Was Jackson Pollock Overrated? Behind Every Artist There’s an Art Critic, and Behind Pollock There Was Clement Greenberg

Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock is one of the few painters whose work is easily identified by people who don’t care much for modern art.

More often than not, they’ll cite him as a prime reason they don’t want to spend a sunny Saturday at MoMA with you.

They’re entitled to their opinions, just as author Phil Edwards, host of the Vox series Overrated and a Pollock fan, is entitled to his.

In the most recent episode of Overrated, above, Edwards examines the driving force behind Pollock’s enduring fame.

His conclusion?

The muscular support of a highly influential art critic, Clement Greenberg, who was chummy enough with Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, to frolic with them in the Hamptons.

(Jeffrey Tambor appeared to have a ball playing him in Ed Harris’ Pollock biopic.)

Greenberg said one glimpse of Pollock’s 1943 “Mural” was all it took to realize that “Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced.”

Greenberg was interested in what he called “American-Type” painting and Pollock, with his highly physical, booze-soaked macho swagger, was a “radically American” poster boy.

He was one of the first to mention Pollock in print:

He is the first painter I know of to have got something positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American painting.

His cheerleading resulted in a LIFE magazine profile, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?,” that took a travelogue approach to the artist’s drip painting process.

Their stars rose together. Though Greenberg’s attention eventually wandered away to newer favorites, Pollock’s career owed much to his forceful early champion.

We remember the artist better than the critic because of those giant, splattered canvases—so accessible to those looking for illustrations of why they hate modern art.  The critic’s art is more ephemeral, and unlikely to show up on umbrellas, tote bags, and other gift shop swag.

Those with an interest in Pollock—pro or con—would do well to follow Edwards’ suggestion to bolster their understanding of Greenberg’s taste, and his role in promoting both Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists.

Watch Seasons 1 and 2 of Overrated free online.

Related Content:

Jackson Pollock 51: Short Film Captures the Painter Creating Abstract Expressionist Art

Watch Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock, the 1987 Documentary Narrated by Melvyn Bragg

The MoMA Teaches You How to Paint Like Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning & Other Abstract Painters

60-Second Introductions to 12 Groundbreaking Artists: Matisse, Dalí, Duchamp, Hopper, Pollock, Rothko & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Bill W. says:

    Jackson Pollock was a Working-class genius. He understood that all he had to do was to get drunk, randomly drizzle paint on a canvas, assigning “meaning” to his creations–and the “Beautiful People”, with their wads of cash, would be attracted like house-flies.

    People forget that he’s the one who put his 1st-grade niece’s crayon drawing in an art-show, labeling it as a “Pollock” drawing. The unwitting chattering-elite not only raved about it, but paid him handsomely for it; underhandedly proving the point he was trying to make…his adorers (Modern Art-lovers) were clueless suckers who made him, and other like-minded artists, filthy-rich! Good for him.

  • Michael D says:

    It’s incredibly naive to think that talent, rather than promotion, leads to fame.

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