Gregory White Smith dies; biography of Jackson Pollock won a Pulitzer

April 11

Gregory White Smith, an author best known for his mammoth biographies of artists Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize but polarized the art community for its speculative approach to Pollock’s troubled personal life, died April 10 at his home in Aiken, S.C. He was 62.

For much of his adult life, Mr. Smith battled a brain tumor. His often-frustrating search for treatment led him and his spouse, Steven Naifeh, to create such popular reference guides as “The Best Doctors in America” and “The Best Lawyers in America.” They also founded a doctor referral service, Best Doctors Inc., which caters to people with rare and complex diseases.

Woodward/White Inc., which produces the doctor and lawyer guides, confirmed the death.

Mr. Smith and Naifeh wrote well-received true-crime tales and a book about the renovation of their 60-room historical mansion in Aiken — “On a Street Called Easy, in a Cottage Called Joye” (1996). But they gained their widest renown for their art biographies.

Both Harvard-trained lawyers, they were sometimes viewed as interlopers in the cozy world of New York art critics and curators. Although Naifeh had a master’s degree in fine arts, Mr. Smith was a complete outsider and had no training as an art historian.


Author Gregory White Smith attends the 2012 Juilliard School Commencement Ceremony at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

It took them eight years to complete “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” a 1,000-page tome published in 1989 about a towering figure in the post-World War II abstract expressionist movement. Pollock died in 1956, at 44, in an alcohol-related car crash.

Many reviewers regarded the book’s exploration into Pollock’s heavy drinking and alleged physical abuse of his wife as sensationalized. The book also stirred controversy with its theories about what the authors contended was Pollock’s repressed homosexuality.

In the New York Times, biographer Elizabeth Frank wrote a scathing review.

“Their Pollock is a kind of gifted idiot, a man who ‘never achieved mastery of the analytic subtleties of any of the theories that informed his art,’ ” Frank noted. “There is never any sense that Pollock had a mind, or that his much-celebrated unconscious possessed an amazing understanding of the logic of the Western pictorial tradition, or that, in his art, he was able to free himself from his psychic torments and not just disguise them. Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith know everything about Pollock and understand almost nothing.

“Their book is bad biography,” she continued, “because instead of offering a conception of Pollock rich enough to turn their facts into compelling truths, they cut him down to size, diminishing both the man and his art in an unending chronicle of self-destructive defeat and humiliation.”

The book also had defenders, who said it broke a mold in traditional biography and offered a compelling account of a complicated life.

Author Artelia Court wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “By confidently linking their huge, colorful canvas to critical points in the emotional and aesthetic framework of Pollock’s art, the remarkable Naifeh and Smith have provided us with something that’s as entertaining as a novel, as persuasive as superior history and as uniquely informative as a kind of catalogue raisonne of the social and psychological components of vital 20th-Century painting.”

When Mr. Smith and Naifeh received the Pulitzer Prize in biography, the backlash was fierce. Writers for the New York Times, Newsweek and the New York Observer criticized the Pulitzer committee for its choice.

“Partly it’s turf,” Naifeh told the Boston Globe,“since we say difficult things about powerful people though we aren’t members of the art business ourselves, and don’t go to all the cocktail parties and gallery openings. But there’s also something else going on, a kind of hysteria I’m sure has something to do with homophobia.

“If we did not say Jackson was sexually ambivalent and didn’t live together ourselves, this might not have had the same odd intensity.”

The book formed the basis for the 2000 film “Pollock,” which starred Ed Harris.

Like the Pollock volume, “Van Gogh: The Life” (2011) was a formidable 1,000-page doorstop brimming with nearly a decade’s worth of research. And, like its predecessor, it contained startling theories. The book posited that the artist’s death in 1890, long presumed to be a suicide, was a accident.

Their alternative narrative, based on the findings of an American art historian working in France in the 1930s, was that van Gogh was shot by a gun-wielding teenager who liked to taunt the artist and was obsessed with Buffalo Bill and the American West.

“No physical evidence of the shooting was ever produced,” the authors wrote. “No gun was ever found.” They added that van Gogh, who was known for an explosive temperament, “knew nothing about guns” and left no suicide note. The bullet, they wrote, entered the body “from an unusual, oblique angle -- not straight on as one would expect in a suicide.”

Again, the book was met with skepticism in the art world but won a barrage of publicity on “60 Minutes” and other shows, ensuring it would be talked about.

Gregory White Smith was born Oct. 4, 1951, in Ithaca, N.Y., and was raised in Columbus, Ohio. After graduating in 1973 from Colby College in Maine, Mr. Smith spent a year studying music in Europe and then enrolled at Harvard Law School.

Mr. Smith met Naifeh at Harvard. “We were two lost souls in the dining hall wondering what in the hell we were doing here,” Mr. Smith told People magazine.

They worked in law after graduating in 1977 but changed career aspirations. Mr. Smith received a master’s degree in education from Harvard in 1978; Naifeh got a master of fine arts degree.

They wrote a biography of artist Gene Davis but mostly centered on self-help books, including “What Every Client Needs to Know About Using a Lawyer” and “How to Make Love to a Woman,” for which they recruited a straight co-author.

Their 1997 volume, “Making Miracles Happen,” used Mr. Smith’s medical journey to advocate a more aggressive role by patients in seeking the best treatment.

Mr. Smith had first been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 1976, but a decade later, while attending a Christmas party, his face was suddenly paralyzed. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota told him the tumor was malignant and inoperable and gave him months to live.

Dozens of other doctors offered similarly grave prognoses, but one neuroradiologist offered an experimental treatment. It shrunk the tumor by half, Mr. Smith said, enough to buy time to find a surgeon who was willing to operate. Much of the tumor was removed and further treatment was used to keep it from growing.

Mr. Smith’s survivors include Naifeh, whom he married in 2011, and a sister.

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