There are two kinds of people in this world. Ones who see this painting and think: genius. And ones who think: how did Jackson Pollock
get so overrated? Wait, a second Jackson. I am actually the first type. The type that really likes you. Don’t put that cigarette out in my eye. I love abstract expressionism and I love Pollock. When I see Pollock in person, I am full on
Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What time is it? But even fans like me have to admit that Pollock
brings up questions. Questions beyond snark about why Jackson Pollock’s
studio floor looks identical to his paintings. Why is Pollock the one who gets his paintings
put under a microscope? Why does Pollock get to be Ed Harris’s passion
project? There’s one answer that’s beyond the paint. This is artist Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s
wife, and Jackson, enjoying time in Springs, New York. But it’s the man in between them who might
be the key to understanding how Jackson Pollock became a legend. Here’s a young Jackson Pollock at his mentor,
Thomas Hart Benton’s, house. Yep, he has a drink in his hand. Most people agree Pollock’s big break came
in 1943, with “Mural,” which he painted for heiress Peggy Guggenheim. It’s got bold colors and motion. Pollock later said it was like “a stampede
of every animal in the American West.” Pollock’s birthplace of Cody, Wyoming helped
sell that. Later he pioneered placing the canvas on the
ground and throwing paint down at it. That helped him become a mainstream success,
with Life Magazine articles and Vogue fashion shoots with his paintings in the background,
as well as the classic, icon-building Hans Namuth film and photos that showed the brooding
cowboy artist at work. “I usually paint on the floor. I enjoy working on a large canvas.” But here’s the problem. If you don’t get Jackson Pollock, it’s not that
straightforward. Why was he the one who made it big in a crowded
field? In 1951, Life Magazine published an article
about all the big art stars in America. There are a lot of future museum staples in
there, like Mark Rothko, de Kooning, and Clyfford Still. But Pollock? He’s in the middle. To understand why, you’ve got to return
to the center of that other picture. In 1933, Clement Greenberg — friends called
him Clem — was a necktie salesman. He became the most influential art critic
of the 20th century. In a small New York art scene where artists
and critics partied together, that made him an eye on a hidden world. It’s important to put into context how influential
Greenberg was thanks to articles in the Partisan Review and the Nation. Let’s use Ferris Bueller as example. Millions of people know every scene of this
movie, but not as many know that it’s a John Hughes movie. Now any movie fan knows John Hughes was the
teen movie God. But many movie watchers just don’t. That’s a little like Clement Greenberg. He was enormously influential in the art world,
but remains obscure to a wider audience. He broke through with the 1939 essay “Avant
Garde and Kitsch,” in which he proposed that art was a bulwark against mass culture. He was a newbie to art – that Avant Garde
and Kitsch essay referenced a painting that didn’t exist. Later, in a famous mistake, he said this painting
had orange and purple in it. It doesn’t. If you know that artist Piet Mondrian narrowed
himself to primary colors, the blooper is even worse. Still, some painters respected him. Robert Motherwell said, “I disagreed with
him about many things but he had a painter’s eye. And none of the other critics did; not one. So as a direct intuition he got it right off
the bat.” That eye advanced an aggressive vision of
modern painting that said the buzz wasn’t in Paris, but New York. And the perfect American? The cowboy who happened to look a lot like
Clement Greenberg. OK, that’s a little unfair. But seriously? This is like that meme: “You Vs. The Guy She Told You Not To Worry About.” And it’s true that Greenberg’s abrasive,
American-centric, hypermasculine view of art worked better with Pollock than with a Dutch
immigrant like de Kooning, who noodled over his paintings obsessively. In his essay “American Type Painting,”
Greenberg wrote that Pollock was “alone in his power to assert a paint-strewn or paint-laden
surface as a single synoptic image.” Pollock “pulverized” the canvas – when
he changed his mind, he made “violent repentance.” Throughout the 1940s, Greenberg and Pollock
rose together, while slightly less renowned critics popped up around them. Greenberg was the brain, Pollock was the soul. This cheerleading from 1947 was typical, in
which Greenberg called Pollock “radically American,” and the most “Powerful painter
in contemporary America.” That praise bubbled to the mainstream. That Life magazine article from 1948, the
one that made Pollock as mainstream as the cheese platter ad on the next page? The entire basis for that article was a “formidably
high-brow New York critic.” The New York art scene knew that Clement Greenberg. But the rest of the country saw the new star
at the top of the page. Helen Frankenthaler didn’t drip paint like
Jackson Pollock. She soaked and stained her canvases, resulting
in haunting images like Mountains and Sea. This is her in the middle, with Jackson Pollock,
Clement Greenberg, and Lee Krasner. Greenberg and Frankenthaler saw each other
for about five years. Frankenthaler later said that her dating Greenberg
was one of the reasons that he rarely wrote about her work. Greenberg helped make museum names out of
Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, but he missed many movements and artists. That had consequences. Frankenthaler is a legend, a mainstream name. But she’s famous the way Clement Greenberg
is famous, not the way Jackson Pollock is. And she is kind of a symbol for all the artists
whose careers Greenberg made — or overlooked. One critic shaped how we look at a half-century
of painting. If Pollock was overrated, Clement Greenberg
was the one doing it. We just followed his lead. So what is the correction here? It’s not to discount Jackson Pollock, it’s
to give more attention to those other abstract expressionists as well. And to know the critic who decided which names
we’d learn. With that in mind, maybe it’s possible to
come up with more than just Jackson Pollock’s name. “Anyone? “Anyone? Anyone?” So, if you want to learn more about Clem,
I really recommend Florence Rubenfeld’s book about him. It gives you an entire new angle on a half
century of American art, and it features a surprising number of fist fights.