The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue
Art Books

A Collection of Personal Accounts

American Letters 1927 - 1947: Jackson Pollock & Family
(Polity Press, April 2011)

This month’s release of American Letters 1927 - 1947: Jackson Pollock & Family, a compilation of the personal correspondence between five brothers (Sanford, Charles, Frank, Marvin, and Jackson), their parents, and wives, marks a significant contribution to the literature on Jackson Pollock. Containing many letters by, to, and about Jackson, many of which were previously unpublished, the book offers an unusually intimate perspective on the formative years of one of the most renowned artists of the 20th century. The reader, through the letters’ evocations of the many interests, experiences, and complex emotions of the various family members, is also introduced to some of the unique social, political, and intellectual currents of an era that was marked by the hardships of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The book, one quickly gathers, is not intending to explain why Jackson Pollock became a front runner for the new avant-garde, but to shed light on the personal, historical, and emotional backdrop against which his artistic development occurred.

Socially uncomfortable and suffering from various insecurities, Jackson rarely opened up to strangers. In the context of formal interviews, his answers often appeared somewhat terse and stilted. In contrast, his correspondence with his loved ones is devoid of misconceptions and pretense. As the letters are characterized by an immanent sense of integrity and trust between the family members, the reader has the rare opportunity to encounter an individual who, though notoriously conflicted, here appears strikingly sincere.

American Letters was conceived in 2008 by Sylvia Winter Pollock, the second wife of the late Charles Pollock (1902-1988), and their daughter Francesca. Their stated ambition is to “share the wealth of [an] unusual family story… [of people who] struggled with their eyes wide open.” They therefore decided to let the letters speak for themselves. Editorial decisions were kept to a minimum and only concerned punctuation and spelling. While the introduction, by the art historian Michael Leja, provides a thorough overview of the personal, political, and art historical circumstances addressed in the texts, Leja abstains from deeper critical analysis. Faintly reminiscent of Jeffrey Potter’s To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock (1985), American Letters offers a fragmented account of several individuals whose distinct voices nevertheless evoke a somewhat cohesive tale of a family who, despite long distances and financial hardships, appears united in their dedication to remain close and engaged with the world. At times sent frequently, then, revealing lengthy gaps in communication, the accounts date from 1927 to 1945. Organized chronologically, they begin as the older Pollock sons graduate from high school and leave California to lead their own lives. They conclude just as Jackson (1912-1956), the youngest son, is gaining recognition for his artwork. The story that unfolds in between is as diverse as it is little-known.

Charles Pollock, the oldest son, was the first to move to New York in 1926. At the Art Students League, he, as Jackson later would too, studied with Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), whose passion for social concerns impacted him profoundly. In 1927, Benton advised Charles: “To see America you have to get down in the dust, under the wheels, where the struggle is.” Charles shared his keen interest in the arts and increasing political enthusiasm with his younger brothers. In 1929, he described his trust in the power of a more enlightened generation of Americans:

Now the one hope in this country for improvement in the quality of our national life is the increasing body of protest in the youth and the critical concern of the liberal thinkers and artists and the earnestness with which they accept responsibility for sound and clear thinking on the many aspects of contemporary life.

Soon after, Frank (1907-1994), Sanford (1909-1963), and Jackson arrived in New York, and the latter two joined Charles’s artistic pursuits. While they embraced their new cultural life in the city wholeheartedly, the brothers would return to California regularly until the mid-1930s. They usually traveled by hitchhiking cross-country or hopping freight trains, and it was during these journeys that they would experience both the vastness of the American landscape and the unrest that rippled through the Depression-torn country. Moved and affected by the economic devastation of their time, all Pollock family members paid keen attention to politics. Leaning left and opposing fascism as early as the mid-1930s, they exchanged their opinions unabashedly. In 1929, Charles wrote that, while in the past “clever and brutal men had secured control of the wealth of the country, the machine […could] no longer be controlled.” To him, it was clear that it would be due to the “artists and thinkers, to direct the expending of [America’s] vast wealth and energy.”

