How Jackson Pollock became so overrated

How Jackson Pollock became so overrated
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    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
    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
    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
    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.
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