Pollock, a play by Fabrice Melquiot at the Abrons Arts Center, renders this quintessentially American, hyper-masculine, doomed painter through the foil of his wife, the artist Lee Krasner. But, as in life, Pollock obscures Krasner’s own story.
The Jackson Pollock legend is well known: a wild art star who died in a drunken car wreck in 1956, Christ- and James Dean-like at the age 44. Suffering from alcoholism and other mental illness, he had the necessary pathologies for the tragic Romantic genius in modern times. On page two of the Pollock script, Krasner says of him, “You owe your genius to a childhood illness/Incurable.” He needed to die, for story purposes.
The play, translated from the French by Miriam Heard and Kenneth Casler for this co-presentation by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York and Abrons Arts Center, dwells in a post-mortem dream space inhabited by Pollock and Krasner who speak directly to the audience, often on mikes, and only occasionally to each other. The facts of their lives are disclosed in no particular order, as the combative couple sort through the Pollock myth. The first monologue slams together Pollock’s dramatic death on eastern Long Island, his signature drip painting style, and the famous 1949 Life magazine celebration of his triumph.
The sturdy Jim Fletcher could not have been better cast as Pollock. Apart from his reliable acting, in a paint-splattered white T-shirt and jeans he looks tolerably like Pollock, with a similar pattern of male baldness. The altogether admirable Birgit Huppuch, though not as fierce as Krasner was, stands her ground well enough, her prim ensemble of a tailored top and plaid skirt remarkably paint-free.
In touching upon the operatic highlights of his short life, Pollock drops a lot of names. Pollock’s affair with Peggy Guggenheim flashes past, along with mentions of Henri Matisse, Betty Parsons, Le Corbusier, Tony Smith, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, and Alexander Calder. Fletcher partly reenacts Hans Namuth’s 1950 film of Pollock at work. Critic Harold Rosenberg’s writing on Pollock is quoted verbatim for a scene. Tennessee Williams comes and stays with Pollock and Krasner. The play refers to Pollock having homosexual contact during a gangbang, hinting at Pollock’s queer side, which he sometimes enjoyed in Tennessee’s company in the West Village and in Provincetown, as has been discussed in a biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Krasner likewise proudly affirms her free sexuality: “If I liked a guy/I slept with him.”
Why not Krasner, I kept wondering, especially in this moment of heightened awareness about the treatment of women in our society? Why another paean to the heroic male painter? Pollock finally deigns to comment on Krasner’s work in the seventh scene, whereas he is certified as “the greatest painter of the 20th century” in the opening monologue. I thought maybe the point was to show that Pollock quashed Krasner. Krasner was a formidable intellectual and respected artist, but he’s the big name still. In the play, her character is often pushed aside to make more room for Pollock: Huppuch stops speaking as Krasner in order to play various other persons talking to Pollock. In a stark switcheroo midway through, Fletcher interviews Huppuch who portrays Pollock, answering questions about his death.
At a talkback, playwright Fabrice Melquiot and director Paul Desvaux, who commissioned the text, spoke of Krasner as the driver of their interest in the material, which is hard to square with the play, focused entirely on Pollock and his spectacular death. The play says nothing of the next 28 years that Krasner lived post-Pollock.
The creators described their desire to avoid biopic clichés, which makes the title a puzzling and unfortunate choice. The stories told and the focus on Pollock’s death recall the 2000 Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden film, also named Pollock.
Even with its flaws, the play is mostly successful in establishing its improbable comingling of space and time. Pollock and Krasner argue about their past and art while hopscotching through their lives and somehow being credibly present. Fletcher and Huppuch do the heavy lifting here of rendering long passages of direct address palatable. The text isn’t an easy sell, with lines like: “I paint my surrender to the object of my desire/I paint my rebellious sterile anger.” Pollock might have said it or something equally embarrassing — the director said in the talkback that the text reflected verbatim sources or paraphrases of actual statements. Pollock is also at moments unexpectedly moving, as when Krasner says, “Nobody eases me towards myself with tenderness.”
The dialogue often refers to painting from the unconscious, alluding to Pollock’s four years in Jungian therapy, evidently unsuccessful. The set consists of see-through imitations of stretched canvas: armatures covered in clear plastic sheeting. The floor is similarly covered in sheeting that runs up the back wall. This set design, plus the numerous cans of paint on the floor, raise the fear that the actors might paint, and, alas, they do, using sponges. Fletcher imitates Pollock’s drip techniques, flinging paint from a wooden stirrer and dropping it from a can with a hole punched in the bottom; and then they paint on each other some. These literal attempts to reproduce the creative moment and the act of painting are the pitfalls of the art biopic genre. They never succeed. At the talkback the playwright and director said that they envision Pollock as the first installment of a trilogy devoted to American artists. One hopes that such lapses will be absent from the future installments.
Pollock by Fabrice Melquiot continues at the Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 25.