This documentary profiles the American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who died at the age of 44 in a car accident.
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Patrolman Earl Finch received a radio dispatch from police HQ
at 22.15 hours
on August 11th, 1956.
It reported an automobile accident on the Springs Fireplace Road.
Proceeding to the scene, he found a 1950 Oldsmobile
registered to one Jackson Pollock.
He observed an injured woman lying in front of the vehicle
who was identified as Ruth Kligman, aged 25 years
who was removed to the South Hampton hospital.
He also observed a male body lying nine feet west of the vehicle
on its back, head to the west, feet to the east
who was later identified as Jackson Pollock, Springs Road, New York,
aged 44 years.
Date of birth - 28th January, 1912.
The coroner, Dr Nugent, examined the body of Jackson Pollock.
It was wearing a black velvet shirt,
grey pants, brown belt, blue shorts,
brown socks, no shoes.
No jewellery or ID found on the body.
It was a romantic way to die. If he hadn't met me,
and died in that car, he would have died a sick man
with maybe an enlarged liver.
That is not as romantic as dying tragically in a car
with a woman that he loved.
a violent death and ...
..sex and art - all of that is attractive to the public -
with the exception of art!
It's easier to think of the drama of his history
than to think of what he did in the realm of art.
MAN: He has become a legend. It has nothing to do with his art.
It's the person.
Who ever would have thought this guy knew how to paint?
He'd become famous! Incredible!
And look at it now, who knows what fame is...?
God, it's so fucking stupid.
At the time of his death in 1956,
Pollock was the most celebrated artist in the US.
His new way of dripping paint onto canvas
redefined the nature of painting.
Sometimes I use a brush but often prefer a stick.
Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can.
I like to use a dripping, fluid paint.
A method of painting is a natural growth out of a need.
I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.
It was this desire to find a more direct form of expression
which saw Pollock and peers being called abstract expressionists.
Pollock's work was so different from what anyone else was doing.
It wasn't even as much shocking as it was just...unimaginable.
People could not imagine that this was painting.
Even Pollock had doubts about whether he was truly creating art
because there wasn't a model for it.
He broke the mould so spectacularly, he attracted huge media attention
and soon came to be seen as the key figure in abstract expressionism.
When do you think it became clear that he was emerging as the leader?
I guess whenever Life Magazine
did a spread on Pollock, and this would be...
My dates, I haven't got them.
In '48 or '49, I'd say.
Their headline was, "Is he the greatest painter in America?"
"Recently, a formidably highbrow critic hailed this brooding man
"as a major artist and a candidate for finest painter of the century."
Life Magazine had Pollock standing there like a jerk.
And the thing was, "Is he a genius or a crackpot?"
Now that's what Life thought.
But what people thought was...
"Anybody can do it! My kid can do it, I can do it!"
And that made a deep impression upon America.
Jackson became a legend and America began to look at art.
"Pollock, at 37, is a shining new phenomenon
"of American art.
"He was virtually unknown in 1944.
"Now his work is in five US museums and 40 private collections."
Surprised? I mean, he hit as big as it could be.
But what it meant to the public at large that he did this...
And everybody... He was imitated just overnight.
It looked real easy. But for some reason,
no-one could do it the way he did.
When they held art shows,
you'd see a dozen imitations - but they could never do it.
It's remarkable, the leap he took.
He let the nature of the medium take over the way a piece was built.
You think of drip painting as being a form of pouring but it's not.
It's a constellation of effects.
I find ways that are different to the usual techniques of painting
which seems a little strange at the moment.
It makes no difference how paint's put on as long as something is said.
-There was a great response to the Life article.
More than 500 letters came in - only 20 of them favourable.
Here's a selection.
"Answering your query, is he the greatest painter in the US?,
"I submit a photo of my son, Dennis,
"a five-year-old contemporary of Pollock,
"with his latest work, Number 99."
"I have an old garage door on which I've cleaned paintbrushes for years.
"It is rather similar to Pollock's Number 17.
"The first 1,500 takes it."
Now here - finally - is a redeeming letter.
"As a long-time and proud collector of his paintings,
"Pollock is the best US painter.
"My opinion is shared by my wife, mother and children.
"We've never tired of our paintings - they appeal like great music."
That's from Reginald Isaacs in Chicago.
Art became the subject of mass culture
and that created this sort of pool of general interest -
who was the greatest painter?
Before, it was of interest to an elite. Now it was in Life Magazine.
Jackson was the right painter at the right time.
Right art, right country...
Pollock was an artist who struggled for a long time in total anonymity.
By the time he was 30, in 1942, he had achieved almost nothing.
During the 1940s, American critics
felt a need for a culture to match America's presence in the world
on other fronts.
Artists began to look for different ways of painting,
different scale, different approach to the canvas.
Something more immediate, more raw,
that was more characteristic of the energies of America.
That vague desire was in the air
and they felt it had been crystallised by Pollock.
I was born in Cody, Wyoming, 39 years ago.
I now live in Springs, East Hampton, Long Island.
My painting is direct. I usually paint on the floor.
I enjoy working on a large canvas.
I feel more at home, at ease, with a big area.
-He was very Western in his voice, his mannerisms.
The West was echoed in Springs where they had their farmhouse.
If you go behind that house and look out,
it's a very infinite kind of space which I think is very American.
In some of the major late paintings, the scale, the ambition
is very American.
America is nothing if not a star country -
and the media, the art world itself,
through Life Magazine - star maker for the masses - needed one person.
This great American painter had to be American!
The problem, of course,
was that so many of the candidates for this position weren't American.
De Kooning was from Holland. Rothko was from Russia,
Arshile Gorky was from Armenia.
Jackson was one of the few people who'd been born in the US.
Lo and behold, born in Cody, Wyoming! He was so American
at a time when we wanted an American master.
Well, painting today certainly seems very alive.
My contemporaries are doing very exciting, vital work.
The media needed one person.
They couldn't write about a community.
It was very alienating for Jackson
because the rest of the community were hurt and angry
that he would be considered the pre-eminent figure
when they saw him as one of the guys.
He wasn't considered the frontrunner by other artists at all.
Gorky and de Kooning were the most admired, I think,
-among the abstract artists, isn't it true?
-Yeah, that's true.
Jackson wasn't particularly admired at all, as a matter of fact.
He created the biggest mess.
There was an aura of a myth around him - it was a sort of macho myth.
Although everyone talked about Wyoming, where he was born,
he'd really spent most of his time around LA.
His personality really was defined by the media.
Born in Wyoming, growing up in the far West -
luckily he had a picture of himself in a cowboy hat.
They called him the cowboy painter - when he'd never been on a horse!
Everything about Pollock that's part of the myth is slightly askew.
His name wasn't Jackson but Paul - Paul Jackson Pollock.
He was very aware of what publicity could do.
Even the first time I went out to Springs to visit the Pollocks,
Lee had said it didn't mean anything to Jackson.
There was a pile of Life Magazines. I said, "Why did he save these?"
Was he ambitious? Well, of course he was.
He was certainly encouraged to be by Lee. The whole thing she did
was to make him feel satisfied, and I guess he was pleased
about the celebrity.
I mean, it did bolster his ego, I think -
but in such an unfortunate way, I think.
Lee was the saleswoman. There are stories of her on the phone,
day and night, drumming up sales.
Making sure they had a livelihood so Jackson could paint.
Controlling his drinking so he'd paint.
Keeping family away if she felt they'd interfere with his painting.
WOMAN: When Jackson first met Lee, she was a better-known artist.
He really was unknown. And he recognised in her
an understanding of modern art that perhaps was meaningful to him.
She gave him that discipline, that knowledge.
He gave her a sense of freedom and spontaneity.
It was an excellent professional match - and love match.
She believed he was the greatest painter since Picasso.
They had met at a leftist political meeting -
he had come up to her at the dance and said, "Do you like to fuck?"
Is that OK for the BBC?! Yes? What a liberal broadcaster!
She realised that he was an extraordinary artist
and that increased all along
to the point where she, who'd never boiled an egg in her life,
just became a housewife, did everything and stopped painting.
And she was a strong painter - I mean, she was very involved.
But she loved him enough to give it up.
There was a lot of prejudice then against women as painters.
Er... It would be a great temptation
to realise your ambition through the man who could do it.
But she was very ambitious for herself, too.
and deeply resented the fact that people only paid attention to him.
Once in a while, I'd see them have a confrontation - and she was feisty.
She'd call him "Pollock", especially when they disagreed.
She'd say, "Pollock, are you out of your mind?"
