh and Smith are now writing a biography of Paul Gauguin, a figure whose savvy opportunism, Naifeh says, fits into today’s art world better than their earlier subjects. There may be a movie in Gauguin’s careerism, as there could be in Andy Warhol’s shrug, or as there was in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric rise and fall, but it’s not AbEx heroism, Naifeh stresses.
To be fair, Abstract Expressionists were not the first artists to be heroicised on the screen. While Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning painted, Hollywood marketed melodramas about the anguish of artists who depicted subjects that mass audiences recognized. José Ferrer was Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952); Kirk Douglas was a muscular Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956, the year Pollock died); and Charlton Heston, fresh from the role of Moses in The Ten Commandments, would play Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, adapted from a best-selling potboiler by Irving Stone, who also wrote Lust for Life. Contemporary art, not a mass phenomenon back then, was left to “experimental” filmmakers like Hans Namuth.
“We considered doing a biography of Winslow Homer,” says Naifeh. “God knows we love his paintings, profoundly, but the life just isn’t terribly interesting, and therefore we wouldn’t have wanted to spend ten years trying to record it.” Pollock’s attraction, he says, “was that there had been no definitive biography, and that he was this massively important artist. With Jackson Pollock, we weren’t trying to make a star, but we were attracted by the same qualities that made him fodder for stardom, because the same qualities make him an interesting subject for a 900-page book. You don’t want to write 900 pages about a boring person.”
Pollock’s fellow Abstract Expressionist and sometime rival, the Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, provided ample material for art critic Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, whose de Kooning: An American Master (2004) a mere 752 pages, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Stevens says de Kooning’s cinematic allure is undeniable: “He has the sort of life that attracts filmmakers. He grew up poor, he was a bohemian, he lived in New York’s version of the garret, he had lots of relationships with women, he was so good-looking, he became a glamorous demon-driven drunk in the 1950s – he fit all those stereotypes about the hard-living 1950s and the Van Gogh-like stereotypes of the young suffering artist.”
Willem de Kooning. Photo by Arnold Newman/Getty Images.
A film based on Steven’s and Swan’s book – a slice of the painter’s life, rather than an epic biopic – is in the planning stages. But the photogenic de Kooning on the screen is still a challenge, Stevens warns. “He seems like an easy subject. But his life was so long, and had so many different periods, so many different aspects. That’s what made it a wonderful life to write, but I think that’s also what makes it a difficult life to film.”
It is not only the brazen protagonists of Abstract Expressionism that have tempted storytellers. For John Logan, author of the internationally celebrated play Red, about Mark Rothko, it was the art itself.
“The reason I wrote the play is that I was in London, working on Sweeney Todd, and I went to the Tate Modern, where the [Four] Seasons murals were at that point, and I’d never seen paintings like that in my life – these huge, dark, brooding, oppressive, grandiose, magnificent paintings that surrounded you,” Logan said when Red was nominated for a Tony Award. It won for Best Play in 2010. “They made me incredibly melancholic. There was something about them that I found like looking into the heart of darkness.”
The Russian-born Rothko, who rejected the AbEx label, wrote and spoke eloquently about his search for the spiritual in art. “We have much in common,” said the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni when they met. “I film nothing, and you paint nothing.”
Rothko had originally painted the murals as a commission in 1958 for the Four Seasons restaurant, in the Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. In a famous diatribe against the eventual diners at the Four Seasons, Rothko said his goal was to create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room."
In Red, the belligerent Rothko fumes at the prospect of delivering spiritual creations to a watering hole for the wealthy. His only listener is his young unschooled assistant, who will outlive the angry older man, another reason for the painter’s displeasure. Rothko committed suicide in his studio in 1970.
Alfred Molino as Mark Rothko in the theatre production of Red.
An irritable, unlikable artist challenged box office wisdom, but it suited the historical record and the playwright. “I’m never concerned about making an audience cheer for a character. I don’t think my job is to justify characters – it’s just to explain them, to present them honestly, to let them live,” Logan said when the play was on Broadway. “I’m attracted to dark, interesting, thorny characters. I’m not drawn to sweetness and light and domestic tranquility.”
Dark is an understatement for the life of Arshile Gorky. The Book of Job is an apt analogy. Tragedy followed Gorky, the fourth of the great Abstract Expressionists whose story has come to the stage or screen, from birth through his short life. He was born Vosdanig Adoian sometime after 1900 in Khorkom, an Armenian village that Ottoman troops burned to the ground. His father had abandoned the family for America, leaving Gorky with his mother, Shushan, who subsequently starved to death as a refugee on the streets of Yerevan, the Armenian capital.
Like de Kooning and Rothko, Gorky emigrated to America, where he reinvented himself as a nephew of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (whose own name, meaning “bitter,” was a pseudonym), and as a student of Vassily Kandinsky. He became a mentor for the young de Kooning, guiding his generation from Surrealism to Abstraction. “The only stability Gorky had was in the studio,” said his widow. But the plagues returned. His studio and much of his work burned to the ground. He was stricken with painful stomach cancer. A car crash in the northern Connecticut woods left him with a broken neck and a paralyzed painting hand. And his wife ran off with a rival, Matta, who was also running off with Gorky’s ideas. Gorky hanged himself in 1948.
Only ten years after his death would Gorky’s American wife, Mougouch (Agnes Magruder), learn of her husband’s Armenian origins. Only from newspaper clippings did his daughters learn that their father’s death was a suicide. If a life of misfortune ever needed an Oliver Stone, this was it.
In Ararat (2002), Atom Egoyan wrestled with the challenges of revisiting the Armenian genocide through the lens of a fictionalised version of Gorky, but a new documentary by the artist’s granddaughter, the filmmaker Cosima Spender, puts the artist’s life squarely in the centre of the elusive story. Ominously titled Without Gorky, the film retraces the steps of the absent man with three generations of women – his widow, his two daughters, and the filmmaker herself. “I’d heard stories of him all my life – his art, his memories, his lies, his death – tangled family tales with no beginning and no end – the white noise of my life,” says Cosima, reached in London by phone.
Photo by Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
A presence and an absence, Gorky left a lifetime of false clues instead of a life story, and a knot of fragile emotions. The Gorky women travel from New York, where he worked, to Sherman, Connecticut, where he relocated with his family (and hanged himself), to Lake Van in Eastern Anatolia, where delicate flowers in lakeside meadows look remarkably like elements in Gorky’s abstractions. Gorky had talked of the magical gardens in the village where he was raised. “I studied anthropology in school, so context was crucial for me,” says Spender. “Here was something my grandfather had not lied about. Beauty was his guide and the talisman he left his descendants.”
Poignant and personal, Without Gorky should refocus attention on a major (albeit underappreciated) artist. As with Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, scrutiny by critics and filmmakers will explore his secrets. But the paintings themselves – as with those of all the Abstract Expressionists – will always hold new ones.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]