Spontaneity in the work of Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Jack Kerouac

During the decade following World War Two, a body of artistic work was created that clearly articulated for the first time, a distinctly American aesthetic, independent of European models. This is not to say that celebrated works like The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Appalachian Spring and Roy Harrisʼ Third Symphony are not recognized as American masterpieces; but their American characteristics are expressed through content, rather than form or methods of production. Fitzgerald and Hemingway all furthered their apprenticeship in Europe during the 1920s while Copland and Harris studied in Paris with Boulanger. It remained for the next generation of the avant garde, living for the most part in New York, to create original schools through the modes of Abstract Expressionism, the new chromatic jazz of Be Bop, and the literature of the Beats. The singly most important characteristic of the new American expression was the central role played by spontaneity and improvisation yielding works of astonishing vibrant surface detail.

The emphasis on the spontaneous as an alternative to the careful and rational reflected larger cultural and philosophical issues. In seeking a subjective, existential view of reality, honesty, authenticity, were prized over the objective world view, process over product. Whether expressed in gesture painting, spontaneous bop prosody, or the chromatic flights of bebop, the emphasis was on the experience, rejecting the academic craftsmanship of revision as antithetical to the glorification of the now.This emphasis plus the incorporation of elements from African and Native American sources were interpreted as an attack on the privileged hegemony of the Anglo-American academy. Beat writers were ridiculed by proponents of the New Criticism who vaunted T.S. Eliot as their model. Kerouacʼs spontaneous prose was dismissed as “mere typing” by Truman Capote. While mainstream journals such as Life magazine devoted some attention to abstract art, it was more often of a patronizing nature, referring to Pollock as “Jack the Dripper”. The new jazz faced opposition even within its own ranks, even prompting a revival of New Orleans music, now called “Dixieland”. Louis Armstrong dismissed bop as making about as much sense as “Chinese music”. So with its fusion of modernist complexity with vernacular) or “street”) immediacy the new art represented a third alternative to European elitism and mainstream pop culture. In an even larger context, the avant garde of the late 1940s represented a reaction to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Gulag – the latter having a dampening impact on the leftist Communist idealism of the 30s. Whether implicit in words or explicit in painting and music, the avant garde became a central voice in the new bohemian counterculture criticism of United States political and corporate globalization with its strategy of cold war xenophobia and domestic consumerism. The full effect of this will not be fully realized until the mid 1960s when the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Viet Nam galvanized many to question the policies of the government.

 

Jackson Pollock photographed by Arnold Newman for LIFE Magazine, 1949

 

Charlie Parker, at the Carnegie Hall, New York. Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1947

 

Jack Kerouac in his Long Island home displaying one of the scrolls on which he composed his books, unidentified photographer, 1964.

 

Three artists, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), and Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), play a central role in the emerging post war avant garde, each incorporating elements of spontaneity to their arts. The outline of their biographies shows many similarities. Roughly of the same generation, each were born and raised in provincial settings, Pollock in Cody, Wyoming, Parker in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. Each came from working class blue collar maternally dominated families, with dysfunctional (Pollock and Kerouac) or nonexistent (Parker) relationships with their fathers, Pollock and Kerouac becoming highly misogynistic. Each produced their most important work in New York beginning around 1945, where they all habituated the same Lower East Side and Greenwich Village neighborhoods, often hanging out in the same bars and coffee houses. All three experienced difficult personal lives, cut short from substance abuse resulting in early deaths (Pollock at age 44. Parker at 35, and Kerouac at 47). What is of great interest is the mutual interest and influence among the artistic intelligentsia of the period. Much of Kerouacʼs innovative spontaneous prose sketching achieved most notable in Visions of Cody and The Subterraneans were heavily indebted to his sophisticated knowledge of jazz. Several of the “choruses” in Mexico City Blues are profiles of Parker, Lester Young, and other musicians. Lee Krasner, Pollockʼs wife, has documented the painterʼs interest in jazz as well as classical music. Night Clubs, such as the Five Spot, doubled as jazz venues as well as art galleries.

 

 

A Pollock painting illustrates the cover of Ornette Colemanʼs, Free Jazz, released in 1959. Some artists worked in several disciplines, most notable saxophonist Larry Rivers who became a prominent painter, composer-novelist Paul Bowles, pianist-poet Cecil Taylor, and poet-painter-composer Weldon Kees. Poetic recitation with jazz, begun with Kenneth Patchen and Charlie Mingus included performances at the Village Vanguard with Kerouac who recorded with tenor men Zoot Sims and Al Cohn as well as recited on television with Steve Allen backing him up on piano. The image of these performances, with their “beards,bongos and beatniks” became simplistic cultural clichés in the late 1950s. perpetuated by the mainstream media in an attempt to trivialize and ridicule the movement. To reiterate the central thesis of this argument, the main thread that unites this rich period of American creativity is the use of improvisation for the purpose of creating art characterized by great emotional and intense expression.

