Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said Jackson Pollack died five years after a 1949 article in Life magazine made him famous. He died in 1956, seven years after the Life article. This version has been corrected.
By Evelyn Toynton Yale Univ. 143 pp. $26
“There is something particularly thrilling about watching an artist destroy himself,” Evelyn Toynton writes in her trim biography, “Jackson Pollock.” “The buttoned-down can watch the unbuttoned act out their own aggressive and nihilistic urges, while the cachet of the other’s fame lends the spectacle a special excitement.”
There was no shortage of aggression and nihilism in Pollock’s short life, captured by Toynton, who has also published a novel based on the painter’s doomed marriage to fellow artist Lee Krassner. A taciturn, sometimes violent alcoholic who depended on his wife to sell his paintings and trim his fingernails, Pollock emerged from obscurity to become the king of abstract expressionism. He earned sneers from Time magazine, which called one of his works a “snarl of tar and confetti,” although its sister publication, Life, wondered whether he was “the greatest living painter in the United States.” The praise seemed not to have helped; seven years after a 1949 article in Life made him famous, the 44-year-old artist drove his car off of a rural Long Island road in a drunken rage, killing himself and a friend of his mistress’s. Instead of destroying his reputation, however, his death secured it.
While alive, he had been as visually arresting as his art. “These are images of freedom, of exultation, in almost the same way that the paintings themselves are,” Toynton writes of iconic photographs of Pollock in action, which may be better known than his chaotic works “Number 29, 1950” and “Blue Poles.” “In some of them, he looks as though he’s literally dancing.” Toynton ably chronicles Pollock’s gambol over the edge.