AMERICAN LETTERS 1927-1947: JACKSON POLLOCK & FAMILY Edited and annotated by Sylvia Winter Pollock Polity Press. 215 pages. £20. ISBN 978-0-7456-5155-2
Reviewed by Jim Burns
There's an image of Jackson Pollock that is, I suspect, etched deep in most people's minds. It's of a T-shirted man moving quickly around a canvas laid on the floor and dripping paint over it direct-from a can he's carrying. This is, of course, the picture of Pollock derived from the film made by Hans Namuth in 1950, and which is often shown on TV when the subject of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism crops up. If you add to it Pollock's drinking, his violent outbursts, and his death in a car crash, it's easy to understand why a certain idea of the man exists. But I doubt that many people know much more about Pollock than the facts I've outlined, and they probably have little awareness of his life prior to the early-1940s when he began to establish a name for himself on the New York art scene.
Jackson Pollock was the youngest of five brothers and he wasn't the only one of them to have ambitions as an artist. His older brother, Charles, though never becoming as well-known as Jackson, was "a painter all his life and taught calligraphy, lettering, typography and printmaking from 1946 to 1968," then moved to Paris where he died in 1988. Another brother, Sanford, started out as a painter and worked on the Federal Art Project, a government scheme designed to provide employment for impoverished artists during the Depression. He later did silk-screen printing but died in his early fifties. Two other brothers, Frank and Marvin, were less directly involved with art, though Frank had ambitions to write and Marvin worked in printing.
What is worth noting is that all the Pollock brothers were quite radical in their political opinions, though Jackson perhaps didn't get .actively involved in the way that the others did. Frank joined the Communist Party and Marvin seems to have been close to it, if not actually a member. Sanford's sympathies lay in that direction, and Charles spent some time working for the United Auto Workers union during their major organising drives in the 1930s. In a letter to Charles, Frank said that there was little chance of changing the system by voting and that "armed revolution" was the only way to succeed. Sanford also said that it might be time to "start the shooting" if elections failed to alter things. In their major biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, published in 1989, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith say that Jackson attended communist meetings in Los Angeles and mixed with union organisers and Party members, though they admit there is little or no evidence to indicate how often he attended or if he was active in any way. It is probable that his involvements with left-wing activists helped to bring work by the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros to his attention.
I've dealt with a little of Jackson's background so as to provide a context for the letters that comprise the contents of this book. In fact, he doesn't feature a great deal in it as a letter writer, though he's mentioned often enough in the other brothers' letters to each other and their parents. And it becomes clear that, as the youngest, Jackson was his mother's favourite and that the others were often concerned about his behaviour. He had problems with alcohol from an early age and also showed signs of mental instability as he got older. Evidence of this is in letters that will be referred to later.
The main focus of the letters is Charles Pollock. He had left California, where the Pollock family had settled after some wanderings, and arrived in New York in 1926. He had gone there to study with Thomas Hart Benton, a populist/regionalist artist whose celebrations of the American spirit in often large canvases were popular, though there were suggestions that Benton was a "shrewd politician" in the art world and knew how to exploit the populist role to his advantage. But both Charles and Jackson were attracted to Benton's swirling style and Jackson's early work certainly reflects its influence. I don't think Jackson was ever a particularly good draughtsman and, judging from the examples provided, Charles was much more accomplished in drawing. He was competent in what can be described as a social realist framework, though if seen in context (the social art of the 1920s and 1930s) he might not be judged as particularly individual in his approach. I don't think that should be held against him and most artists, no matter how skilled, follow an established pattern in their work. Charles later moved towards abstraction, perhaps influenced by Jackson's example, but also, perhaps, because the post-1945 period brought an anti-radical mood that didn't look kindly on left-wing social realism in art.
A letter written in 1929 by Frank and sent to Jackson expresses concern about the latter's waywardness. And a response from Jackson refers to his having been "ousted from school again after a fight with the head of the Physical Ed. Dept." It also mentions that he was in trouble because he'd given a couple of teenage girls some money so that they could run away, an act that he thought might lead to him being imprisoned. In 1931 Jackson, who had joined Charles in New York, made his way back to California by hitching lifts and riding freight trains.