That was one aspect of it. The other was that she took great care of him.
She tried to keep him off liquor as much as possible.
She implored people not to give him drinks.
But when he wasn't working, he'd go to New York
and be on a bender for days, and not show up.
Around the corner from the artists' club
was a bar called The Cedar Tavern
and the artists would gather and sit around drinking.
Of course, Jackson was always a big drinker
and de Kooning, and a number of others.
They would go to the Cedar Bar and swagger a lot.
-The whole art scene went there. Besides Pollock, Kline went,
de Kooning went there a lot.
And er...it was mostly guys roughhousing a little.
When Jackson came in, there'd be bear hugging and kind of wrestling,
back-slapping, that kind of thing.
I was a bar fly for a few years.
I learned more at the Cedar Bar than anywhere.
There was talk about art all the time.
Jackson, he wasn't part of it
in the good sense - I mean, he'd come in drunk
and say, "Fucking whores, you think you're painters", those things.
And he would come in...
and invade us - be a blitzkrieg.
We were always concerned that someone would get hurt,
that the police were gonna come in... Pollock always put us on edge.
-And before you knew it, he'd be back there...
He'd pull out a table, the glasses would fall - two or three times.
Sorry, I don't care who you are, you're not welcome here any more.
It was like walking a tightrope. He'd look at you, ready to attack
if you made a false move.
A move of honesty, integrity, anything like that.
He'd watch you carefully.
It was scary in a way.
He was drinking at 17 - he was an alcoholic, under psychiatric care!
He seemed very sad. He got a big kick out of some things, he'd laugh,
but overall you thought, yes, he's a very sad man.
Just suffering all the time.
MAN: He was seriously troubled. That was the key engine
of both his rise and his fall.
He had this mother who had these great artistic ambitions
and a father who questioned those ambitions,
who wondered if artists weren't ultimately wasting their lives.
You can see in those canvases all those experiences,
all that life, all that drinking, all that agony, all that whatever,
and suddenly it's all been resolved, at least in these paintings.
When you do something original, it's frightening because you don't know where it came from.
He didn't want to imitate himself.
He'd never kind of cheaply do casual works
that he knew could sell.
1950 is a critical year for Jackson.
He had really taken the drip to its ultimate conclusion.
Those great canvases of 1950
were the ultimate, glorious expression of the last ten years.
And that put enormous pressure on him,
not only to do something different, but also as good as what he had done.
is a...very difficult thing
because it forces you to do it bigger and better
at a time when you think you've done everything you can do.
Jackson felt that terribly.
I think Pollock was, to some extent,
turned into a commercial object.
The film would be the best example of that.
He was only the second American artist
who ever had a documentary - the Namuth film.
I think Jackson did want it. I've heard Lee wanted it even more.
The filming was very tedious. There was a lot of repetition.
"Let's do it again. The light's different."
By breaking down the process and making him go through it as an act,
our feeling is that this underscored for Jackson
the fact that he was as much a celebrity-slash-fake as he was an artist.
It reinforced all the things he was already thinking.
And the film, by deconstructing the process of creating a painting,
turned him into a cliche.
For someone who was already never fully confident
of his own worth,
this was devastating.
-It's a trap.
-Yeah, it is a trap.
A technique is a trap.
As soon as a technique develops, you're trapped,
especially when the floodlight comes on.
"I'm trapped. I'm done for."
How do you get out of it? This is a trap. This is a trap.
He got into an argument after the last day of filming.
He was saying, "Hans, I'm not a phoney, you're a phoney!"
This was linked to his tragic fall off the wagon after two years.
After the last day of filming, he had two shots of bourbon
and proceeded to throw the dinner table over, ruining the dinner,
to celebrate the end of filming.
Lee Krasner, who had tremendous aplomb, said,
"Coffee will be served in the living room."
The completed film played a very important role in boosting Pollock's reputation.
On the other hand, it also seems he was profoundly unnerved by it.
It wasn't authentic or real, he was selling his soul to Hollywood.
He had a tough relationship with celluloid. It didn't do him any good.
People said, "What is this movie about Pollock that you want to do?"
It's difficult to get anybody to finance a film about a guy like this.
People see it as a dark story. I don't know if it's dark.
It's intense and he's a self-obsessed individual.
I think he was constantly wondering, "What do you do in this world?
"What's the purpose of being here?"
