Jackson Pollock: Painting a picture of long island

Jackson Pollock would have turned 100 this weekend. Chris Coplans travels to New York state to explore the locations that inspired the artist during his short and turbulent life

I was standing on two of Jackson Pollock's most celebrated paintings when Helen pointed and said to me: "That's Lavender Mist and there is Autumn Rhythm." I peered closely but could see neither lavender nor autumn. I could see mist and rhythm. Aficionados of the great American artist will no doubt wonder why I was standing on his paintings. Once they've got over that, they will point out that it is physically impossible to stand on both paintings at the same time: one is in New York and the other in Washington DC.

The explanation lies in the fact that I was in Pollock's studio. The location was the town of Springs, on eastern Long Island's South Fork – a couple of hours' drive from New York JFK airport. Pollock would have been 100 this Saturday. He moved from Manhattan to Springs, just outside East Hampton, in 1945.

Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, were lent the deposit to buy the home by Peggy Guggenheim, the New York heiress, socialite art collector and benefactor who may or may not have seduced Pollock. He converted the dilapidated barn that stood in the garden into a studio, where he created some of his best-known works.

The home and studio, which is open to the public and will host a Pollock centenary exhibition later this year, lies in a glorious garden that falls away on to scenic wetlands. It's the perfect setting: serene and peaceful. But although all this beauty inspired Pollock, he was not a man at peace.

Pollock began painting with his canvases laid out on the studio floor, experimenting with what was to become his "drip" technique. And that's what makes this studio so powerful: because there, on the rich wooden floorboards, is the evidence of this deeply unhappy genius's fragile emotional state.

Pollock's passion and fury dominates the floor. Photographs, mainly of Pollock in the studio are hung on the studio walls. On one wall, below the high window from where the light would have fallen directly on to and nourished Pollock's prostrate canvases, is a simple shelf. The shelf holds his tools – tins of household paints that he used instead of artist's paints. He described it as "a natural growth out of a need".

As I walked over this kaleidoscope of merging patterns of colour and form in the company of the director of the Pollock Krasner House, Helen A Harrison, I couldn't help feel that I was trampling on Pollock's delicate emotions – even though I was wearing a pair of bright blue plastic protective slippers.

It's fair to say that Pollock liked a drink. On 11 August 1956, heavily intoxicated, the artist drove his Oldsmobile convertible down a curving Springs road at high speed with his mistress, Ruth Kligman, and a friend of hers, Edith Metzger. He hit a tree, killing himself and Metzger. He was just 44. He is buried nearby at the tranquil Green River Cemetery along with his wife.

Some of his drinking dens are still open in Springs, including Jungle Jim's (now Woolfies) and Sam's, on New Town Lane. The charming Springs General Store is where Pollock traded Untitled: Silver over Black, White, Yellow & Red (1948), to settle a grocery bill. I had reached Springs by driving along the string of glorious beaches along the south shore. Further along are the Hamptons, the cluster of seaside communities that attract Manhattan's rich and famous during the summer season. In high summer East Hampton is a place of horrendous traffic jams, queues for restaurants, celebrity spottings and gaggles of wannabees. Out of season, though, it's fine. There are some fabulous dune-backed beaches, and behind the dunes are the mansions of the A-listers.

I chose to stay on Shelter Island, which is wedged between the twin forks of eastern Long Island, about eight miles north of Springs. The only way to access the island is via two small car and passenger ferries that operate on the north and south of the island. It's a beguiling place, with the brooding somnolence and isolation common to islands accessible only by boat.

More than a third of the island is given over to the Mashomack Nature Preserve, an emerald-green carpet of salt marshes, lonely bluffs and pebble beaches. As I wandered through the wetlands, a magnificent solitary osprey, one of more than 30 pairs that have come to nest here in recent years, emerged from some hidden spot, working its five-foot wingspan to propel it towards the ocean.

The year-round population of Shelter Island is just over 2,000, although at the height of the summer this can swell to over 10,000 a day. There is only one town on Shelter Island: Shelter Island Heights, a delightful little colony where the north ferry arrives and most of what constitutes "tourist infrastructure" is located. I stayed at the excellent Chequit Inn, with a buzzing bar and restaurant, decent rooms and a beautiful veranda overlooking the town and bay. Around me, the rest of the town constituted a breezy collection of Victorian buildings, smart whitewashed, clapboard homes, many with homely wrap-around porches, distinctive shale roofs and clipped lawns.

William de Kooning, that other giant of the New York School rented a studio nearby in East Hampton. Although the two artists were not friends, they respected each other, Pollock remarking of de Kooning's arrival on Long Island that "we've just had a painter here who's better than me". When de Kooning first saw Pollock's drip paintings, he said: "Jackson Pollock has broken the ice."

If Pollock created his greatest works in Springs, it was New York that made him. Peggy Guggenheim gave him his first one man show at her Art of the Century gallery on West 57th Street in 1943. New York's MoMA started collecting Pollock in the1940s, and gave him a memorial exhibition in December 1956.

So, with the intention of getting up close and personal with the artist, I headed to Manhattan, where the Abstract Expressionist movement was almost entirely based.

I stayed downtown at the SoHo Grand, on West Broadway, a stylish hotel frequented by artists, fashionistas and troubadors and close to where Pollock and the other impoverished "action painters" lived, worked and played, in their early Manhattan years.

Pollock and many of the other Abstract Expressionists studied at the venerable Art Students League of New York, a delicious building on ritzy West 57th Street. I wandered around its musty rooms and studios, including one that Pollock was reputed to have painted in.

MoMA, though, is his spiritual home, with more than 100 of his paintings in its collection. Surprisingly in his centenary year, there is only one Pollock currently on display, Number 31, (1950), although I was told that this was likely to change during the year.

Meanwhile, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Room 922 contains three Pollocks, including Autumn Rhythm, which I didn't stand on this time. Instead, I relished the absence of distractions imposed by figurative paintings and seized the chance to immerse myself in the massive canvas.

As I emerged from my trance, I recalled Pollock at his most reflective: "There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was."

To see more of Chris Coplans's images, go to coplans.co.uk

 

Travel essentials

Getting there

Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk) offers four nights' room-only at the Soho Grand Hotel from £725 per person. The price includes flights from Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic and transfers.

New York is served by a number of airlines from the UK, including Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic. com), BA/AA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com) and Continental (0845 607 6760; continental.com).

 

More information

Men of Fire: Jóse Clemente and Jackson Pollock will run from 2 August-27 October at the Pollock Krasner House (001 631 324 4929; pkhouse.org).

Chequit Inn (001 631 749 0018; shelterislandinns.com/chequit).

Metropolitan Museum of Art (001 212 535 7710; metmuseum.org).

The Museum of Modern Art (001 212 708 9400; moma.org) developed an iPad app for its Abstract Impressionist exhibition last year. Apart from images of works by Pollock, there are audio interviews with curators and experts. The App also includes a superb interactive map of the major Abstract Impressionist sites in Manhattan and Long Island.

Discover Long Island: discoverlongisland.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager - Bristol

    £31000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the UK, the major project fo...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Account Executive - Hotel Reservation Software - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A rapidly growing Hotel ...

    Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

    £15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game