Letters to Charles and Frank say that he "got a number of kicks in the butt and put in jail twice with days of hunger," but that it was a worthwhile experience. The Depression was deepening and he says, "The freights are full, men going west men going east and as many going north and south - millions of them." A 1932 letter to his father shows that Jackson was taking note of world events, such as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. And he comments on how cold it is in New York and says that it is "tough on the poor old fellows out on the bread lines, and no place to flop."
As I mentioned earlier, all the Pollock brothers were radicalised by the Depression. There's a long 1933 letter from Frank to Charles which refers to Roosevelt's efforts to sort out America's economic problems, and adds: "Since the ignoble death of the London conference Roosevelt has adopted a policy of economic nationalism." A useful note appended to the letter by Sylvia Winter Pollock reads: "The London Conference of 1933 was the World Monetary and Economic Conference, which had as its object the checking of the world Depression by means of currency stabilisation and economic agreements. Unbridgeable disagreements made the meeting a total failure." What was it someone said about history repeating itself?
A letter from Stella, the matriarch of the Pollock family, describes a number of people coming to her house for dinner, among them Leonard Stark, a photographer and cinematographer who, in the early-1950s, worked on Salt of the Earth, a film about a strike in New Mexico that was made by people who had been blacklisted by the Hollywood film studios. Also present at the dinner was Philip Guston, later a leading abstract expressionist painter but in the 1930s producing figurative work that centred on social commentary, as witness his 1932 painting The Conspiracy, with its hooded Ku Klux Klan figures holding clubs. Interestingly, similar figures re-surfaced in Guston's work years later when he moved away from abstraction and started producing cartoon-like pictures.
Around the time that Stella was playing host to left-wingers like Stark and Guston, Charles was telling Frank that he was interested in the American Workers Party, a short-lived organisation dominated by A.J. Muste, head of Brookwood Labour College for many years. A note mentions that Elizabeth Pollock, Charles's wife, taught at Brookwood for a time. The American Workers Party merged with the Communist League of America, a Trotskyist party, to form the Workers' Party of the United States. Following the myriad divisions of the American left is a specialist's occupation, but taking note of some of the details does help when considering how Charles was reacting to political events. He was not unsympathetic to the Communist Party but doubted that it would ever be able to provide the kind of leadership "to effectually organise the American worker."
Some of the most fascinating letters written by Charles were sent to Elizabeth and concerned a cross-country trip that he and Jackson made in June and July, 1934. Working their way through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia they saw at first-hand the effects of the Depression and the unrest it caused. They met an Italian miner "who turned out to be radical," and were nearly arrested in Pittsburgh. Charles described what happened:
Later, Charles was told that a strike was brewing and everyone was on edge and suspicious of strangers. Moving onto Harlan County in Kentucky, an area notorious for violent confrontations between strikers and police, they came across a man who told them that his union activities had got him blacklisted in all the mines in the area. He advised them to be careful about what they said and did while they were in Harlan County.
By the time they reached El Paso in Texas Charles was telling Elizabeth that he felt out of touch with what was happening in "Germany or anywhere else," and that he missed reading New Masses, the communist cultural magazine which published well-known writers like Erskine Caldwell and Ernest Hemingway alongside newcomers like Richard Wright and Albert Maltz. He did say that a daily paper he'd seen had reported that a general strike was being planned in San Francisco. Further evidence of a kind of network of left-wing writers, artists, activist and others comes when Charles, writing to Frank, advises him to get in touch with "a friend of ours who is working in Hollywood." The friend was Lester Cole, a scriptwriter who worked steadily in films until he was blacklisted in the late-1940s after he'd refused to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and was imprisoned for a year. Charles describes him as "mildly interested in the left movement," but Cole's autobiography, Hollywood Red, suggests that he joined the Communist Party in 1934.
