Where it was hip to drip

To understand Jackson Pollock, it helps to visit his Long Island studio, where you can walk on one of his paintings in a pair of specially provided orange slippers. Tim Marlow kicked off his shoes

It's only a shack, really, a small wooden barn which blocks the view from the modest farmhouse down to Accabonac Creek on the edge of East Hampton. But it's one of those mythologised places, like Picasso's studio at the Bateau Lavoir, in which the course of art history is deemed to have been changed. For this is the shack that Jack dripped in, now a study centre-cum-shrine.

Even back in 1945, when Jackson Pollock and his wife and fellow painter, Lee Krasner, bought the place, it was modest: an acre and a half of woodland with a two-up two-down wooden farmhouse and barn tucked away on the eastern edge of Long Island. Today, though, it looks almost quaint amid the prime real estate and luxurious mansions of the Manhattan celebrity circuit. It's open to the public but by appointment, and I'd been advised to take the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from the city in midweek, to avoid the fashionable chaos of the weekend.

The house itself is both cosy and curious. I sat at Jack's table with curator Helen Harrison, eating a sandwich bought from the local store which had a poster on the wall of a Pollock painting that Jack had given the owner to pay off his grocery and liquor bill. Later, naturally enough, it had been sold for a small fortune, but I liked the fact that the cult of Pollock hit you from the moment you got near his home. Inside the house, though, there seems little or no trace of Pollock, and the walls are filled with Krasner's paintings. Sensing my disappointment, Helen Harrison pointed out that the place had been Lee's home and workplace for 30 years after her husband was killed in a car crash, but that traces of Jack still loomed large, particular in the studio.

Unlocking the rickety wooden door, Harrison asked me to take off my shoes and handed me a pair of disposable orange sponge slippers. Inside I was confronted by a small, dingy space with a bank of shelves filled with jars, tins of paint and scores of brushes. "Some are his and some are hers," said Harrison. "But that - she pointed to the floor barely visible in an adjacent room - "is all his."

At first sight it was a mess of splattered marks and drips and stains, but I quickly began to decipher the odd rhythmical pattern emerging - a footmark here, a handprint there. Slowly, I began to walk across it. The effect was extraordinary, like skating across thin ice with a plunging abyss below. It made me dizzy and exhilarated at the same time, for this, I suddenly realised, was the creator's-eye-view, Pollock's perspective. Elements of familiar Pollock paintings emerged from of the maze: the silvery flickers of "Lavender Mist", the muscular marks of "Blue Poles" - art history writ large at one's feet.

The floor had been covered with Masonite by Pollock a couple of years before he died, as if subconsciously fossilising the most important period of his creative life, the three years between 1947 and 1950 when he developed his classic drip paintings. Krasner worked in the studio but left her marks on the walls. Shortly before her death, in 1984, the original floor was re-excavated, and Jack, in effect, was back to the only place he'd ever remotely settled in.

Pollock - whose work has a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery next month - was born out west in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming. His parents had a small farm which they sold within months of the birth of their fifth son. For the next two decades the family moved throughout Arizona and southern California, and by the time Pollock left for New York in 1930, determined to become an artist, the cult of the roving cowboy was already strong in his emerging self-image.

New York during the Depression was tough but eye-opening, a melting pot in which Pollock frantically searched for an artistic identity. He absorbed other people's art voraciously, from the Mexican Muralists to Picasso, but he absorbed even more alcohol and spent a few months in the summer of 1938 in hospital. Subsequent sessions with a number of psychiatrists did as much as, if not more than, the growing number of European surrealists in New York to fuel Pollock's interest in the unconscious. For a time he became Jung in art and mind.

The emergence of what was broadly called the New York School began in the early Forties in the bars and studios of Greenwich Village, a male- dominated bohemia led at first by Hans Hoffman and Robert Motherwell, whom Pollock met in 1942, with the better known De Kooning, Kline, and then Newman and Rothko, becoming part of a potent but only loosely-knit group during the decade. More important for Pollock, though, was the emergence of two powerful women in his life, Lee Krasner and Peggy Guggenheim, who cajoled, supported and to varying degrees mothered Pollock towards greatness.

Recently returned from Europe, Guggenheim was a wealthy collector and patron who set up an uptown gallery called "Art of This Century", which was "to serve the future instead of recording the past". The future, she quickly realised, was very much about Pollock. Having included one of his paintings, "Stenographic Picture", in an early group show, and been nonplussed by its labyrinthine mixture of figures, signs, scrawls and symbols, she was told by none other than Piet Mondrian that it was "the most interesting work I've seen so far In America.... You must watch this man". Guggenheim's response was immediate. She signed Pollock up, paying him a monthly salary, giving him his first major solo show, and commissioning his most ambitious work to date, a 20ft canvas for her Upper East Side town house.

