June 1, 2012
Not many people alive today remember Jackson Pollock, or can say they visited him in his studio and discussed painting with him. One of the few is Richard Field, now retired, who taught for many years at Wesleyan and then became print curator at the Yale Art Gallery. I first got to know Richard during my impoverished student days, when I was teaching a class at Wesleyan. A friend who made a regular trip to Boston would drop me off to teach; after the class ended, I would hitchhike back to New Haven, hoping to get there in time for an afternoon section I was teaching at Yale.
Not long ago, I ran into Richard by chance at a symposium on the South Seas paintings of John LaFarge. Slightly more gaunt today, his face has weathered into one that resembles a biblical prophet.
Field is one of those art historians who have worked all over the map, producing gemlike pioneering studies that have marked out new direction in the field, but are so modestly presented, so intensely focused that their true impact is often not recognized until years later. They have also been so diverse that it’s hard to believe they were written by the same person. I’m sure every profession contains figures who’ve done extraordinary work but who labor in relative obscurity and have never become household names. Richard Field is one of these people.
Field wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin. Probably his best-known publication is a catalog of the prints of Jasper Johns—one of the first truly scholarly publications on the work of a contemporary artist. He’s currently working on an exhaustive study of the earliest surviving woodblocks from 15th-century Europe.
But curiously, he’s never published an account of one of his most memorable artistic experiences, a visit with Jackson Pollock in his studio on Long Island. I learned of this quite by accident, when I mentioned in passing my admiration for Pollock’s work. This led to a note from Richard shortly afterward about this experience, which I’m quoting here with his permission. To my knowledge this visit has never been mentioned in the extensive literature on Pollock. Perhaps this brief blog story will inspire a more extensive write-up, either by Field himself or by someone who interviews him in detail.
As Field himself would confess, part of what’s fascinating about his meeting with Pollock is the rather casual, even half-assed quality of the experience. He was quite young at the time, still an undergraduate, and the art world was not the super-heated, money-making machine that it is today. Pollock’s work was so new that no one knew quite what to make of it or how to describe it, and even Pollock himself was clearly a bit at a loss for words when trying to explain what he was up to.
Of course, in a sense, Field’s story is a confession of what was probably the biggest goof of his lifetime: that he didn’t purchase a painting by Pollock. But what’s interesting to me is the degree to which he was receptive to Pollock’s work at a time when most people, even at places like the art history department at Harvard, thought it was nonsense.
But enough of preliminaries! Let’s hear from Richard Field. What first awakened his interest in Pollock’s work was a show of abstract paintings at the Fogg Museum.
“By my senior year, I had become an art major and had chosen to write a long paper about Pollock in a seminar that was being given by Benjamin Rowland. He had kindly allowed me to work on Pollock, although I was an undergraduate, in a graduate seminar. I had been to see his shows in NYC regularly.”
The art world was smaller in those days and it wasn’t difficult to arrange to meet Pollock. In fact, he was thrilled that a student from Harvard was interested in his work:
“On Sunday March 15, 1953, my fiancée and I paid a visit to Pollock in Springs [a hamlet in East Hampton, New York]. He and Lee Krasner were wonderfully hospitable and not unfriendly.”
Pollock was not an art historian and thought about his work in a different way. Nonetheless, what he had to say was quite interesting:
“I was too dumb to be able to ask him the kind of questions that he might have answered fully. But we did talk and he did volunteer some insights about “finish,” namely how he knew when a painting was done, comments not unlike the statement in the opening pages of your book [Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock]. Really just that the work was finished when he perceived no further work to do. Self-serving in a double-sense, but obviously the truth. The work knew best, so to speak.
“He got out all sorts of paintings which I photographed, though I was too polite to ask him to pose with any of them (it would have changed the relationship). I was also too stupid to ask him to allow me to photograph any drawings.
“I also asked him whether I could buy for my wife-to-be a small painting, and we picked one out. It was to be $300, but he had to ask his dealer Sidney Janis (whom I knew) first. Since it was a large pouring and I had a convertible, there was no sense in taking it with us, anyway.”
Today a large painting by Pollock would be worth more than a hundred million dollars. Back in 1953, you could treat them more casually:
“Pollock also offered to lend me, for my seminar presentation at the Fogg (which did not own a work by Pollock) a rolled-up canvas of 12 or 16 feet. I had to refuse, again because I was afraid of damaging it.
“They invited Judy and me to stay for supper. Lee said they had only two pork chops, and we agreed to split them … truly!! When I told all of this to Jasper Johns, he thought the pork chop incident the most entertaining and burst out with one of usual sudden bits of laughter.
“After dinner we went over to Alfonso Ossorio’s house to bask in the great works he had acquired. I remember so distinctly how one walked into the space of two Clyfford Stills, and so much more. It was a great day.”
Here comes the sad part, which shows that one should never think about one’s life in a sensible way, since if you do, you’ll probably make a big mistake:
“Later my fiancée asked me how could we spend $300 on a painting when we only had $600 in the bank?? So I never bought that Pollock, which ironically I found one day about 25 years ago in the collection of a Yale collector (who was probably about to sell it for a million or so).”
“I still have a little letter (with a couple of ink spots on it) from Pollock, that and memories. An invitation to one of his exhibitions is listed as a screen-print in the Pollock catalogue, but I dispute that the one I have is screen-printed (I have done a lot of work on screen-printing). My name has never come up in the Pollock literature, but I believe there was an oblique reference in one of the biographies to my visit—which had pleased Pollock, at least in advance.”
Interestingly, at some point, Field’s appreciation for Pollock grew dim:
“For years I was able to get inside Pollock’s paintings, but when I went to Kirk [Varnedoe]’s show at MoMA the magic has vanished. I loved the work, but there was some interiority that was missing for me.”
Because I wrote Tom and Jack, a study of the lifelong relationship between Benton and Pollock, I always am interested in whether a lover of Pollock’s work likes the very different work of Benton as well. For many, Benton is the anti-Christ, but Field wrote to me:
“Since my earliest days of interest in art (14 years old) Benton has always been one of my favorite artists, and this was long before I learned of his abstract works.”
I’ve come to believe that if you know you’ve missed a great opportunity, it shows you’ve gotten pretty close. Most of us have great opportunities all around us and never know that we’ve missed them. While he didn’t become rich from investing in a Pollock, Field, through his early interest in his work, nicely revealed the wonderful intuitive intelligence that has made him one of the truly outstanding art historians of our century.
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