Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

The Big Dripper's Opening

Jan. 5, 1948

Jackson Pollock couldn't sleep. The next night would see the opening of the first gallery show devoted to his new drip paintings. For months he had flung lashing tangles of color onto canvases laid across the floor — literally slapdash, yet as intricately woven as a Persian rug, his pictures pointed the way to the future — or would if anyone noticed. So Pollock sat up late with his sister-in-law. To comfort him, she read his palm. He was going to be a very famous painter, she promised him.

That may not have been evident at Betty Parson's Manhattan gallery, where Pollock watched the guests snort in puzzlement. Later came the reviews ("monotonous intensity"). The sales? Two canvases. But within the American avant-garde, a world consumed by disputes that consumed him too, the show was a loudly argued challenge. When the mostly skeptical mass media came around, the Abstract Expressionists, who had been germinating for years, exploded American art onto the world stage for the first time.

And Pollock? He was America's first painterpop star, the drunken angel of an emerging hipster culture in search of new routes to those old American goals, the instinctive and the transcendent. Though the role unnerved him, it was secured forever in 1956, when he died, like James Dean, in a car crash. But by that time the energies he had released were in motion everywhere. The painter Willem de Kooning said it best: "He broke the ice." True enough, but it broke him too.