Much of my time in lecture is spent describing the mechanisms of how the "genius artist" discourse emerges in histories of art. This is especially the case in survey art history classes and modern art courses where I attempt to find that difficult balance between introducing students to what is essentially the canon of art history, while simultaneously exposing the many stakes and interests involved in how that knowledge came to be constructed. When it comes to the true heavies in the "artist genius" category (think Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Matisse), Jackson Pollock is among the most challenging artists to position and discuss. Perhaps it is because the abstract expressionist movement he is associated with is already difficult enough for most audiences to contextualize and understand-- one need only point to the Voice of Fire controversy over the National Gallery of Canada's purchase of a Barnett Newman painting in 1989 as evidence, also the subject of a book length treatment. It might also be the cult of celebrity built up around a man who was positioned as kind of loner James Dean figure, an artist who died too young and was largely misunderstood, but also an individual who catapulted New York to the center of conversations around modern art during his lifetime. In this sense, Pollock's pivotal position in American modern art history, and in New York art institutions such as MoMA and the Met, sets up a legacy that is not often questioned-- at least not within the broader public.
Pollock was often pictured alone in the many pictures that circulated
of him during the 1950's. This was critical to the persona of Pollock as
an "artist genius"-- a man who would create a new American style of art.
In recent weeks, a new series of talks caught my eye on my YouTube subscriptions. I have been following the New School's Channel for some time and have already blogged about their various public access programs in the past. In January, they initiated a two-part series looking at the urban milieu of New York's Greenwich Village and its influence on two key artists: Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Within histories of modern art's development in America, Greenwich Village is often relegated to a kind of hazy backdrop against which Pollock and Warhol operated in their rise to greatness. And because today the Village is commonly associated with notions of trendy decadence and associations with the worst of New York's gentrification, many audiences simply miss the more radical connections that this part of New York had to the development of modern and avant-garde art movements in the early to mid twentieth centuries. This disconnect is only reinforced in the popular history of Pollock's legacy. When Jackson Pollock became branded as the poster boy for the new style of American painting in the 1950's, critics and historians were careful to efface his connection to a wide range of artists (both whom he worked with and learned from) deemed too socialist and left-leaning to taint Pollock's legacy. Instead, Pollock was presented to the public as a lone cowboy figure from the mid-West, a figure who emerged with a new vision and method of making art, an artist who had not come under the influence of the radical bohemian elements represented by Greenwich Village.
As such, what I find especially interesting about the New School's approach in this public lecture series is that the focus of interest shifts away from a strictly individuated history of the artist producer and foregrounds instead the mechanisms through which the creation of the "artist genius" phenomena emerges from within marginal groups who struggle with the move from being virtually unknown to becoming embraced and even celebrated by the wider public. In the case of Andy Warhol, an artist who understood and exploited these mechanisms to his advantage, the story forms a wonderful parallel to that of Pollock.
I have embedded here the public lecture from first part of the series titled "Jackson Pollock's Downtown Years" from January 26th and will in the coming days embed the second of the series "Andy Warhol's Greenwich Village" (**update** now uploaded). The talks are co-sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and The New School for Public Engagement and include the full Q&A at the conclusion of the presentation. I hope you enjoy the material presented on Pollock as much as I did.