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>Flashback Friday! Jackson Pollock: An American Saga – Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

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I read this book back in the spring of 2000, immediately after being impressed by the movie Pollock. Luckily, there was a hardcover copy at the Sedalia Public Library. Wow, it was a doorstop of a book — around 800 pages, maybe weighing in at four or five pounds.

Professionally, I was in a slump, but I knew I wouldn’t be there long. Working part-time in the evenings teaching ESL to adults in Kansas City, I had all day to lie on the bed and read, and I did just that. I still remember the weight of this book on my stomach and the cool, comfortable silence in the small old house broken only by the flick of pages turning.

Like all good biographies, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (first published in 1989) isn’t just about Pollock, who became a huge success in the art world with his drip/action painting technique of painting. As other reviewers have pointed out, trendsetters don’t just emerge from a vacuum or emerge overnight.

The book provides lengthy research about Jackson’s family, beginning with his grandparents. Jackson, the youngest of several children, was born in Wyoming in 1912. In the early 1930s, he followed his brother Charles to New York and they both began studying under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students’ League. Soon after that, he began working for the WPA Federal Art Project. Pollock was also influenced by sand painting, John Kenneth Graham and Jungian analysis. Naifeh and Smith include extensive and meticulous research on all these influences, as well as painter Lee Krasner, who Pollock married in 1945. Krasner back-burnered her own considerable talent in favor of encouraging Jackson and getting his name and work out to the important patrons and art critics of their time.

For such a large book, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga moves fairly quickly. Pollock is far from likable — in fact, inarticulate, drunk, boorish and infantile seem to be his default positions — but his artistic progress is interesting and somehow Naifeh and Smith seem to be able to generate reader sympathy as he moves quickly from success into a self-inflicted downward course that ended with his stupid and unnecessary death at 44 in a drunken car crash that also killed one of his passengers.

Engrossing, educational and entertaining, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga is a book that I would like to read again someday.

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