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Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

Is Jackson Pollock's 1943 "Mural" the Holocaust's "Guernica?"

The great and legendary American abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock, created his largest painting, the approximately 8-foot by 20-foot "Mural," 80 years ago in the fall of 1943.


"Mural" signaled the start of Pollock's greatest period of work, the years of the large "drip" paintings that made him famous, and it was almost certainly influenced by the then ongoing Nazi murder of European Jewry.


This is an interpretation that has never been offered, but some critics have edged close to it, so close it seems only an aversion to such a view kept them from getting there. The evidence is circumstantial, but strong.


In July 1943, art collector Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to paint something, anything, for her East 61 Street Manhattan townhouse. That something was "Mural."


Guggenheim had been collecting art since the Twenties, when she left her native New York for France and became part of the Paris art scene. She continued collecting art and sponsoring artists in 1941, when she arrived back in New York from Nazi-occupied Paris. In 1942, she opened Art of This Century, a New York gallery devoted to the boldest new art. Her art training was minimal, but her instincts were sound. The art critic Clement Greenberg, who had the authority of a Lawgiver--one art dealer remembered artists "really discussing every damn [Greenberg] article that came out"--said she "had a flair for life, a sort of smell for life that made her recognize vitality and conviction in a picture." 


Pollock came to Guggenheim's attention through a New York art network that was almost entirely Jewish.


According to art dealer Sidney Janis, né Janowitz, he met Pollock in 1941 through the painter's Jewish girlfriend and future wife, the artist Lee Krasner. Janis was impressed with Pollock and contacted one of Guggenheim's advisors, Howard Putzel, a gallery owner and early Pollock enthusiast. (In this chronology, Janis knew of the artist even before Pollock-champion Clement Greenberg.)


Pollock would not have found this Jewish circle foreign. Though born in 1912 in Wyoming, he spent his high school years in Los Angeles where he befriended several art-minded Jews. Philip Goldstein, who later found fame as the artist Philip Guston, took Pollock to left-wing political meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center. Other Jewish friends included future artists Reuben Kadish and Harold Lehman and future art critic, Jules Langsner, whose father ran the Paradise Health Resort, where Jewish bohemians sunbathed in the nude. There was also an early Jewish girlfriend, a Sephardic, named Berthe Pacifico.


By the time Pollock signed his 1943 art commission contract with Guggenheim, America was at war with Nazi Germany and Jewish identity was a matter of life and death. In November 1942, the U.S. State Department confirmed the Nazi murder of 2 million Jews. In March 1943, 40,000 New Yorkers attended We Will Never Die, a theatrical held at Madison Square Garden to raise awareness and demand action to stop the killing.


Artists and art dealers were swept up in the war effort and crimes against the Jews were not ignored. In January 1943, the Jewish-owned Seligmann Gallieries exhibited Arthur Szyk's anti-Nazi art, Seymour Lipton's "Let My People Go" appeared at Galerie St. Etienne, founded by Jewish refugee Otto Kallir, and the Wildenstein Gallery hosted the This Is Our War exhibition. In March, Art Digest put Peter Blume's anti-fascist "Eternal City" on its cover. The next month, the cover of Art News featured a cartoon of a deranged Hitler destroying Europe.





Not surprisingly, the bloody historical moment deeply affected the Jewish artists Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb. In a letter to the Times, which appeared on June 13, 1943, the artists wrote, "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is crucial which is tragic and timeless."


Pollock knew Rothko and Gottlieb from the Thirties when they all worked as painters for the Works Progress Administration, the government job program that provided Americans work during the Depression. The two Jewish artists revisited the timely subject of tragedy with a WNYC radio broadcast on October 13. Jackson Pollock was still at work on "Mural," which he would not finish until early November, according to Emily S. Warner's dissertation, "Abstraction Unframed," and he surely heard the broadcast. Rothko addressed his own use of mythic images and themes by saying, "Those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art."


So the social and personal background of Pollock's "Mural" was drenched in Jewish relationships and Jewish history. Since 1930, the painter had lived in New York City, the center of Jewish life in America, and in 1943 he was in love with Krasner, a Jewish woman who had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. He was at work on a painting for Jewish collector Peggy Guggenheim and was supported by the Jewish art dealers and critics Sidney Janis, Howard Putzel, and Clement Greenberg. What's more, his teenage friendships with Guston and Kadish continued in New York. At the same time, MoMA showed the Jewish works of artists Hyman Bloom and Morrish Hirschfield. In 1942, Bloom's "Synagogue" was one of the paintings that impressed Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Hirschfield, a "primitive" painter who turned to art after a career designing women's clothing and slippers, was in 1943 given a controversial solo MoMA show that included, in addition to his startling nudes, drawings of a menorah and Torah and the curtain that covers the Torah in synagogues. Pollock likely saw the exhibit, because Clement Greenberg, his own booster, also liked Hirschfield.


And news of the mass murder of Europe's Jews was public knowledge. 


Finally, Pollock was influenced by two great muralists of war. He knew José Clemente Orozco's 1940 Dive Bomber and Tank, which Orozco painted on commission for New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Pollock also greatly admired Picasso's Guernica, the 1937 masterpiece depicting the aerial bombardment of that Spanish city during the Spanish Civil War. It also was on display at MoMA.


So what did Pollock paint?


A war painting, but one that critics have resisted connecting to the Holocaust. When reviewing the events of 1943 that might have influenced Pollock, art historian David Anfam offers only February 2, the date the Nazis surrendered at Stalingrad. That event is Anfam's stand-in for the horror and terror of WWII in his book, Jackson Pollock's Mural: Energy Made Visible. Warner grants that "Mural's" "upright figural lines" are "often read as figures," that is, people, and these human figures, swirling, caught up in storm that helplessly tosses them, was influenced by the "mood of wartime New York." 


But the mood of wartime New York, and especially the mood of art-world New York, was to a very large extent a Jewish mood.


For more than 20 years, since editor Catherine Soussloff's 1999, Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, scholars have argued for a greater recognition of Jewish aspects of art history. 


It is time to admit there is a strong case for understanding Pollock's "Mural" as a response to the Holocaust.

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