Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ménage a Trois: Pollock, Guston and Alice Crosby in L.A. 1929

Jackson Pollock in 1929

Jackson Pollock Bookends

Writing in the New York Times about these 1929 bookends Eve Kahn comments that “Jackson Pollock occasionally found solace in making useful objects out of ceramic and copper. He turned to those materials when he was distraught and desperate for ideas.” She found a reference in the historian B. H. Friedman’s 1972 biography of Pollock that confirms his ceramic activity at the time. In 1930, while still at the Manual Arts High School, he wrote to one of his brothers in 1930; “I have started doing some things with clay and have found a bit of encouragement from my teacher, my drawing I will tell you frankly is rotten. It seems to lack freedom and rhythm. It is cold and lifeless. It isn’t worth the postage to send it.” 

Jackson Pollock drawing of Alice Crosby
 But the bookends tell a bigger story involving another great American painter. Pollock was involved in a battle to win the heart of a fellow student, Alice Crosby, in competition with his close friend at the school, Philip Guston (then still Philip Goldstein). To woo her, he and Guston drew portraits of Alice and gave them to her as gifts. Three of these drawings, one by Pollock and the other by Guston/Goldstein are part of this lot. Pollock decided to up the ante and made her a pair of bookends in the ceramics department, which remained in her possession with the drawings until acquired by the current owner in 1984. While neither the bookends nor the Pollock drawing is signed they have been scrupulously researched. Everything has connected perfectly.

Philip Guston drawing of Alice Crosby

Philip Guston drawing of Alice Crosby

Examination of yearbooks and files from the Manual Arts School confirms Crosby, Guston and Pollock did attend the school at the same time. The drawings are indeed by Guston/Goldstein. Also the fact that little money was involved in the purchase adds to the veracity of Alice’s account. In a brief letter that she wrote authenticating the work Alice points out correctly that he was calling himself Jack at that time and not Jackson. This was not Pollock’s only involvement with ceramics. He made ceramic work (often featuring fire as his theme) between 1939-1941. Rita Benton, the wife of Thomas Hart Benton, one of Pollock’s teachers, got him to decorate pottery hoping that it would break a painting block he was suffering from at the time. He made the pieces for a small shop Rita ran in Greenwich Village, New York (where Pollock was living at the time with his brothers). It was a small basement space where she sold crafts by artists, hoping to provide them with a financial lifeline when art was not selling. Both Rita and her husband made ceramics for the shop as well.

Ceramics by Thomas and Rita Benton

Jackson Pollock design for bowl 1938-39 MOMA, NYC

He made his last ceramic works in 1949-50. These were in his Abstract expressionist mode and are fascinating, painted with black and white with writhing tendrils. Scale suggests that they were maquettes, exploring the sculptural possibilities of his abstract language. 

These works were all made in his figurative style and even some that seemed abstract were actually flame patterns. The latter had to do with the artist’s interest in Dante’s Inferno and similar themes by artists such as El Greco. Also, Pollock painted with china paint, a popular technique with ceramic hobbyists at the time that was known jokingly as “The Devil’s Art.”  What is revealing is that that he did not approach this task casually. Pollock made surprisingly detailed preparatory drawings for his bowls and pots. An example dated 1939 is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Ceramic Sculpture by Jackson Pollock

Finally, there is an obvious visual relationship between these bookends with their running glazes and Pollock’s LATER drip paintings. Not too much should be made of this. Certainly, something about this surface might have stayed in his mind and come out in his paintings. But that would be speculation not scholarship.

References: Eve M. Kahn, “Pollock’s Art Therapy”, New York Times, July 28, 2011. M. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, Cambridge Ma: Da Capo Press 1995 (originally published in 1972).  Francis V. O’Connor (ed.) Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonne of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works London: New Haven and Yale University Press, first edition 1978. 


  1. Hi, I just joined PhD program in Universidade de São Paulo (USP)-Brasil (Arts Poetics)and I am developing research about ceramics as media for modern and contemporary artists.

    I would to like congratulate you for the blogspot and ask you if you can indicate me any reference about Pollock and other artists who used ceramics media in any moment of their main career to express themselves.

    Thank you for your attention!

    My best wishes. Sandra Sato

  2. I heard this story told by Alice's son many times, but was not sure if it was true. I guess it was. I saw those above prints daily for some time. I actually have three portraits she did. Is there interest in her work?

  3. I heard this story told by Alice's son many times, but was not sure if it was true. I guess it was. I saw those above prints daily for some time. I actually have three portraits she did. Is there interest in her work?