March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

by Jeffrey Potter

Painter Jackson Pollock, whose oil-splattered canvases helped define abstract expressionism, lived a messy life. And he died a messy death on Aug. 11, 1956, thrown from a car near East Hampton, N.Y. “He looked like an old dead tree lying in the brush,” a neighbor said later. Potter, a neighbor of Pollock on Long Island who has written for the New Yorker, has skillfully woven into a chronological narrative the impressions, memories and anecdotes of more than 150 people interviewed in a seven-year period. Critic Clement Greenberg, painters Larry Rivers, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, shrinks, friends, relatives—all speak out with startling immediacy and bluntness. The result is a shocking portrait of the artist as self-destructing drunk. The youngest of five boys, Pollock was born in Cody, Wyo. in 1912. Even as a young man studying at the Art Students League in New York, he was a troubled case, given to binges that lasted two or three days. Patron Peggy Guggenheim likened him to a trapped animal who should have stayed in his burrow. She had her reasons. Once at a gathering at her apartment Pollock walked naked into the living room and urinated into the fireplace. Sculptor Herbert Ferber: “I remember a party at which Pollock took off the shoe of a girl sitting next to him—a very wealthy girl with extremely expensive shoes. She was protesting but he tore the shoe into small pieces and threw them across the room.” Nor did marriage in 1945 to artist Lee Krasner solve Pollock’s problems. The marriage collapsed not long before he died when he fell in love with a young ambitious painter, Ruth Kligman. Larry Rivers: “Ruth was pretty, I guess. Even at his age of 44 you can drink a lot, be out of it and everything like that and still get it up, right.” Such quotes as that make Potter’s biography a read of the first order, especially for those who like a little gossip with their fine arts. One quibble: Potter should have set off his own commentary in italics to differentiate it more clearly from the quotes that make up the rest of the text. (Putnam’s, $19.95)

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