When he painted, he thought that. So he didn't have a fuckin' clue.
I think this film would come as quite a surprise to him.
I've talked to Ed Harris,
who helped play Pollock,
and he's perfect - physically he's like Pollock.
Some things about his personality are like Pollock.
But I think Pollock would be amazed, I really do.
I think Lee would be amazed and she would like it more than Pollock.
I talked to someone who wanted Barbra Streisand to play Lee.
The woman talking to me about it says,
"Oh, she must have loved him so."
I said, "Well, yeah, in a kind of a deadly way, you know!"
It wasn't that cute.
I don't see how you can make the ordinary movie.
I'm awaiting the movie to see if they get a single thing right.
Jackson Pollock is a great American icon.
He's like Marlon Brando.
Marlon would have been great to play Jackson.
He's the only person I've ever known - I knew him early in my life -
who had that same kind of quality of spontaneity, of genius,
of being unselfconscious.
And I think most actors
see Jackson as a meaty part.
Celebrity is something... I feel somewhat what he must have felt like,
in terms of it has nothing to do with what you're doing.
Unfortunately, he was a painter and part of his job was to hang them up
on a wall in a gallery, which is like putting your soul up there,
especially for Pollock whose life was so fragile and deep within
to put his work out there and to have it criticised and then praised.
Then he feels, "I'm worth something and if people don't like it..."
This guy didn't have the apparatus to deal with that kind of thing.
NAIFEH: He felt the world was redefining him.
He couldn't live up to this persona that Namuth and everybody wanted.
So he was not only America's first celebrity artist,
he was America's first celebrity artist casualty.
The self-destructive streak that you see in a Marilyn Monroe or in a James Dean,
played itself out in Jackson and they too adored their celebrity,
but, on the other hand, were incredibly burdened by it.
And part of them wanted a simpler life.
The other part wanted this huge...
the spotlights to go on forever
and, um...that was a problem for Jackson as well.
He was very aware of who he was and of what he had done.
He was very aware of media attention.
All that became part of his problem, as it did with Jack Kerouac.
The term I use is that they "froze in the glare of the media".
It was difficult for them to work.
That's what it did then and that's what it does today.
VARDENOE: Pollock had arrived at a kind of creative block.
In 1951, he'd gone into a deep depression.
He painted a series of black enamel paintings.
After that show, he had difficulty figuring out where to go next.
His friends thought they would help him out.
Getting him drunk, they led him to the studio -
Tony Smith, a sculptor, and Barnett Newman, the painter, were there.
They encouraged him to get going.
Blue Poles is Pollock's last great attempt
at monumental abstract painting.
Pollock used a glass turkey baster to paint.
Several were lying around
and got broken and people walked on the glass
Barnett Newman said, "My blood is in this picture,"
meaning not that Pollock had taken from his art, but that he had stepped on the glass.
There are still buried in it fragments of the glass basters.
He was under tremendous pressure.
Even if you weren't famous, if you had made some impact with your work,
and it didn't go where people expected it to,
you would always wonder if you were going backward or forward
and whether anybody would let you get away with it.
If you changed, they didn't like it. If you didn't, they didn't like it.
It must have been horrendous to be that famous that suddenly,
out of nowhere, and then have to carry on.
HARRIS: I guess there are times when you can't put anything on canvas.
You can't put a mark on it, cos you know it's full of shit and he refused to do it.
For one thing he was true. He wasn't a bullshitter when it came to art.
He probably felt, "I don't want to keep doing this. I'd be a liar if I did.
"It's not easy, but it's familiar to me now.
"I can do it without the import or without the intention I used to have.
"I need to find something else, go somewhere else."
It was a winter evening, very late at night,
one o'clock in the morning, I was asleep and Lee called and asked me to come over.
"Jackson has gone out, he hasn't come back and I'm worried.
"Maybe he went out drinking and got into terrible trouble."
Finally, she hears a car in the driveway.
He came in and blasted the door open like you would see in a Wild West movie,
standing there with a Mac on and a woollen cap
and as angry as can be.
But then he said, "I did it, you see, I did it.
"What more do they want? What more do they want? I've done it.
"What more do they want?"
That has to be qualified in another way
because, at that time, there was a whole climate of abstract expressionism
and artists were getting famous.
It was like the goldrush.
