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Digging for Gold in the Archives

Posted on 10 February 2012


Helen A. Harrison

When the Archives of American Art invited me to be the guest curator of a show celebrating Jackson Pollock’s 100th birthday, I jumped at the chance to dig into the original documents. His personal papers, which were donated to the Archives by his widow, Lee Krasner, have been digitized and are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, but the exhibition’s purpose is to display the actual stuff. There’s nothing like the real things to take you into the artist’s world — the family snapshots, the personal notes, the scrapbooks, the mementoes of a short but enormously influential life and career. There was one drawback, however: the collection is in Washington, DC, quite a curatorial commute from Sag Harbor. But by traveling to the material online, I was able to make a preliminary selection, so I knew what I was looking for when I got to the Archives and hit the boxes.

I was eager to find one particular document that’s often been reproduced and quoted. The original is filed under “Photographs” instead of where it belongs, in “Notes by Pollock,” because it’s pasted on the back of a Hans Namuth portrait of the artist. It’s a handwritten statement, actually a series of phrases summarizing his intentions, which probably dates from 1950. One phrase, “memories arrested in space,” gave me the exhibition’s title; another, “energy and motion made visible,” was used by B.H. Friedman to subtitle his Pollock biography. The paper is good quality, the words are elegantly arranged on the page, and the document is signed, as if Pollock meant it to be official. It neatly and concisely says, “this is what I’m trying to do, this is what my art is about.” Pollock was said to be inarticulate regarding his work, but this piece of paper contradicts that notion.

In a file labeled “Fan Mail to Pollock,” I spotted a letter from a woman named Helen K. Sellers of Charleston, SC, written on August 8, 1949. That was the publication date of the now-famous Life magazine article on Pollock, headlined, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Mrs. Sellers wrote on behalf of her seven year-old son Manning, who loved one of the paintings in the Life color spread, the long canvas identified as Number Nine. (It’s now called Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, and it’s in the Tate Modern in London.) Manning asked her to tell Pollock that he’d put it in his scrapbook, “the first painting that he has ever cut out,” and that he wanted the artist to have his picture in exchange — not a painting, but a photograph of him with his cocker spaniel, Snafu. I’ll bet Pollock never had a more heartfelt and sincere tribute. He kept the letter and the photo, and there they were, 63 years later, in the fan mail file.

Well, Manning may have fallen in love with Number Nine, but I fell in love with Manning and Snafu. Not only did I want the documents in the show, but I thought that Manning would like to know about it. Again thanks to the Internet I was able to track him down in Florida. He was surprised to hear from me, and thrilled to learn that his fan letter has survived — although Snafu has long since gone to that great dog park in the sky.

“Memories Arrested in Space: a centennial tribute to Jackson Pollock from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” opened on January 28, the 100th anniversary of Pollock’s birth, and will be on view through May 15 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Donald W. Reynolds Center, 8th and F Streets, NW, Washington, D.C. Sample the exhibition at:

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