TO A VIOLENT GRAVE; An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock. By Jeffrey Potter. Putnam. 303 pp. $19.95.
THE HISTORY of gossip has been given a boost lately by a new literary sub-genre called oral biography, one of literature's debts to that truly great invention, the portable tape recorder. I have thus far read three examples: Edie, by Jean Stein, Mailer, by Peter Manso, and this book about Jackson Pollock.
The form has obvious virtues: All kinds of people who can't write have lots to say: To a Violent Grave quotes wonderfully the custodian at the cemetery where Pollock lies buried. The editor must track down the right witnesses and (with the machine running) tease out something like the truth. Once the immeasurable miles of talk are safely clipped in those sweet little cassettes, the job is to shape a eaningful structure from an eternity of meandering anecdote. A palimpsest from babble: an absorbing task.
So far the best such effort is the book about Edie Sedgwick. Edie's gossip is very high quality -- real top- notch stuff -- and its picture of the short wretched life of the '60s' perfect party girl really does evoke a kind of pity and terror. Peter Manso's book on Norman Mailer comes next. Its gossip never gathers the novelistic momentum of Sedgwick's awful story: there's nothing particularly moving about Mailer's life. No matter: Mailer is a wonderfully -- invaluably -- fecund mound of raw social history scooped in great globs from the layered muck of New York intellectual and literary life since 1950.
This book is a disappointment. Jackson Pollock was a genuinely great artist, who produced some of the most powerful, argumentative, and beautiful paintings of this century. He seems an ideal subject: a combination of great social history with a tragic life. Indeed, since his death in an automobile crash near Springs, Long Island in 1956, he has assumed mythic standing. Jeffrey Potter's title, To a Violent Grave, by the way, is very apt. The boulder marking Pollock's grave in Springs' local cemetery has become a kind of modernist shrine. Note well: it is Pollock's death that is the essential element of his myth as doomed genius.
An unwilled virtue of Potter's book is to show that Pollock's life, on the other hand, was not particularly interesting. The leading fact about it was that Pollock was an alcoholic, and seems to have been an out-of-control alcoholic from virtually the first hour of his first adolescent experiment. I do not wish to sound heartless. Pollock's struggle with his disease was anguishing for everybody concerned. It was also ugly, tiresome, and boring. Sober, Pollock seems to have been inarticulate, shy, a socially clumsy man, sometimes gentle and winsome, more often sullen or menacing, and invariably expert in infantile strategies for making himself felt. Drunk, he was a fatuous braggart and a slob, nasty with women, bullying with men, gurgling with self-pity and abusive to the point of violence. Drunk or sober, he was totally self-centered in the numb, diminishing, damaged fashion of people who have rarely paid real attention to anything but the pained, wish-riddled churnings of their own insides.
Most of his intellectual life -- the psychotherapy, the half-baked mysticism, and the barroom talk about art -- seems to have consisted of a search for further indulgences of his self-obsession. Some conditional release from the nagging omnipresent self is surely one of the most important human needs. Outside his art, Pollock seems almost never to have experienced that release. That is a tragedy. But it is not a very interesting tragedy.
That such a man produced work of such stature is a matter of interest -- but not one a book of anecdotes is likely to clear up. Meanwhile, as social history the book is a disappointment. The economics of a controlled scarcity defines the entire process of marketing painting. That means that of all the arts, painting is necessarily bound most closely to monied high society. Mere inches behind any major painter's reputation lurks another story, and it is invariably about the rich. Sometimes it is an interesting story, sometimes not. It is rarely told. The opportunity to tell it has been missed here. Potter and his wife were friends of the Pollocks and later members of a socially rather grand art world coterie gathered just a bit over-worshipfully around Pollock's mythic shade. The book is too much a reflection of that coterie.
THE BOOK TO read about Pollock's life remains B.H. Friedman's plain old biography, Energy Made Visible. The book to wish for would be a portrait of Pollock's marriage. Here Potter's book is filled with fascinating information. Still, its fatal gap is the complete absence of any contribution whatever from Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Lee Krasner died, a considerable painter, (and a very rich woman), in 1984. She was the most important person in his life. She recognized Pollock's genius from the start: when they were young painters together in the same show, she sought him and pursued him -- an unknown, surly, young wise-guy -- because of his work. As his wife, she relentlessly shaped the profile of his career and nurtured its myth. She was Pollock's way in the world.
She wasn't pretty; she was aggressively competitive (with him, too); she was severe, hectoring, nagging, intellectually argumentative. Both before and after his death, she was often charmless and occasionally ruthless in her promotion of both their fortunes. (Potter quotes a shrewd insider: "The three great dealers in the U.S.? Pierre Matisse, Leo Castelli and Lee Krasner.") Many witnesses plainly disliked her. Few didn't respect her. She loved him passionately. She never wavered. In spite of poverty and drunkenness, she mothered him, kept him functioning, and maintained always a terrible clarity about their compelled, crucial liasion -- the locked-in marriage of an enraged selfishness with an equally enraged selflessness. Here were two people who understood each other. Theirs is surely one of the harshest, most unpleasant, most powerful love stories of our time.