 

American Zeitgeist: Spontaneity in the work of Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Jack Kerouac
Randall Snyder
(Excerpt)

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Hoping for the Faintest Smoke and Mountain Sage

“They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that let him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper and bad tires; when the transmission went there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work…”

 
 

 
 

“In 1963 when he met Jack Twist, Ennis was engaged to Alma Beers. Both Jack and Ennis claimed to be saving money for a small spread; in Ennis’s case that meant a tobacco can with two five-dollar bills inside. That spring, hungry for any job, each had signed up with Farm and Ranch Employment — they came together on paper as herder and camp tender for the same sheep operation north of Signal. The summer range lay above the tree line on Forest Service land on Brokeback Mountain. It would be Jack Twist’s second summer on the mountain, Ennis’s first. Neither of them was twenty…”

 
 

 
 

“It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they deepened their intimacy considerably. Ennis ran fullthrottle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked “gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep.”

Ennis woke in red dawn with his pants around his knees, a top-grade headache, and Jack butted against him; without saying anything about it both knew how it would go for the rest of the summer, sheep be damned. As it did go. They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”

 
 

 
 

“At the north end of the closet a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack’s old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis’s nose hard with his knee. He had staunched the blood which was everywhere, all over both of them, with his shirtsleeve, but the staunching hadn’t held because Ennis had suddenly swung from the deck and laid the ministering angel out in the wild columbine, wings folded. The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.

 
 

 
 

“The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.”

 
 

 
 

“Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on. The wind booms down the curved length of the trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of fine gravel and sand. It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning. Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everybody off the day before, the owner saying, “Give em to the real estate shark, I’m out a here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand. He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream…”

 
 

 
 

“When it (the postcard) came — thirty cents — he pinned it up in his trailer, brass-headed tack in each corner. Below it he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears. “Jack, I swear — “ he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind. Around that time Jack began to appear in his dreams, Jack as he had first seen him, curly-headed and smiling and bucktoothed, talking about getting up off his pockets and into the control zone, but the can of beans with the spoon handle jutting out and balanced on the log was there as well, in a cartoon shape and lurid colors that gave the dreams a flavor of comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron. And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets. There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

 
 

In the film’s heart-wrenching final scene, as Gustavo Santaolalla’s strings play one of the saddest slow crescendos on record, Ennis is by himself in his trailer, with the life he chose not to live represented by two blood-stained shirts and a faded picture of Brokeback Mountain hanging on his closet door. Outside, out of his reach, lies a patch of green grass.

 
 

Excerpts from Annie Proulx’s short story

A Dog Named Pain

A Dog Named Pain contains moments of intense beauty in which we note risk but also the grandeur of men who had surrendered to art with truly passion”
Ernesto Sabato

 
 

The drawings were made using Staedler pens and white card boards. Aute spent five years illustrating all the panels for the film

 
 

A Dog Called Pain is a film drawn and animated by singer/songwriter and artist turned filmmaker, Luis Eduardo Aute, who made more than four thousand drawings which were later processed with the digital technology for rending into 2D and 3D. It was a colossal enterprise that began with the first drawings in 1995. Aute has dedicated the past two years wholly to the film. The film borrows its name from the dog owned by the late Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The film, comprising seven stories or portraits, is focused on the artist-model relationship, and continuity is supplied by the dog, co-star of nearly all the episodes. Luis Eduardo Aute reconsiders the relations of such painters as Francisco de Goya, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Joaquín Sorolla, Julio Romero de Torres, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, and Diego Velázquez with their models, their environments, and their times. This reconsideration is, above all, a movie, and it employs the most classic film language, but at the same time it is a reflection about art and artists, their inner lives and their worlds.

In addition, homage is made in the film to such cinematic greats as Serguéi Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, Groucho Marx and Woody Allen. One of the great triumphs of A Dog Called Pain is the sheer beauty of Aute’s projected images. Intimately paced, viewing the film is like a cinematic walk through a museum. At times, long-held images will have subtle movements such as a blink of an eye that creates the effect of the movie screen as a canvas. Nominated for a 2001 Goya (Spain’s Oscars) for Best Animated Film, A Dog Called Pain is a unique work of art.

The film, an exciting blend of humour, violence and sex – in a word, of art. The story employs the simplest resources of cinema, and is the singular creation of an artist in love with the camera, as well as with music and painting, two fields in which he has gained fame. Luis Eduardo Aute is a living Spanish national treasure, acclaimed and loved for his music, artwork and poetry.

Sylvia Plath’s Influence on Popular Culture

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath on The Gilmore Girls, Season 1, Episode 12, Double Date

 
 

Stills and dialogue from Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

 
 

Sylvia is a 2003 British biographical drama film directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, and Michael Gambon. It tells the true story of the romance between prominent poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The film begins with their meeting at Cambridge in 1956 and ends with Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963.

 
 

Told through the character of Esther Greenwood, Plath’s semi-autobiographical heroine of The Bell Jar, this play is a revealing and absurd interpretation of the legendary poet’s life in the moments before her death.

 
 

The Simpsons, season 20, episode 11  titled How The Test Won

 
 

 
 

“…I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer
I spat out Plath and Pinter
I am all the things that you regret
A truth that washes that learnt how to spell…”

Manic Street Preachers

Faster

(Ninth track from their 1994 studio album, The Holy Bible)

 
 

Manic Street Preachers’ song The Girl Who Wanted To Be God it’s another reference to Sylvia Plath. It’s actually a reference to a line she wrote about herself – “I think I would like to call myself “the girl who wanted to be God.”  It was included in their 1996 studio album, Everything Must Go. The working title of this album was Sounds in the Grass, named after a series of paintings by Jackson Pollock.

 
 

Dance in the Dark, the song by American recording artist Lady Gaga, from her third EP The Fame Monster, refers to famous people who met with a tragic end of their lives, including Plath.

 
 

Gold (2001), second studio album by Ryan Adams. The ninth song from this studio album was titled after her

Jane Austen’s Matchmaking Heroine

Illustrations by C.E. Brock

 
 

Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance. The novel was first published in December 1815. Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” In the very first sentence she introduces the title character as “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” Emma, however, is also rather spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.

Emma Woodhouse is the first Austen heroine with no financial concerns, which, she declares to the naïve Miss Smith, is the reason that she has no inducement to marry. This is a great departure from Austen’s other novels, in which the quest for marriage and financial security are often important themes in the stories. Emma’s ample financial resources put her in a much more privileged position than the heroines of Austen’s earlier works, such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Jane Fairfax’s prospects, in contrast, are bleak.

 
 

(Douglas McGrath, 1996)

 
 

Douglas McGrath “fell in love” with Jane Austen‘s 1815 novel Emma, while he was an undergraduate at Princeton University. He believed the book would make a great film, but it was not until a decade later that he was given a chance to work on the idea. After receiving an Academy Award nomination in 1995 for his work on Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994), McGrath decided to make the most of the moment and took his script idea for a film adaptation of Emma to Miramax Films. McGrath had initially wanted to write a modern version of the novel, set on the Upper East Side of New York City. Miramax’s co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein, liked the idea of a contemporary take on the novel. McGrath was unaware that Amy Heckerling‘s Clueless was already in production, until plans for Emma were well underway.

Although in general staying close to the plot of the book, the screenplay by Douglas McGrath enlivens the banter between the staid Mr. Knightley and the vivacious Emma, making the basis of their attraction more apparent.

Austen’s original novel deals with Emma’s false sense of class superiority, for which she is eventually chastised. In an essay from Jane Austen in Hollywood, Nora Nachumi writes that, due partly to Paltrow’s star status, Emma appears less humbled by the end of this film than she does in the novel.

 
 

(Diarmuid Lawrence, 1996)

 
 

This production of Emma stars Kate Beckinsale as the titular character, and also features Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith and Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley.  Previously, Andrew Davies was the screenwriter for the successful 1995 BBC TV serial Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Davies offered to adapt Emma for the BBC, but it had already commissioned Sandy Welch as screenwriter.

 
 

(Amy Heckerling, 1995)

 
 

This comedy film is loosely based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma. Heckerling later described Silverstone as having “that Marilyn Monroe thing” as a “pretty, sweet blonde who, in spite of being the American ideal, people still really like.” 

Poetic Seduction

Vespertine (2011)

 
 

Björk‘s artistic incarnations seem very intentional, well thought out. Vespertine, her fifth studio album was released on August 27, 2001. The initial title for the album was Domestika. A song titled Domestica (originally titled Lost Keys) was included as a B-side on the Pagan Poetry single. Björk has stated that she decided to call the album Vespertine instead of Domestika because the new title dealt with the prayer aspect of the album, which she wanted to note, while she felt that calling the album Domestika would have been “too much”, because Björk felt that the songs on the album were already “domestic” enough. She felt the need to call the album after another aspect of itself. The word Vespertine also relates to nighttime, for example things that come out at night, and the title was also partly inspired by that.

