The dramatic death of Jackson Pollock mythologized Abstract Expressionist painters as counter-culture icons. The physicality and dense entanglements of monumental Abstract Expressionist canvases, in turn, are now regarded not simply as dialogues between paint and picture surfaces, but as historical indexes of the toils of intense, larger-than-life personalities.
Ruth Kligman, a passenger in Pollock’s Oldsmobile on the night of August 11, 1956, survived the horrific crash. Her friend, Edith Metzger, was not so fortunate. Kligman was a voluptuous and savvy aspiring painter who narrowly escaped a life of predestined normalcy in New Jersey (she left that role to her identical twin Iris). She and Pollock met at the Cedar Tavern earlier that year, and during the tumultuous affair that followed, Kligman acted as a sensuous balm to Pollock’s alcoholism and strained marriage with Lee Krasner.
Kligman sustained serious injuries in the fabled crash, yet rebounded rapidly. Her beauty and outgoing personality made her a fixture within the New York art scene, and relationships with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, as well as intense camaraderie with Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, kept her in the spotlight (in spite of a seven-year marriage to Spanish painter, Carlos Sansegundo). Yet, it was her history with Pollock that was most consistently referenced when she stepped out in public.
In the early 1970s, Kligman embarked on a written account of her time with Pollock (Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, William Morrow & Company, 1974). Two unpublished lists in her personal papers reveal both her excitement and feelings of caution about the enterprise. Possible merits and pitfalls range from setting the record straight to self-doubt, financial reward and even an overwhelming desire to even the score with several detractors. Lee Krasner, who had overseen Pollock’s legacy with a tight grip for the 18 years since the fateful crash, was no doubt a target of the latter.
Love Affair, by most accounts, offers a compelling portrayal of Pollock’s psychological state during the final months of his life. The sadly familiar narrative of an exceedingly talented creator struck down by an inability to shoulder the public weight of such a gift is recalled through the eyes of his young lover. Yet the story is equally Kligman’s: the one left behind to bear much of the burden for the tragedy. In Kligman’s own words: “That great romantic love. It can never come again. How could it? That love we had together died at its peak.”1
1. Ruth Kligman, Love Affair: a Memoir of Jackson Pollock: New York, William Morrow& Company, 1974. (p. 217)