Photograph of the Pollock family / from left to right: Sanford LeRoy, Charles Cecil, LeRoy, Stella, Frank Leslie, Marvin Jay, Paul Jackson. © Charles Pollock Archives.
Photograph of the Pollock family / from left to right: Sanford LeRoy, Charles Cecil, LeRoy, Stella, Frank Leslie, Marvin Jay, Paul Jackson. © Charles Pollock Archives.

Charles, Sanford, and Jackson were especially engaged in local politics. In addition to Benton and his circle, they had met more likeminded artists while working for the government’s Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration during the mid- to late-1930s, which commissioned unemployed artists to create public artworks. All three belonged to the Artists Union and attended the American Artists’ Congress, which was founded in 1936 and aimed to unite progressive artists in the fight against war and fascism. According to their conviction that art could effect radical political change, they applied their skills in whatever capacity was needed. In a letter from 1936, Sanford described their work with the Siqueiros workshop to his mother. They had just completed two portraits of Communist Party presidential candidate Earl Russell Browder and the vice-presidential candidate James W. Ford for the convention of the Communist Party, and were already planning a large-scale float for the League Against War and Fascism, which “would be comprised of a head 24 feet high of Hearst and Hitler as twins sitting on a canon.”

Besides reflections on current political events and activities, reports of valuable times spent with visiting family members, and descriptions of everyday life in New York, for example, American Letters also contains poignant information about Jackson’s inner turmoil during this period. “Although I feel I will make an artist of some kind,” he wrote to Charles in 1930 from California, “I have never proven to myself nor anybody that I have it in me. This so called happy part of one’s life, youth, to me is a bit of damnable hell.” Though Jackson’s soul-searching continued in New York, his pensive energy was increasingly channeled into his artwork. However, the letters reveal the extent of his emotional conflict; how much he wavered between self-assurance and doubt. In 1932, he reported to his father that he was going to the Art Students League every morning. His overly confident statement that he had “learned what is worth learning in the realm of art” was quickly followed by his description of the overwhelming workload he still saw ahead of himself:

It is just a matter of time and work now for me to have that knowledge a part of me. A good seventy years more and I think I’ll make a good artist—being an artist is life itself—living it I mean.­­

By the late 1930s, Jackson’s brothers, in particular Sanford who lived with him, became increasingly concerned by his frail emotional state. In 1938, Sanford wrote to Charles that Jackson had been “in serious mental shape,” adding that he had been “worried as hell about him.” While listing the symptoms of the problem, including irresponsibility, depressive mania, over-intensity, and alcoholism, Sanford also stressed his unwavering belief in his younger brother’s talents:

On the credit side we have his Art… His thinking is… related to that of men like Beckman, Orozco and Picasso. We are sure that if he is able to hold himself together his work will become of real significance. His painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality.­­

American Letters reveals the large amount of unwavering and ceaseless encouragement that Jackson received from his family over the years. It is a fact little discussed. This family support was of an emotional nature, but also extended towards the practical. After leaving home, for example, Jackson relied on his brothers to establish himself in New York. He lived for years with Sanford and his wife Arloie before meeting Lee Krasner in the early 1940s. This surely was due in part to financial concerns. However, considering the concern voiced by Sanford in particular, it becomes apparent that the family also felt that one had to protect Jackson, who was fragile and not well equipped to cope on his own. Nevertheless, the close connection between the brothers remained through the years of hardship and after, when Jackson moved in with Lee and found professional recognition. Thinking back to his childhood during the 1950s, Jason McCoy, Sanford’s son, recalls: “My memory of family is of the visits by my aunts, uncles and cousin Jeremy [Charles’s daughter].”

“There was a warmth and respect for each other, as well as concern for individual well-being...the brothers stayed in touch and shared a strong bond.”

Though American Letters’s value is not limited to Pollock scholarship, its most profound achievement is that it provides an unabashed view of the intellect behind the work. By giving us new evidence of Jackson Pollock’s own voice, American Letters achieves both, to offer an important new source for understanding his struggles and genuine search for meaning in life and art, as well as to (what Charles Pollock called) “keep the record straight.”


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues