By Ed Staskus
“What in the hell am I doing?” Jackson Pollack asked himself, giving the once over to the rising road, driving up too fast toward the top of it for what was on the other side. He couldn’t dope it out. He was driving like a crazy man, like what all the couch doctors he had ever gone to always told him he wasn’t.
Not crazy, not exactly, just comparatively crazy like his paintings.
One of them once said, “You’re just in search of a nervous breakdown.” He didn’t tell that shrink about 1938. It didn’t matter. He knew he was raw on the inside. That’s why the work on the floor worked. He wasn’t a nutcase because he saw psychiatrists. But in the last five minutes he had twice caught himself steering the car straight at the soft shoulder.
Maybe he was nuts, but he was on the ball behind the wheel. He was the next-best driver in Springs, next to Harry Cullum, who told him he was second best on a late afternoon one day in mid-winter when the two of them were having beers at Jungle Pete’s.
“You’ll have the last laugh, just wait and see, Jack,” Harry said, clapping him on the back. “Maybe not on the road, but you’ll get ‘er done, son.”
Jackson Pollock’s convertible didn’t have seat belts. Harry, the best driver in town, had outfitted his family car with lap belts. He told everyone it was for his wife’s sake. “In stock car racing we never used seat belts if there wasn’t a roll bar, suicide if you do,” he said. “Family life is different, different kind of suicide, need a belt.”
The gal in the middle of the front seat, between Ruth and him, was screaming. “Stop the car, let me out, let me out!” He wasn’t going to stop the car, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling. It was a clear, starry night, splashed no moon dark, hot and muggy. The road felt spongy. He felt queer, not himself, not yours truly.
It was August 11, 1956. The car was an Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It was a big open-air carriage.
He got his first convertible, a Cadillac, when his action paintings started to get some action, after Life Magazine put him on the cover almost exactly seven years ago. He was wearing denim pants and a denim jacket in the photograph. The jacket was dirty and spattered. It was his high-octane light-of-day look at me now ma year of success. They said he was the new phenomenon of American art.
“He looks like some guy who works at a service station pumping gas,” said Willem de Kooning.
When 1950 got good and done, the next month Art News published a list of the best exhibitions of the year. The top three shows belonged to him. It wasn’t bad for somebody who never graduated from high school.
Even though he purposely used to throw his car keys in the bushes when he was getting drunk at parties, he smashed the Caddy into a tree. He got off light, only a citation and no broken bones. The car didn’t get off so lucky.
Action painting, he thought, and snorted, spraying spit on the steering wheel. What the hell did that mean? There wasn’t any action, just headlines. What critics didn’t know wasn’t worth a pot to piss in. “If people would just look at my paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” He had meant it when he said it. He’d say it again.
Who needs a critic to find out what art is, or isn’t? Most of the critics these days, if they saw him walking on water, crossing the Hudson River at Canal Street, would scribble something about him not being able to swim. All they wanted was to see you drown. The only time he met Man Ray, at the Cedar Tavern when the born-again Frenchman was on his way back to Paris, he told Jackson, over a boatload of drinks, that he hated critics.
Franz Kline laughed across the table. “Manny, tell us what you really think.”
“All critics should be assassinated,” Man Ray said.
Lee called his work all over painting because he got it all over the flat canvases nailed down on the floor, the hard floor itself, and his boots and jeans and hands. Bugs and bits of litter and blackened shag from his cigarettes fell into the paint.
“Is Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States?” is what Life Magazine asked, blowing the balloon up, with a picture of him slouching against a wall with a smoke dangling from his mouth, and a couple of pictures of his paintings. He looked good, like he didn’t have a care in the world, didn’t give a damn, like he had the world by the balls. Now it was different. He hadn’t made a painting in more than a year. The ballgame was over.
He was washed up. He didn’t have anything to say anymore. He was almost sure of it. There wasn’t a place for him at the art world table anymore.
“She started to scream,” said Clement Greenberg. “He took it out on this pathetic girl by going even faster. Then he lost control on the curve. The screaming is what did the killing, finally.”
What was her name? He chewed it over in his mind, tossing a glance sideways at her. He couldn’t remember. They were on the Fireplace Road in East Hampton, not far from his home. It couldn’t be more than a mile. Not much of a home anymore, though. Lee was in Paris with her friends. She said she was coming back, but he had his doubts. He wanted her back, but it had all gone wrong.
Hell-bent in his Olds with two broads in the car and his wife in Europe wasn’t going to get it done, wasn’t going to get it all back. He had to get back on track. Maybe the last analyst he’d seen was right, maybe there was something gumming up the works. He was going to try a fresh approach, the shrink said. He called it hypnotherapy.
He was one of the new downtown brain doctors. “It’s not hypnosis, at least not how most people think of it,” Dr. Sam Baird said. “We’re not going to try to alter or correct your behavior. We’ll try to seed some new ideas, sure, but we’ll talk those out before we go ahead.”
Jack told Lee he was going to get his head clear this time. “He isn’t full of old-time shit,” he said about the new man.
Whenever his neighbors saw his car fast and sloppy staggering down the road they laughed and said it was like his paintings. Most of them still thought he was nuts, even though they didn’t say so anymore to his face, not now that he was in galleries and museums. When he was a nobody, they looked down on him like he was a nobody.
“I could see right away he wasn’t from here,” said Frank Dayton. “I asked a fellow later who he was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s just a loony artist.’”
“To some people he was a bum, just someone to laugh at,” said Sid Miller. “They didn’t think much of his work. They didn’t think he was doing anything.” Ed Cook said the same. “Folks said he painted with a broom. Near everybody made jokes about his paintings, never thought they’d amount to anything.”
“To hell with them,” he said to Ruth, her elbow laying careless on the shelf of the door. She was a looker, that’s for sure, the juice he needed to get him going again. He had gone dead inside. He knew he had. She was the kind of gal who could crank him up. What’s-her-name in the back seat kept screaming.
“What?” asked Ruth, loud, twisting towards him.
“To hell with them,” he muttered to himself. “What do they know?”
“Slow down just a bit Jack, the car’s a little out of control, take it easy,” she said.
The joke was on them. When he was painting, straddling a canvas, it was when he was most in control. It was when he didn’t have any doubts about himself or what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He told anybody interested in listening to him, I can control the idea, the flow of paint. There is no accident in the end, not by my hand.
“He picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas,” said Hans Namuth. “It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished, His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there. Finally, he said, ‘This is it.’”
“I work from the inside out,” he told Hans. “That’s when I’m in the painting, in the middle of life, but outside of it at the same time. I can see the whole picture.” Someone told him his pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, more like a sneer, but it was fine by him. It was a fine compliment. Only the twisted lips didn’t know it.
He was good driving his Rocket 88, too, even when he was drunk as could be, which was what he was now. “He came in for his eye-opener, a double, about 10:30 before train time, that day.” said Al Cavagnaro. “Start your day the way he did sometimes, you’d be in the same fix he was. If you said he was half bagged up, you’d be about right.”
Doc Klein said it was OK for him to drink and drive. Jack liked that. He knew trees never hit cars except in self-defense. “But stay on the road,” said Doc Klein, a big man laughing his big laugh.
“Goddamn right, I always stay on the road,” said Jackson Pollack. “Except when I’m pulling into Al’s or Pete’s, then I get off the road. I have to. Anyway, there’s no trees in those parking lots.” If there had been they wouldn’t have lasted long.
“It was continual, almost nightly drunken large parties,” said Patsy Southgate. “Everyone was totally drunk all the time and driving around in cars.”
He wasn’t driving right. He was driving wrong. The screaming broad grabbing his right arm was right. He lived it up driving. But tonight, instead of fluid with the steering wheel, like he was with free-flowing paint out of a can, he was being clumsy, as though he was at cross-purposes, herky-jerky. The precise gestures he used to stream paint from a stick when he was working were usually the same when he drove his car. Tonight, they were too big around, whiplash gestures, like they had a life of their own.
“He had to be moving fast, 85 to 90, anyway,” said Harry Cullum. “There was a crown where the town tar road begins at the beginning of the left curve. Jeez, I almost lost my car a couple of times there when I was a kid, but finally you smarten up and ride that crown, the one they fixed after Pollock got killed.”
It was after the fact, like an empty bottle of beer thrown out a car window at a stop sign that wasn’t there. “Jackson’s death is he died of drink and the Town of East Hampton Highway Department,” said Wayne Barker.
It was close to three years ago, the first week of November, when he stormed over the crown of the road like a firecracker. He came back from the city on a Friday, on the train. It snowed all morning, and it was still snowing at the end of the day when he found his car in the lot, brushing a mound of snow off the front window with his hands, rubbing the cold out of them on the car’s dashboard heating vent. When he finally got on the road to Springs, he was one of only a handful of cars. The storm was blowing off the ocean. The car trembled whenever the road flattened out and he was sideways to the coast.
“I crawled up there, I could barely see, and stopped when I saw the pile of snow,” he told Lee later at home, the windows in their sash frames rattling in the wind gusts. “There was a snowdrift, five feet, six feet high, down the other side blocking the way. I backed up a little, to where my rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road and hit the gas as hard as I could. I went as fast as I could, hit the snow head on, everything went white, everything disappeared, no color, just white. By the time I came out the other side the Olds was barely moving, just crawling.”
They laughed about it all night, over dinner, and later in bed again, curling close together under a pile of blankets.
The gal beside him was still screaming. How long could she keep it up? She was driving him round the bend. He was driving wrong, all wrong. There was a reason. He knew it, but he also thought, how could there be a reason? What was it? He could feel it. Where was it? He knew it was right there, right at the front of his brain. It was like the images behind the abstractions in his paintings, right there. But when he tried to think of why he was driving wrong his brain hurt like a next day hangover, before he could get his hands on some hair of the dog.
He had a hangover all the time now, more than five years-worth of hangovers, but it wasn’t from gin. It was from having rocketed to fame, putting everything he had into it, until he didn’t have anymore, and he quit pouring liquid paint cold turkey. It was all over. After that he couldn’t make a painting that anybody wanted. When he finished his black paintings, he couldn’t give them away. Even his fame couldn’t prime the pump. Nobody thought they were any good. He knew they weren’t any good.
“An artist is a person who has invented an artist,” Harold Rosenberg burst out one night near the tail end of a long night of poker and drinking.
Rosie always thinks he is right, Jackson thought. He got it wrong on the train, though, the day we were riding into the city together. When I said the canvas was an arena, I meant it like it was a living thing, not a dead thing. I didn’t mean slugging it out in the ring. He thought I meant it literally, even though both of us were sober at the time, and the next thing I knew I was an action painter. At least he got it right at the card game. Not like Hoffman. He was like all the others.
When Lee brought her teacher, Hans Hoffman, over to meet Jackson, he saw the sour look on the great man’s face right away. Hans was a neat freak, everything in its place, clean as a whistle and orderly. His own studio was a mess. There wasn’t a sign of a still life or a life model anywhere.
“You do not work from nature,” said Hans. “You work by heart, not from nature. This is no good, you will repeat yourself.”
“I am nature,” Jackson said.
There wasn’t a drop of direction left in the sky or anywhere on the other side of his windshield. It surprised him when he got to the curve at the dip, where the concrete stopped and the town’s blacktop started, and he suddenly veered off the road, aiming for the trees. What was he thinking, he thought. The car skidded in the sand. He let it slide, its big front-end dead set on the big oak tree to their left.
Going into a skid in the dirt off the road didn’t surprise him. Besides, he was going too fast. He was going fast, that’s all. It didn’t mean anything. The girl next to him stopped screaming. She got small and slowed down. She was squeezing her handbag in her hands with all her might. His hands felt dry and relaxed on the steering wheel. He didn’t squeeze the steering wheel even when he smashed into the tree head-on.
The Oldsmobile broke every bone in its chassis when it hit the one-hundred-year-old tree. Jackson Pollack was catapulted over the windshield and into the woods. The front end flipped over, tossing Ruth to the side. When the car landed upside down, crushing the frame of the windshield, the gal with the handbag in her hands suddenly stopped gripping it. The car horn blared, stuck in place. Gasoline poured out of the punctured gas tank. The taillights blinked on and off and on and off.
“I’m going to become one of my paintings,” Jackson Pollock realized in mid-air, midway to the future, rocketing his way to forever. “I’m going to splatter all over. I’m going to be in nature, be nature, once and for all.”
He hit the oak tree hard. When he careened backwards, he landed with a mortal thud, even though it was soft ground. There was a barely jutting out of the ground bump of rock mottled with luminous moss that had waited a lifetime for him.
His neck hit the rock like a falling star. Gravity had been the heaven-sent hand that gave life to the paint and flotsam that dripped splashed flowed down onto his canvasses. It was now the hand that dealt him a death blow. He broke his neck.
He lay there juiceless like a fallen tree branch, cracked in the head, shoeless, arms and legs haphazard.
Excerpted from “Storm Drain” at http://www.stanriddman.com.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”