A lot of ambitious people would get on top
and use it for their gain - get the right gallery -
and there was an anti-Pollock group.
They were trying to put him out to pasture.
So to understand why he's saying, "What the f... do they want?
"They want blood. I've given it all."
It has something to do with the climate around him, you see.
I saw the change at the Cedar Bar,
at the club, you know, among my friends.
From that close community of artists who supported each other -
like we'd go to the concerts of John Cage
and we'd go to the play of Lionel Abel and we'd applaud when he came into the bar.
There was this supportive world
which changed so radically.
The Cedar Bar people were talking about galleries instead of art.
Suddenly American art had become
a commercial commodity
and the whole world changed.
It was so radical and so quick.
Pollock painted less and less.
He went to the studio infrequently.
He had trouble maintaining a momentum to painting.
He began to spend more time drinking.
His life became a shambles. His relationship with Lee fell apart.
As his life becomes more troubled, he becomes more blocked against painting.
It's not any one of the pictures at the end of his life that show where he is
because each one is so different.
Some of the pictures and their fragmentation and separation
point to someone who is searching, running up against dead ends.
He ran out of energy - spiritual, everything.
-He was sick. He had no strength
and that you need.
Much more important than ideas.
There's got to be something that keeps you...
over the hoop, you go through the hoop,
you have to land on your feet with energy.
You can't just lay there and...die.
You have to get up - and it didn't happen.
He must have realised it. I realise it now - I am an old man - and I see it.
Without the energy... it's very hard to get up.
You give up.
I think he knew that.
CILE DOWNS: He was the town drunk.
He was so helpless and was so vulnerable.
Lee said he had asked for a divorce and she would never give him one.
She knew he had another girlfriend, if not many. She had a clue.
I fell in love with him the first time I saw a painting of his.
He was exactly like that.
He was just pouring energy.
People were very attracted to him and coming over to him
and bothering him.
And, er...we just...
kind of fell in love at first sight, I think.
We got involved soon after that.
We were involved that entire year, 1956,
until he died.
One of the reasons he was with Ruth
was that all his fellow painters had all these beautiful women
and he was the most famous artist of all who had a domestic life with Lee.
When Ruth threw herself at him, he was an easy target.
He needed to prove to Bill and the other boys
that he too had this pretty young thing on his arm and was proud,
as proud as he could be to show her off, as he did.
When she went out to East Hampton,
he went from house to house showing her off to the dismay of the wives
who were all friends of Lee's.
He was trying to be what they wanted him to be.
We had every weekend...
We all gathered on Coastguard Beach in East Hampton
and Jackson paraded Ruth when he first met her
up and down the beach.
All the guys thought she was hot stuff.
She had a sexy look about her.
-I felt he couldn't be left alone. His wife just left him.
She couldn't deal with it at all
because he wanted her to... accept it -
accept that he had fallen in love, accept the relationship.
She refused and I think there's been a pretence
she went on vacation. She didn't - it was a separation.
When Lee went to Paris I think it was the hope
that by taking a break, he would realise he couldn't do without her.
It had reached an intolerable situation.
But they both were...
The Kligman thing couldn't have meant very much.
A further provocation, somehow.
He somehow, as a child, wanted his wife and I and he all to live together,
Of course, that couldn't work out.
So I think the conflict created the drama which led to his death.
That's very sad - that was the tragedy.
All through his life he was doomed
because he was so self-destructive.
I mean, the others drank heavily and only de Kooning got very seriously alcoholic.
They all drank much too much, but it wasn't like Jackson.
He was hellbent to destroy himself.
By the end, when Lee wasn't there,
he wasn't painting.
There was nothing to hold him back.
You can't blame one person - if she didn't go and if I knew how to drive and all these what ifs.
It happened and it's an existential answer.
I believe that now. It was his moment.
Date of death - August 11th, 1956.
Time of death - 10.15pm.
Immediate cause of death - compound fracture of skull,
laceration of brain, laceration of both lungs, haemothorax, shock,
due to auto accident.
Death due to auto upsetting. Victim, driver and owner of car.
Accident, suicide, or homicide?
Subtitles by BBC Subtitling - 1999
First transmitted in 1999, this documentary profiles American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who died at the age of 44 in a car accident. At the time of his death in 1956, Jackson Pollock was the most celebrated artist in America. His new way of pouring or dripping paint onto the canvas redefined the nature of painting.