Although one of Vespertine’s themes is the night time, the frontal artwork designed by studio M/M Paris and photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin highlights a sunny time. It might be because the song, Sun in my Mouth, was a single from that album. Björk adapted the lyrics of Sun in My Mouth from the poem I Will Wade Out by E. E. Cummings. The word “sea-girls” is changed to “seagulls”, and the last few lines of the poem are omitted.

The recipe for success was ready to be mixed: ornithology, poetry and Greek mythology. Björk used metaphors taken from nature to describe Vespertine: “is little insects rising from the ashes.”

The ancient Greeks thought that ποίησις (poiesis), with a broad meaning of a “making”, was also the “joint of everything”, the amalgamating element of the world. So, maybe that was the ideal concept for Björk.

On the cover of Vespertine she can be seen wearing the swan dress designed by Marjan Pejoski that caused a stir at the 2001 Academy Awards.

Марјан Пејоски (Маrjan Pejoski) is a Macedonian fashion designer who lives and works in Great Britain. That infamous swan dress put him on fashion’s map. Some people thought Alexander McQueen was the author of that dress due to his previous collaborations with Björk.

 
 

Promotional pictures by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

 
 

Björk in Oscar 2001 red carpet

 
 

Still from Pagan Poetry (Nick Knight, 2001) music video. She’s wearing a dress designed by Alexander McQueen. The music video “is about a woman preparing herself for marriage and for her lover”, Knight said.

 
 

Clifton Webb, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Allen

 
 

Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930) Promotional pictures

 
 

Pejoski’s swan dress has a precedent. In 1935 Marlene Dietrich attended a Halloween party hosted by South African actor Basil Rathbone and his wife Ouida Bergère. It was a party to entertain movie stars. The Person You Admire The Most was the theme. Dietrich chose Leda, the mytological figure seduced by Zeus, and asked Travis Banton, a Paramount iconic costume designer, to make her dress. Elizabeth Allen was going to accompany Dietrich. Allen’s choice was out of her reach. She wore an androgynous outfit, actually a copycat from Morocco’s costumes. And Clifton Webb was disguised as Fu Manchú.

The Many Faces of Pascal Vilcollet

Born in Paris, 1979, Pascal Vilcollet studied graphic design and taught himself to paint at age 16. “Fortunately, there was not much to do in my suburb. I discovered very early, museum galleries; it is there that I knew I would be painting later”.
 
He paints mostly for his own satisfaction. Portrait is his favorite motif, “it can be my obsession”. He doesn’t look for creating an effect; he said he paints to lighten a weight. He’s not interested in realism, pure figuration or hyper realism, rather than the border between reality and abstraction.
 
Vilcollet claims to have very eclectic tastes. He appreciates enormously Pierre Soulage and respects the artists that, in his opinion, represented their era: Caravaggio, Diego Velázquez, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko or contemporaries like Lucien Freud, Murakami, Justin Mortimer or Jenny Saville.
 
He spoke about his icons, mostly characters he feels fascination for because he either admires them. Taking advantage of real graphic representations, he fragments them and then reconstructs them, giving us a new insight into a psychological portrait. Pascal Vilcollet’s brush is the dynamic extension of his body while he is in action.

 
 

Pablo Picasso

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

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Jean-Michel Basquiat

 
 

Takashi Murakami

 
 

Yves Saint Laurent

 
 

Karl Lagerfeld

 
 

John Lennon

 
 

Mick Jagger

 
 

Bruce Lee

 
 

Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone)

 
 

Woody Allen

 
 

David Lynch

 
 

Steve McQueen

 
 

Grace Kelly

 
 

Elizabeth Taylor

 
 

Jane Birkin

 
 

Nicole Kidman

 
 

Natalie Portman

 
 

Kate Moss

 
 

Angelina Jolie

 
 

Monica Bellucci

Whip the Gift

“When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended for self-flagellation solely.”
 
Truman Capote

 
 

Pedro Almodóvar quoted Capote on a scene of his awarded movie All About My Mother (1999). Photo: Bruce Weber for Vogue Paris, December 2010

 
 

Marcello Mastroianni in  (Federico Fellini, 1963)

 
 

Erotica music video (Fabien Baron, 1992)

 
 

Human Nature music video (Jean-Baptiste Mondino, 1995)

 
 

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Madonna in a Steve Klein’s photo-shoot for a W Magazine issue. June 2006

 
 

Model Gail Cook and Andy Warhol. Photo: Francesco Scavullo.

 
 

Halston and his collaborators. Photo: Jean-Paul Goude. Esquire magazine. August, 1975.

 
 

Woody Allen’s portrait by Steve Shapiro

 
 

Betty Page

 
 

Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page, who was the leading actress of Whip It (2009), directed by Barrymore