The Art v. The Artist: POLLOCK explores the repercussions of abuse

Photo by Laurent Schneegans

Not long after the new Whitney opened in 2015, the museum exhibited an all-star lineup of abstract expressionists on their seventh floor, where they show their permanent collection. On the money wall — the final north facing wall before the windows and doors to the outdoor terrace — lay a massive, blooming work by the artist Lee Krasner which stopped me in my tracks. The work is titled The Seasons, and I wish I could spend more time with its bounty, its lush adornments, its figures and balance. But, despite my wishes and seemingly in spite of them, none of the ten Krasner’s in the Whitney’s collection are currently on display.

And again, in the museum to end all museums, New York’s MOMA, the museum with some 15 of the 20 most distinguished art objects from the last like 200-years, also had not one Lee Krasner on display (they feature only 10 women in their collection galleries at this time). They did, though, have an entire room for her husband, the self-proclaimed “greatest American painter of the 20th century,” Jackson Pollock.

Those glowing words are in fact from LIFE magazine, but are said through the painter’s conduit, a dead ringer for the artist himself, Jim Fletcher, in Compagnie de la Vallée-l’Heliotrope’s POLLOCK (at Abrons Arts Center through Feb. 25th, tickets $20). The piece explores this conceited genius, his irascible and selfish behavior, and how he stifled and was supported by his wife, Lee Krasner, a genius in her own right. And perhaps so much more, if Pollock would have given her even a fraction of what she gave him.

The story of Krasner and Pollock makes for a ripe play for lovers of art, lovers of art history, and lovers of, well, good plays, because POLLOCK is one. Two dynamics piqued my curiosity. The first is the fact that the play establishes that Jackson Pollock’s genius is inescapably connected to his cruelty. The other, necessarily wed to the first, is the repercussions of Pollock’s unhinged behavior on Lee Krasner’s career.

In very clear terms, POLLOCK states that Jackson Pollock is very much not a good dude. When Pollock and Krasner first meet, he says, “you’re full of maggots, Doll,” dismissing her integrity and intellect and demeaning her in that classic macho fashion. Pollock insults Krasner endlessly, descriptively: he calls her a “cow” on a number of occasions. He is rough and uncaring with her emotions: asked if he thinks Krasner is beautiful, he says, “I’ve seen/ Worse”; when told Krasner loves him, he says, “Bullshit.”

In scene 15, Pollock’s been drinking, and his abuse is on display. A segment from the text — supplied by the indomitable Nicole Birmann, who is in charge of performing arts at the French Embassy and is responsible for getting the play Stateside — is a graphic exhibition of Pollock’s behavior.

In front of the gas stove.
Lee’s cooking something, cigarette hanging from her lips. Jackson stares at her, smoking as well.
Jackson Pollock
Lee Krasner
He slaps her
Jackson Pollock
Fucking cunt
Lee Krasner
He slaps her
Jackson Pollock
You’re just an unfuckable cow
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner’s lip bleeds
That’s it
Finish off
The bottle
Jackson Pollock
Jackson races into the kitchen Grabs a butcher knife
Six inches long
Threatens Lee
Says to her over and over again I’m going to Kill you
Lee Krasner
I’m going to kill you
Jackson Pollock
He doesn’t kill her

Playwright and director Fabrice Melquiot and Paul Desveaux employed a simple alienating technique to emphasize the violence. The characters themselves seems divorced from the violence, which induces the harrowing psychological repercussions. The spectators witness the character of Krasner announcing her own violent fate, a French theatrical sensibility — placing the audience in such a directly emotional and ethically strange space — that is everywhere in the play. There is no hiding behind, no papering over: this is spousal abuse. In POLLOCK, Jackson Pollock is shown as an alcoholic and an abusive partner.

As the title character, Fletcher is distinctive and striking and his by now identifiable and remarkably clear pattern of vocal syncopation gives the man a cowboy-air and a distance that exemplifies that artist image we all know and hate. The obnoxiously idolized guy that just couldn’t talk about his work, how could we understand, and just couldn’t actually be a good person, he’s too much of an artist to bother. The play, in very clear terms, states that Pollock’s art is completely wed to his behavior; that without one, there would not be the other.

Though intense and potentially disturbing, the violence is not gratuitous because the play’s central concern is asking whether Pollock’s cruelty can be forgiven due to his genius. Krasner seems to think so. Her attraction to Pollock is absolutely a response to his talents. She talks at length about how he inspires her, about his abilities. She provides him with professional advice — in one interesting moment she says he is not “modern” enough — and she believes in his work. In an intelligent move, the script has Birgit Huppuch, who plays Krasner, also perform as art critics who glow about Pollock’s work, associating her character with those feelings.

