Apart from possibly Andy Warhol, has there ever been a more famous modern American artist than Jackson Pollock. A complex character who possibly suffered with bipolar disorder, and ravaged by alcoholism throughout most of his adult life. By the age of 31 he had signed a gallery contract for art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim. He created a huge mural for the entrance to her house, about which the celebrated art critic Clement Greenberg to write ‘I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.’
Most famous for his ‘drip – technique’ paintings, where he used household paints (out of necessity, he said) to physically move around, abandoning brushes in favour of cans with holes in, or simply splashing the paint with sticks onto the canvas. A fan of jazz, Pollock would immerse himself in music and according to his wife (and fellow artist) Lee Krasner, would ‘get into the grooves of listening to his jazz records not just for days [but] day and night, day and night for three days running, until you thought you would climb the roof!’ It was in these ‘artistic trances’ that Pollock would paint. It brought him worldwide fame and acclaim, Time magazine dubbing him ‘Jack the dripper’. But at the height of this fame, he abandoned drip painting in favour of firstly darker colours, including a collection of black painting on unprimed canvas. He later returned to colour and figures, with his last two works being ‘Scent’ and ‘Search’ (1955).
By this time though his alcoholism was worsening and he didn’t paint at all the following year. Instead his personal life was crumbling. He’d met and fallen for another artist, Ruth Kligman, who was working in a gallery when they first met. But their affair was tempestuous, with both of them seeing therapists at the time, and by June that year Kligman had called a halt to it. But they couldn’t stay apart, and it came to a head when Pollock’s wife caught them emerging from a barn where they’d spent the night, and she left him, and headed for Europe.
By July 12th Kligman was living with Pollock, but he was receiving mail from his wife, who was living at the time with the painter Paul Jenkins and his wife on Rue Decres. But less than a month later, Pollock announced to Kligman that his wife was returning. After being ignored at a couple of dinner parties, Kligman decided to go to New York to get away from Pollock for a short time. Here she lunched with Edith Metzger, a receptionist at a beauty parlour that Kligman frequented, and she agreed to accompany Kligman back to Springs, the suburb of NY where Pollock lived to meet him.
The next day, August 11th they were picked up at the station by Pollock, and they stopped at a bar where Kligman and Metzger drank coffee, and Pollock drank beer. The girls visited Pollocks studio while he drank through the afternoon. Later on that day Pollock announced they would be attending what seemed to amount to a musical soiree at an abstract expressionist artist Alfonso A. Ossorio’s house. Despite Kligmans initial reluctance, and Metzger’s nervousness about Pollocks condition, saying (according to Kligman’s book ‘Love affair – a memoir of Jackson Pollock’), ‘I mean, are you sure he can drive? He’s been drinking all day’, it was agreed they’d go.
Pollock’s driving became erratic, with his falling asleep at the wheel, and coming to a stop at a fork in the road, where a local policeman whom Pollock knew failed to recognise he was drunk and left. Continuing on erratically, Metzger got out of the car near a bar, but was persuaded back in by Kligman on the understanding they were abandoning the party, and going home.
Then according to Kligmans book,’ We started on our way home. Jackson was fully awake, fully conscious. He was angry, annoyed at us, and began to speed. Edith started screaming, ‘Stop the car, let me out!’ She was pleading with him. Again she screamed, ‘Let me out, please stop the car! Ruth, do something. I’m scared!’ He put his foot all the way to the floor. He was speeding wildly.’Jackson, slow down! Edith, stop making a fuss’.’ He’s fine. Take it easy.’ ‘Please. Jackson, stop!’ ‘Jackson don’t do this.’ I couldn’t reach either of them. Her arms were waving. She was trying to get out of the car. He started to laugh hysterically. One curve too fast. The second curve came too quickly. Her screaming. His insane laughter. His eyes lost. We swerved, skidded to the left out of control – the car lunged into the trees. We crashed.’
The car had careered into two small elm trees. Kligman was thrown clear and escaped injury. Pollock and Metzger were dead. Upon hearing the news in Europe, Lee Krasner screamed ‘Jackson is dead’ and cried uncontrollably, immediately returning to New York. And so ended the life of one of one of the greatest American artists.
Kligman went on to be something of a serial muse, becoming involved with the artists William De Kooning, and supposedly on the receiving end of affection from Andy Warhol, whilst continuing with her own painting for many years sharing a studio with Franz Kline in New York. Lee Krasner for many years controlled her husband’s estate, overseeing the dramatic rise in the artists stock, and for many, influencing the price and collectability of Modern art today. She died in 1984, aged 75.