If the majority of the letters in the first part of the book were written by Frank and Charles, Jackson was still a presence in them, and in letters from other members of the family. Elizabeth, writing to Jackson's mother, said: "Jack's work is improving amazingly; he is going to be a magnificent painter one of these days. It, the work, is entirely different from C's in style. Jack's is much more imaginative and unrealistic and I like this about it." By this time (1936) a lot of the effort required to take care of Jackson had passed to Sanford. Both had obtained posts with the Federal Arts Project, though as Sanford's letters indicate, they never really felt secure and pressure was always being exerted by anti-New Deal politicians and businessmen to withdraw government funding from the scheme. Even if it survived individuals were subject to monitoring, both for their qualities as artists and their financial status. And they had to sign to say that they were not members of the Communist Party. Sanford refers to "a re-investigation of every Project worker," and adds, "I Know of some cases where workers unable to meet the rigid requirements have been fired." The notes to a later letter tell how, in December 1936, protesting artists occupied the offices of the Federal Arts Project in New York because dismissal notices had been issued to a large number of them. Police were called and attacked the artists.
While Frank and Charles worried about political developments, including the Moscow trials and the way that anything not conforming to Party policy was labelled Trotskyite, Sanford worried about Jackson: "I don't know whether or not you know but Jack has been having a very difficult time with himself. This past year has been a succession of periods of emotional instability for him, which is usually expressed by a complete loss of responsibility both to himself and to us. Accompanied, of course, with drinking. It came to the point where it was obvious that the man needed help. He was mentally sick. So I took him to a well-recommended doctor, a psychiatrist who has been trying to help the man find himself."
Sanford, like Charles, was questioning the role of the Communist Party more and more, though in one letter he tells Charles that his criticisms might be misdirected: "I don't think your venom is being well spent in raving at the mistakes of the CP. It is not they who were bombing Barcelona and raping Austria and directing the idiotic policies of Chamberlain and Blum." But Sanford himself was confused and I'd guess that by the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact he'd more or less withdrawn from political activity. His letters are more concerned with family matters and the workings of the Federal Arts Project. And as American involvement in the Second World War became inevitable there was the additional worry of being conscripted. By 1943, when the letters are tailing off, Jackson had begun to establish himself as a painter and was on the verge of critical if not financial acknowledgement. Lee Krasner had arrived on the scene and was proving to be a steadying influence on him. She, like Sanford, sacrificed a lot of her own talents as an artist in order to provide the kind of support that Jackson obviously needed.
It's easy to understand why Jackson's name is highlighted on the cover of this book. It's a name people will recognise. And the letters do have relevance to his story and can be usefully read in conjunction with Naifeh/Smith biography mentioned earlier and Jeffrey Potter's fascinating oral biography, To a Violent Grave, published in 1985. But it would be a pity if attention was focused on American Letters solely because of Jackson. It provides a valuable picture of a family under pressure and a vivid account of young men and women responding to extreme economic and political circumstances. Scattered references to Charles's wife, Elizabeth, and her activities make her seem a particularly interesting person.
I've mentioned a few of the people the Pollocks knew, and there were many others, like David Siqueiros, the Mexican artist who fought in the Spanish Civil War and was also involved in an assassination attempt on Trotsky in Mexico, and Frank Bonetti, another volunteer in the International Brigades. A letter from Marvin to Frank asks: "By the way, did you kids ever meet Frank Bonetti, one of our L.A. comrades who went to Spain? He is back now in New York, after serving eighteen months and having suffered the loss of his left leg." Marvin says that he's hoping that Bonetti will come and stay with them. The references to Bonetti led me to Arthur H. Landis's The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a large history of Americans in the Spanish Civil War, where some of Bonetti's experiences are given prominent attention. He was clearly a Party member and some years later, when McCarthyism was at its height, attempts were made to deport him from the United States on the grounds that he was a foreign-born alien and a communist. Circumstances like those may help to give a partial explanation of why so many people who were radicals in the 1930s found it advisable to play down their left-wing opinions after 1945.
American Letters is a fascinating book, has an informative introduction, and is well edited and annotated by Sylvia Winter Pollock, Charles's second wife.