Also, POLLOCK is persuasive in stating that Jackson Pollock’s behavior is the well that his work draws from. In fact, that’s part of his lore and reputation: his unhinged behavior is reflected in the unhinged balance of the paintings. You can see it in his most famous works, the Autumnal Rhythms, the action paintings that are a Happening themselves. There is something so frantic about them, and we fold into them and through them as we devour them. And his process: it’s so all over the place, all the splatters and the drips and the walking. He literally walks through his paintings, he technically asserts himself into his paintings. In the play, he talks extensively about his paintings as an extension of his person.

I suppose I understand, just simply based on research, why people may attach Pollock’s artworks to the man himself and feel a fact-based need to associate them. Despite that, I maintain belief that one should separate the artist from the artwork, that deifying artists is very misguided, and that attaching the artist to the artwork dishonors the virtues of the art objects themselves. There is so much more that can, and should, be said on the subject, but for this conversation I think it exposes the lie that Pollock had be to such a dick to be a great artist.

When we attach the artist to the artwork we are condemning art objects to their makers. Once the object exists, it is no longer bound to its creator, and we interpret and understand the work based on what we, as spectators, bring to the table. To focus on the artist and what they may have brought to the work misunderstands what abstract artworks really do best: speak directly and mysteriously to the viewer in whatever colors and shades and shapes and senses that may arise.

There is, though, an important repercussion to Pollock’s behavior, which the play is certainly concerned with; that does have a meaningful impact on art history. So much of Lee Krasner’s energies are directed towards either praising or helping Jackson Pollock. As Pollock said, “Lee bought groceries/ Did the cooking/ Did the washing up/ For all the birthdays and dumbass parties she bought the presents.” She apologizes for him and tries to help him. She absorbs his abuses and she stays by him.

POLLOCK is subtle yet effective in displaying the repercussions of Krasner’s raw deal in this relationship, and Birgit Huppunch’s impressive performance of her does most of that work. A downtown stalwart in her own right, Huppunch performs self-confidence at its tipping point, a notably challenging performance task and one that too often (in other works) might tip too far into the sentimental. With forward energy and teeming sensitivity, particularly in the eyes, that betray her grounded feet and slick talk, Huppuch performs the fucked-over housewife that is stifled by her circumstance. She honors the Krasner I never knew but love, she embodies the trying and the want, the broken confidence that must rebuild day after day.

As I was walking out of the theater, I found myself daydreaming about everything else Lee Krasner could have accomplished. Lee Krasner is a really, really good painter. Her brushwork rivals Cezanne and renaissance masters. Her bursting, abstracted figures that elevate the flat canvas are, like, super sophisticated. She’s one of those artist that never settled on a style, her curiosity was too great. She should be a docent-darling, a curator-crush. It’s not a stretch of the imagination.

But, as the play demonstrates, Krasner must deal with the burden of a man she loves who treats her cruelly. In one moment of bitter irony, after talking about everything Krasner does for Pollock, he asks her, “Why did you stop painting/ Lee,” blatantly unaware of his role in the making.

And guess what: Pollock knew how good she was. In the play, on a number of occasions, Pollock says to her that she’s great, that he knows she’s great, and yet, vitally — because the play could have excluded or incorporated anything — he still does nothing.

Famously, Krasner produced The Seasons and the Earth Green Series it comes from after Pollock had passed away, a fatality of a drunk driving expedition that also took the life of a woman in the car with him. It begs the question: once freed of caring for this man, was Krasner able to bloom herself, as her flowers do? This argument is too attached to Pollock himself, still oriented towards the famous man, that was certainly an important part of her life, but should not take up more room than necessary. So I like to wonder: what other depths could she have found if they had a genuine partnership? What kind of artist would she have become if Pollock cared for her as she did for him?

Near the end of the play, Krasner metaphorically speaks to her burden. “I had/ This dream/,” she says:

Jackson and I were on top of the world the earth was a sphere with a mast stuck right through the middle I was holding onto the mast with my right hand and on to Jackson’s hand with my left suddenly I let go of the mast but held onto Jackson and together we floated faraway
Into space
Of storms
A storm always means

Krasner’s loyalty to Pollock has driven her away from her work and into the storms of his life, and away from a stability where she could have done more. Melquiot and Desevaux’s forward and present sensibility is, once again, on display. There is no sleight of hand, there is no misdirection to her sentiments; the image is large and its interpretation right in front of us: Pollock has led Krasner towards disaster.

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