The Legend of Jack the Dripper : JACKSON POLLOCK An American Saga <i> by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Clarkson N. Potter: $29.95; 944 pp., illustrated) </i>

<i> Court is a free-lance writer. </i>

By the time this review sees print, “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga” will have been discussed on Donahue, on lesser talk shows and on many private telephones; will have aroused the kind of mass interest not often given an artist’s biography.

The book itself is unprecedented. Not since the 1974 publication of Michael Holroyd’s landmark, “Augustus John,” has there been an account of life-in-art of this scope and scale that’s also personably written. And never before have we had such a thorough and affecting account of an American artist, although the “story” of Pollock’s life--the form that shaped him and that also shapes this book--is neither exclusively American nor uniquely Pollock.

Holroyd, for example, described an important English artist who pretended to be a Gypsy, seduced and exploited women, wrote more interestingly than he painted and painted less beautifully than he drew. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have taken on the American artist “who changed not only the course of Western art but our very definition of ‘art’ “and, correspondingly, pretended to be a cowboy, abused and exploited women, wrote very little, painted magnificently and “couldn’t draw” at all.


This last characteristic, as the authors see it, started Pollock on the path to Abstract Expressionism--a school of painting that he helped create, in which he was preeminent, and which brought to 1950s America the leadership in international avant-gardism retained to this day.

The authors contend that it was Jackson’s drive to “be the best painter in the Pollock family,” combined with his ineptitude for pencil and pen, that forced him to use paint unconventionally, to explore and abstract the “imagery of his unconscious.” But in 1912, when he was born, the dirt-farming Pollocks had almost no acquaintance with art. Naifeh and Smith have reconstructed the specific incidents that prompted the boy’s unlikely ambition and have defined a resulting pattern of feeling, central to Pollock’s identity, in splendor and in turpitude.

As the youngest of five sons of a couple preoccupied with their own torments, Jackson had been babied and ignored. Stella and Roy Pollock were exemplars of an Iowa frontier tradition wherein “it was the women who pioneered and the devoted men who suffered.” Most of Jackson’s boyhood they spent putting down roots then tearing them up, Stella pioneering the novelties of genteel town life and Roy impotently yearning for a life on the soil.

Stella was remote and self-involved, Roy was a melancholy alcoholic, and baby “Jack” was forever traipsing after older brothers seeking substitute attention. Then eldest brother Charles discovered art at a California high school. His new skills and “artistic” attitudinizing delighted Stella, who “lovingly displayed his paintings and drawings around the house for her other sons to see.”

Charles’ clever way of winning love inside the family while building a separate, glamorous identity outside it started a domino effect among his younger brothers. They all began sketching and--when they weren’t busy hunting rabbits or tinkering with old cars--pondering the sophisticated European paintings reproduced in Charles’ issues of the ‘20s literary magazine, The Dial. As the last little domino in line, Jackson fell hardest, most desperately, for art.

To uncover the meaning of this early drama in Pollock’s subsequent life, work and world, Naifeh and Smith--authors of an earlier best seller, “The Mormon Murders"--traveled, interviewed and researched exhaustively. They retraced Pollock’s path from his Wyoming birthplace to the Long Island roadside where he died in 1953. They talked with generations of other Pollocks and with witnesses ranging from Japanese-American farmers in Arizona to such well-known art-world figures as painters Conrad Marca-Relli and Grace Hartigan and critic Clement Greenberg.

Jackson did little writing, but the authors left no page from other sources unturned, realizing their story--and supporting their analysis--with material ranging from Los Angeles newspaper items on an earthquake “that shook extra eggs from the chickens and caused the lame to walk” through arcane Surrealist tracts to Pollock’s medical records.

As the painter’s story unfolds, it generates, here, the stories of two important national movements--the migration of displaced farmers to the far west, and the convergence of artists and art activity on the far east, on New York--as well as the shorter stories of scores of other Americans affected by those movements and touched by Pollock’s life: dispossessed Paiute Indians of the Sierra Nevada, Russian Jews newly settled in Brooklyn, Krishnamurti cultists in the gardens of Ojai, Depression-era road warriors, and World War II Manhattan’s “gay demimondaines,” as well as White Russian aesthete John Graham, progressive educator Helen Marot and sexpot art patron Peggy Guggenheim, to name just a few.

Narratives this broad, detailed and coherent usually are produced only by popular-epic novelists or, alternately, social historians of superior talent. But by confidently linking their huge, colorful canvas to critical points in the emotional and aesthetic framework of Pollock’s art, the remarkable Naifeh and Smith have provided us with something that’s as entertaining as a novel, as persuasive as superior history and as uniquely informative as a kind of catalogue raisonne of the social and psychological components of vital 20th-Century painting.

Psychologically literate readers will not be surprised to learn that Jackson’s move to New York and choice of an art vocation at age 20 did not assuage his personal problems but simply gave them wider play. Unable to sustain love but ravenous for attention, Jack had a hard time being a man, in any way. For years he was babied, sheltered, coached and analyzed by a corps of volunteer mothers and fathers, enlisting brothers Charles and Sande, their wives, muralist-teacher Thomas Hart Benton, Jungian therapist Violet Staub de Laszlo and many others.

Jack’s art was a pastiche of the imagery and styles of established artists such as Benton, Orozco, Ryder, Picasso. His conduct was a disaster: obscene, violent, drunken and sexually confused. It was only after he obtained a permanent live-in mother in artist Lee Krasner--who gave him personal and professional support plus “the ultimate act of self-negation . . . she virtually stopped painting"--that the constructive potential of Jackson’s infantilism began to show itself, in 1941.

His “tormented” psychic and physical energies found their way onto canvas. And his gift for social manipulation, evidenced by a lifetime of tantrums, mute sulks and gratuitous assaults, focused where it would serve him well--on the New York art milieu itself--seeking, and, for the first time, getting international attention.

By 1950, Time magazine had crowned Pollock “Jack the Dripper,” an homage to the violence as well as the now-mature technique of the “cowboy painter” for whom, as Naifeh and Smith explain, “fame was a second childhood, a chance to replay his past to a larger, more attentive, and far more indulgent audience.”

Both as it was and as we’re told it, Pollock’s experience here conforms to what Carolyn Heilbrun named a masculine “quest plot” in her book, “Writing Woman’s Life.” In her recent work on the power of biographical traditions, she noted that lives are lived conforming to such traditions. Thus when it comes to be written, even an extraordinary male life can--"despite egregious sexual and personal failures, despite professional uncertainties (and) frightening social judgements"--make a story that “reads as easily and inevitably as those of the Hardy Boys.”

This book is such a story: an enthralling, psychologically amplified version of the plot that promises to create a still larger public for Pollock’s quest, if not for his actual art. When the authors unveiled paintings on the Donahue show, the studio audience fell silent. But then Naifeh and Smith revealed plans to make a “Jackson Pollock” movie, and the studio came alive.

Maybe the audience didn’t know art, but they knew this plot by heart. Who should play Pollock himself? “Jack Nicholson!, Robert De Niro!” they cried.