He drew the unwitting New Yorkers on the subway and in restaurants, at museums and on street corners. Sometimes, in a day’s work, he drew just a few fleeting faces, and other times he drew hundreds, amassing more than 50,000 within the decade. He captured them buying hot dogs or playing an accordion. Some fidgeted with a Rubik’s Cube or read the paper on the E train.
But then, after Dec. 19, the drawings on the “Every Person in New York” blog stopped coming. The last entry that day featured “Man at Taco Bell on 2nd Avenue,” sitting on a stool in a bulky winter jacket. Polan, his family said, was fighting colon cancer.
On Monday, the artist died in New York after succumbing to cancer, his father, Jesse Polan, told The Washington Post. He was 37.
Polan’s death brought forth an outpouring of grief from the local art community and the everyday people who saw themselves in his work, remembering him as the “constant chronicler of our city,” looking for beauty in the blur of a New York minute on any given street corner. The New York Times called him “one of the quirkiest and most prolific denizens of the New York art scene,” while New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz called Polan “one of the consummate draftsmen of the 21st century.”
He knew he would never finish drawing all of the 8 million-plus people living in New York, his close friend Jen Bekman told The Post. But she said the prolific volume of what he did manage to capture each and every day taught her how to see the world differently.
“To walk down the street with him is just a reminder that, no matter how boring you think the day is, there are always interesting things around you,” Bekman, the founder and CEO of 20x200.com, an online art curator, said Tuesday night. “If you think of just a walk to the corner as an opportunity to see something different, most of us don’t do that normally. He is just this super-voracious observer of everything.”
Polan, whose work had been published in the Times and the New Yorker and was featured in art exhibits, grew up in Michigan before moving to New York in the early 2000s. While in the Big Apple, he founded the Taco Bell Drawing Club, where he encouraged anyone to meet up at the fast-food joint to draw whatever they saw. He also drew every piece of art in the Museum of Modern Art — twice — and published the massive undertaking in a book.
That project, his father said, served as the launchpad for his art career.
From a young age, Polan always seemed to have a quixotic tendency for cataloguing, his father said.
While studying art and anthropology at the University of Michigan, he drew portraits of all 800-plus students in the art school, Polan said in the introduction of his 2015 book, “Every Person in New York,” which included 30,000 of his swiftly penned drawings. When one of his first jobs took him to Skykomish, Wash., a town of about 200 people, he drew every person in the phone book.
“He was always drawing, whenever and wherever he was,” Jesse said. “He really felt like he was helping people, because they enjoyed his art. It had quite a bit of humor in it, although that wasn’t the principle. He would see things that you really didn’t notice.”
Bekman said the idea for drawing every person in New York grew from the MoMa project. The drawings were done in haste on small pads of paper with a Uni-Ball Vision Elite pen, capturing New Yorkers in only a few minutes or seconds as they completed some quotidian activity: commuting, reading, sitting. He gave himself one rule: “I only draw the person while I can see them,” as he explained in his book introduction.
“I think it’s cheating for me to add things I’m not looking at,” he told the Times in a 2017 profile. ”… I don’t want there to be opinion added to it.”
The result meant that some people didn’t have hands or legs. Some had blank faces floating on white paper — like “Edward Norton at Lafayette” — as they whizzed past Polan mid-drawing or disappeared through the subway doors. The work was brilliant in its simplicity, Bekman said, as somehow, while standing in a crowded subway station, he brought a few faces alive with just a few wily lines.
“There’s a real sort of genius of being able to synthesize what someone looks like and capture them in just a few impressionistic strokes,” she said.
He also had an uncanny ability to recognize faces in a crowd, as Bekman and Saltz recalled, and was able to pick out both famous actors and “G-list celebrities” with equal zeal. He drew “Ava DuVernay on Broadway,” with big hair but no legs, and “Kevin Durant at Madison Square Garden,” with rail-thin legs stretching halfway up the paper.
I didn’t know Jason Polan but sometimes when I felt down I’d read Every Person in New York & think about attention, optimism, lightness, care. One time I saw myself, couldn’t remember what I’d been doing on Howard, could’ve cried to have been part of this work. What a loss pic.twitter.com/9iKtCHk1sM— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) January 27, 2020
But for Polan, it was never about finding celebrities in the masses. They were drawn alongside everybody else, striking a “curious balance between the fleeting and the iconic, the famous and the pedestrian, the glitzy and the mundane,” one art critic, Dave Delcambre, wrote of his work in Indy Week in 2009.
“As long as I’m living and I can draw,” Polan told WNYC in a 2010 interview, “I’ll be thinking about this project.”
That remained true, Jesse said, all the way up until Polan became too weak to hold a pen.
Two weeks before he died, the art therapist at the hospital learned the beloved New York street artist was there. She brought two white canvasses to his room. “He was sort of intrigued,” Jesse said. There were not many people to draw, so with an unsteady hand, Polan tried to draw a still life of an apple and a can of Sprite.
He tried until he grew exasperated, Jesse said, and so the father picked up the pens and paint himself and tried to channel his son. “I turned it around and showed the painting to him, and he said, ‘Dad, wow,’” Jesse remembered. The two pieces of art stayed side by side until it was time for Polan to go home.