Evelyn Toynton's biography is a readable account of a made-for-journalism life. Sensibly called just "Jackson Pollock," the quick, breezy read seems designed for early readers, seldom risking complicated aesthetics or challenging scholarship.
Toynton motors the fast-lane route of America's modern art – pointing along the way to the billboards announcing a wreckage in progress. Among the signposts are Pollock's rootless, impoverished childhood; his hard-scramble ascent into the artworld, and his relentless falls from grace, from relationships, and from self-esteem. To end his 44 years of trouble, Pollock died in a drunken car crash, and through death found a brand-name afterlife that helped salvage a reputation that had been derailed by addiction.
In quick order, Toynton stages walk-on roles for Pollock's teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, another alcoholic and poster-maker for Americans in art; for Lee Krasner, who shelves a lot of her fame in art to be Pollock's wife; Peggy Guggenheim, the patron, and Clement Greenberg, the critic, who are the catalysts that created the cultural alchemy of Pollock's innovative drip (or splatter, splash, throw or poured) paintings. Toynton spends a few pages on these lexical choices and settles on "drip." She likes the word's "still potent shock of naked materiality."
Yes, Pollock was made into a man's man of modernism – fitting the image of man alone, raging against the demons of the inner spirit and the outer culture. His teammates in the battle cry of the 1950s included the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Jack Kerouac. Toynton says that Pollock also inspired the character of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Pollock, the author continues, "was the premier example of the artist as name brand … One could almost map the seismic shifts in the cultural temper of America over the last 50 years by tracking the changes in the way Pollock has been regarded during that time."
No one goes quite so far as to call his art an anti-art, but his work surely did change ideas about putting paint on canvas. Throwing paint around, and doing so for Life Magazine's camera, turning the tidy art of representing a figure or some fruit or anything else properly upside down. Still politely hedging, Toynton claims Pollock's art "took on almost the force of a scientific discovery, like the splitting of the atom."
She is a journalist, writing stylishly for the best magazines – Harpers, the Atlantic – and she wrote a novel about Pollock and Krasner, called "Modern Art." She has an appealing shorthand that is fast and fun, and it does no harm.
Justin Wolff, a scholar at the University of Maine, does a deeper dive into the mirroring personality of Pollock's teacher, Thomas Hart Benton. Equal to the swagger and lurch of Pollock, Benton also crashed through friendships and ideas and self-esteem, including his relationship with Pollock.
Where Toynton holds her subject up for a voyeuristic admiration, Wolff holds Benton up for scrupulous examination. Where Toynton can be enjoyed for her zealous affection, Wolff is admired for his thorough-going balance and straight-on depiction. He paints the full picture against Toynton's sketch.
And it is a picture that has some Buffalo resonance. Benton was a committed regionalist, insisting upon standing for his Kansas culture. In the spirit of John Dewey and Lewis Mumford, Benton argued that the appreciation of a region might lead to an understanding of larger pictures.
Benton's contemporary, Charles Burchfield, painted from Western New York and Eastern Ohio, though he made few bones about it. But others saw him along with Benton as a "regional painter." Burchfield would have none of that. He wrote to his dealer, Frank Rehn, in 1938:
"I am not an Ohio or a Western New York artist, but an American artist…If I paint for an audience, it is anyone, anywhere who happens to be spiritually akin to me. ‘Regionalism' – it makes me sick."
Maybe Burchfield responded to the small-mindedness of a lot of regional thinking, which pushed back against the global rush of modernism and technology. Benton was a complicated person, who could come at this subject from many directions, a few of them thoughtful, but most of his thought lines favored "a home-grown, grass-roots artistry which damned ‘furrin' influence and which knew nothing about and cared nothing for the traditions of art as cultivated city snobs, dudes and assthetes (sic) knew them."
Pollock in his fury took on the world, and the world took notice. Benton raged on, too, but painted a far lesser picture.
Anthony Bannon is a former News art critic and director of the George Eastman House. He is currently the returned director of the Burchfield-Penny Art Center.
By Evelyn Toynton
Yale University Press
143 Pages, $26
Thomas Hart Benton: A Life
By Justin Wolff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux401 pages, $40