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.
May 24, 2012
One of the more surprising and unusual works in the new American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is an early ceramic bowl by Jackson Pollock, decorated in black and fierce fiery red, which was acquired in 2010 by the museum. The MFA describes the bowl as influenced by El Greco, which is not entirely wrong, since Pollock made pencil copies after paintings by El Greco around this time. But I’d like to propose that it’s possible to pin down its source more precisely. I believe it’s inspired by a work by a now largely forgotten painter of the 1930s, Ross Braught—in fact, based on Braught’s most ambitious painting, a mural in the Kansas City Music Hall. Identifying this source opens up a whole new set of questions and speculations.
Pollock’s interest in ceramics was inspired by the work of his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, who had discovered during his impoverished years in New York that it was easier to sell decorated ceramics than paintings.
Pollock’s surviving ceramics seem to have been made at two times.He made one group during four successive summers, 1934-1937, while staying on Martha’s Vineyard with Benton and his wife, Rita. The Bentons kept quite a few of these ceramics and eventually donated them to various museums. The others were made in 1939 while Pollock was being treated for alcoholism at the Bloomingdale Hospital. Just two of these pieces survive, but they’re Pollock’s most impressive early ceramics: Flight of Man, the piece now in Boston, which he gave to his psychiatrist, James H. Wall, and The Story of My Life, which he made at the same time and sold to a gentleman named Thomas Dillon in Larchmont, New York. The whereabouts of this last piece are unknown. At the time Pollock made these two pieces, he had just returned from a visit to the Bentons in Kansas City, the only time he visited there.
The Story of My Life contains a series of scenes: an archer shooting an arrow at some horses in the sky; a sleeping woman; a child in fetal position; and a boat sailing on restless seas. Pollock’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, have described it as “an impenetrable allegory”; in fact, its meaning is easy to construe once we recognize its source, an illustrated book, Phaeton, published by Braught in 1939. Phaeton was the son of Apollo and obtained permission from him to drive the chariot of the sun. But since he was unable to control the horses, the chariot plunged down close to earth, scorching the planet. To prevent further destruction, Apollo was forced to shoot his son down from the sky. The two most significant images on Pollock’s bowl, the archer and the sleeping woman are both derived from Braught’s book. The third, the boat on restless seas, relates to paintings that Pollock had made earlier on Martha’s Vineyard, of the boat of Benton’s son, T.P., sailing on Menemsha Pond. Clearly Pollock saw Phaeton’s story as parallel to his own life as an artist. At one moment he was soaring to great heights, at the next crashing to earth.
If we accept this source, it’s not surprising to discover that Pollock’s second painted bowl, the one in Boston, was also based on a work by Braught. Its imagery resembles that of the most ambitious painting of Braught’s career, a 27-feet-high mural, Mnemosyne and the Four Muses, which he created for the Kansas City Music Hall. As the title indicates, the swirling composition shows Mnemosyne, or Memory, who was the mother of the muses, and four muses, who are emerging from clouds that float over a landscape of the badlands of South Dakota. Braught also made a painting of the landscape at the bottom, which he titled Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (1936; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). This was the last piece that Tchaikovsky wrote before he died—as some believe, by committing suicide. Perhaps that’s the music we’re meant to imagine when we look at the painting.
To be sure, Pollock didn’t follow his source very closely. What he took was Braught’s general formula: a central floating figure with outstretched arms, suffused with mysterious light, surrounded by other figures and cloud-like forms that fill the surrounding space. I suspect that close study would reveal prototypes for many of Pollock’s figures. For example, the over-scaled figure on the right-hand side loosely relates to a painting he had made shortly before, Naked Man with Knife (c. 1938; Tate, London). Compared with Braught’s design, Pollock’s is somewhat crude, with figures of differing scales, which often fill their spaces somewhat awkwardly. But it was precisely Pollock’s departures from traditional ideas of correct proportion or well-resolved design that led to his wildly expressive later work.
Who was Ross Braught? Why was Pollock interested in him?
Braught just preceded Benton as the head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. An eccentric figure, he bore a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff. He generally wore a black cape, and sometimes brought a skeleton with him on the streetcar, so that he could draw it at home. His work had a mystical, visionary cast. It clearly held strong appeal for Pollock at a time when he was going through intense emotional turmoil, and was also attempting to move beyond the influence of Benton.
Pollock surely met Braught in 1939, just before he made the bowl, when he visited the Bentons in Kansas City in January of that year. At the time, Pollock also socialized with Ted Wahl, the printer of Braught’s lithographs for Phaeton. While not well known today, Braught was getting a good deal of press coverage at the time, both for his painting for the Kansas City Music Hall, which was praised in Art Digest, and for his lithograph Mako Sica, which received a first prize at the Mid-Western Exhibit at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935 (and became the subject of articles questioning its merit shortly afterward in the Print Collector’s Quarterly).
Sadly, Braught’s career faded at this point, perhaps in part because he was so unworldly and impractical. After leaving Kansas City in 1936, he lived for most of the next decade in the tropics, where he made drawings and paintings of dense jungle foliage. From 1946 to 1962, he returned to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute, but in 1962, when Abstract Expressionism was in vogue, he was fired because his style was considered too old-fashioned. The figure who had inspired Jackson Pollock was no longer good enough to matter. Braught spent the last 20 years of his life living in extreme poverty in Philadelphia, no one knows exactly where.
There’s been only one exhibition of Braught’s work since his death, a show at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York in March-April 2000, accompanied by an excellent, hard-to-find catalog written by David Cleveland. Both the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia have paintings by him in their collections.
For two reasons, Pollock’s interest in Braught is worth noting. One is that when we identify Pollock’s sources, his creative process is illuminated and we can see the step-by-step process by which he moved toward being an original artist. In some ways it’s a bit deflating. Pollock clearly started off as a copyist. Nonetheless, while Pollock’s bowl is in some ways quite derivative, you can already sense his emerging artistic personality.
Second, perhaps Pollock’s interest in Braught will encourage a modest revival of interest in Braught. Braught’s output is so scarce that he’ll surely never be regarded as a major figure, but it is well worth a visit to see his work at the Kansas City Music Hall, one of the greatest Art Deco interiors anywhere, which also houses some good paintings made around the same time by Walter Bailley.
Braught’s Mnemosyne and the Four Muses is surely one of the weirdest and most unusual wall paintings in this country. As you stand in front of it, you wonder why Pollock chose it as a model for his own work and what to make of his artistic taste. Was he misguided? Or right to be inspired by an artist who’s now so thoroughly forgotten?
There’s a copy of Ross Braught’s book Phaeton in the library of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Some early ceramics by Jackson Pollock reside in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and in a few private hands.
November 29, 2011
What’s the best new work of art in the world? Good question. The most interesting and mind-bending new artwork that I’ve encountered is a remarkable garden in Paris titled Who to Believe?, recently designed and assembled by Francois Abelanet. We’re accustomed to the idea that paint can form an illusion. But it’s a bit startling to find this effect created with grass and trees. Yet this is the conceit of Abelanet’s work, made from 3,500 square feet of turf and many truckloads of dirt and straw and assembled with the help of about 90 carefully supervised gardeners. Here’s a pretty good video of it:
When you stare down at it from the steps of the City Hall in Paris, Abelanet’s carefully designed garden resembles a terrestrial globe. It’s a nearly perfect sphere, with neat lines marking latitude and longitude and two trees growing out of the top. It looks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince.
But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.
Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.
Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.
This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.
Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors.
An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation. Scholars have long argued about what these objects signify. Presumably the instruments are saying something about the world of knowledge, or about the celestial and terrestrial world. The hymnbook and lute seem to allude to strife between scholar’s and clergy.
But the oddest thing in The Ambassadors is a strangely distorted shape in the lower center, which when viewed from the painting’s right (or the viewer’s left) takes the form of a skull. Surely this alludes to the fact that death is always present, but we only see it if we look at reality from a particular angle.
Holbein’s painting alerts us to the fact that Anamorphosis is a device that can not only amuse us with its strange visual distortions, but can provide a metaphor. Part of the wit of Abelanet’s marvelous garden is that it functions in a way that carries metaphorical and metaphysical punch. Probably no form on government on earth is so famously centralized and bureaucratic as that of France. Decisions made at the top are carried out rigorously to the lowest level. It’s been said that if you enter any schoolroom in France you’ll find that the students are studying the same page in the same book as in every other schoolroom in the realm. But how do the people at the top make their decisions? What do they see from their vantage point?
Abelanet’s garden reminds us that the view from City Hall can be quite different from everywhere else—that, in fact, the seeming logic of its view of things can be nonsensical. To fully grasp reality we need to see how it looks from more than one place (politicians, take note). Like much of the world’s best art, Abelanet’s creation is at once silly and profound.
Is this the world’s best new work of art? I’d welcome other suggestions.