Lee Krasner was forced to keep a rather more wary eye on Pollock after their first meeting in the late Thirties when he propositioned her drunkenly and obscenely at a party. ("Do you like to f---?" was, reputedly, his opening gambit). But a few years later they met more convivially at a group show at which they were both exhibiting, and Krasner confessed to being overwhelmed by the boldness and power of a Pollock painting,"Birth". If not quite rendering Pollock reborn, his friendship and then love affair with the Brooklyn-born Krasner quickly became the most important relationship in his life, and she effectively put her own career on hold in order to promote his.

East Hampton in the summer is now the last place anyone would go seeking to escape - as Pollock put it - "the wear and tear of New York City". But in 1945 there were only a few farmers, fishermen and a couple of renegade artists there, and Pollock found it inspirational. "Living is keener, more demanding, more intense and expansive in New York than In the West," Pollock remarked in an interview in which his carefully constructed cowboy- in-the-big-city persona began to sound rather mournful. "At the same time," he tellingly went on to say, "I have a definite feeling for the West: the vast horizontality of the land, for instance; here only the Atlantic Ocean gives you that." So when Lee suggested that they upped sticks and moved out from the vertical cityscape of the Manhattan grid to a place where there was a real sense of horizontal space, with a view across a creek leading to the ocean, Jack jumped.

In spite of having urinated in Peggy's fireplace at a party, Pollock still managed to borrow $2,000 from his patron, propose to Lee, marry her and move out to 830 Fireplace Road, The Springs, East Hampton, Long Island, in less than two months. In turn, the impact on his art was revolutionary. Moving the barn a few yards to the left to create an unimpeded view, and transferring his canvases on to 21 sq ft of floor, Pollock began to flick and drip, splatter and stain, pouring paint directly on to the surface below. There were, of course, precedents for the automatic processes that Pollock used, not least Native American sand painting which the Cody kid had seen out west and at the Museum of Modern Art. Pollock's achievement, though, was in the effect he created: at once dynamic, violent, delicate, seductive and complex, suggestive of vast open spaces beyond the intricate webs, but totally and radically abstract.

Like the studio floor on which I stood, transfixed and wide-eyed, Pollock's paintings are full of surprises, of buried imagery and sensation which creep up on you; sometimes they seem to pull you in and at other times to spit you out. They're filled with a pulsating beat, a kind of visual jazz, spontaneous and rhythmical - bebop in paint. Back in the house, I was flicking through Jack's record collection and all I could find was Dixieland. Not a hint of Charlie Parker. "Jackson hated contemporary jazz," explained his friend and biographer Jeffrey Potter. "But he'd unconsciously taken it on board." Did he play music while he painted? "No, not to my knowledge. The studio was his space, a refuge where no one bar Lee really went, and never while he was working."

There was, however, one celebrated exception: a young photographer and film-maker called Hans Namuth who, with Krasner's help, persuaded Pollock to let him record the painter at work at the height of his powers in the autumn of 1950. The resulting images and film-footage were extraordinary, and were devoured by an increasingly hungry media who launched the legend, as Time magazine put it, of "Jack the Dripper": the denim-clad artist, cigarette dangling from his lips, an expression of intense concentration on his face and a graceful, almost balletic rhythm running through his body as he painted.

The footage of the first American "Action Painter" in action is the most intimate record of any major artist at work. It spawned many a performance artist in the ensuing decades as well as painters obsessed with the process of picture-making. Namuth's films still dominate the way we look at Pollock's paintings, and they were central to the growing Pollock mythology. This was carefully nurtured by Krasner and the critic Clement Greenberg, but with devastating consequences, as Jeffrey Potter explained: "Jackson had not drunk a drop for over two years, but immediately after Namuth had finished filming him, he marched into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of whisky hidden under the sink and began to slug it down." Later that night over dinner, Potter recalled, Pollock kept mumbling about being "a phoney", having "performed" for the camera, and ended tipping the dinner table over the guests.

Pollock continued to drink heavily for the rest of his life, which ended in a drunken car crash in 1956. Krasner was away in Europe at the time and Pollock was spending the weekend with his mistress Ruth Kligman and a young friend of hers, Edith Metzger, who was also killed. "Indirectly the film led to Jackson's death," said Potter as he drove me to the bend in the road where the crash occurred, "but Jackson was responsible for his own death. I don't subscribe to the view that it was suicide, but many close to him thought he had a self-destructive streak and I certainly agree with that. There was a lot of anger, too, that he'd taken another life as well as his own."

Having stared at the fateful tree against which Pollock was thrown, marked only by a large real estate sign behind, we returned to his house. It took less than a minute. "I'd no idea he was so close to home," I said to Potter. "Yes, that's the tragic irony," he replied. "But in some ways that was Jackson all over. He was always trying to find home and never quite made it."

Jackson Pollock: Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), from 11 March to 6 June.

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