I recently got a copy of American Letters 1927-1947: Jackson Pollock and Family. Unfortunately, it would be more accurately titled Family and Jackson Pollock since Jack’s letters are scant. But I certainly find the book a valuable historical document. Anything I can get my hands written by the actual artists, rather than distorting mirror of critics, historians and even other artists I find invaluable. I’m also giving fair warning about trusting anything I write, of course.
I want to post the letter that initially caught my attention because to me the relationship between Pollock and Benton is both fascinating and mysterious even after reading Henry Adams’ insightful Tom and Jack, which has valuable historical information and linkages between Pollock and the School of Paris through Benton, not to mention Old Master painting. However, I find a lot of the theorizing about Pollock’s actual work more than dubious.
Benton’s letter dated May 7, 1959 writing to Pollock’s older brother Charles, who first introduced Benton and Pollock:
I was, after so long a time, delighted to hear from you. Poor old Jack used to keep us informed of his whereabouts and state, or lack of a state, of sobriety by telephone–generally in the middle of the night–but there has not been a peep out of you since God knows when.
What the hell are you doing? In terms of straight ability you were the kingpin of the Pollock-McCoy clan and yet I have neither seen or heard of your work since the old New York days.
… I left the art world, the world of dealers and exhibitions over 10 years ago and will never go back into it. An occasional picture (Benton picture) gets into the market when collections are broken up but I have nothing to do with that beyond noting the price increase.
As you probably know I’ve become a regular “Historical Painter”–which in the old fashioned, middle 19th century sense–with careful research, everything documented, etc. This means not much production as to number but a lot as to volume…..
Best to you and yours,
A couple things notable to me in the letter are that Benton is dating his departure from the art world in 1949. The other is that he’s now a “historical painter”. This ties in with my last few postings regarding painters like Julian Cooper, Robert Barnes, Sidney Nolan, Paul Nash (and Goya for that matter) lamenting the fact that “literary” or historical narrative painting has been all but forbidden by the art world since the time the 1950s New York Art World. In the 1950s a narrow cabal dictated to a culturally provincial America what would be considered to be painting and what wouldn’t. And it dictated that figuration and literary content were dead and painting would now be flat. I could go into the pompous pseudo-philosophical Kantian justifications of Greenberg and co. — but who cares? It’s sufficient to say that social realism, narrative painting, and figuration didn’t disappear because of any historical necessity but because of the dictates of a narrow cabal that established who would be considered important and how painting and art would henceforth be defined.
And the injury of that banning of human content from painting in both storytelling form and human empathy reverberates down to this day.
Benton’s 1937 brilliant painting Hollywood. Nathaniel West’s wonderful novel, The Day of the Locust (featured on Harold Bloom’s exclusive list of books that define the Western Canon no less) has the protagonist of the novel Tod Hackett working on his masterpiece “The Burning of Los Angeles” throughout. One wonders if West, no doubt being aware of the Benton painting since it was commissioned by Life Magazine, had it in mind when writing his book.
Tod Hackett is an aspiring painter who instead of being able to follow his dream works as a costume and set designer, painting backgrounds for Hollywood films. The original title of the book was The Cheated.
For more Pollock/Benton: