The circa-1930s art scene in Manhattan was not an easy one to navigate. A mere 30 galleries had survived the stock market crash and the early years of the Great Depression. Collectors were looking toward Europe. And abstract art in America was nearly dead.
Then Peggy Guggenheim crash-landed, turned heads and made artists, dealers and collectors pay attention—not only to her but to an unknown artist she had discovered.
His name was Jackson Pollock. And Ms. Guggenheim would be just the first of his three dealers, whom curator Bobbi Coller researched and contextualized within Pollock’s career for the first time ever. The resulting exhibition, “Pollock’s Champions,” will remain on view through Friday, October 31, at the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center in Springs—which, in all likelihood, exists only because of Ms. Guggenheim herself. She was the first to trust him, the first to encourage and support him, and the first to take a risk on him.
“People discount the role of dealers. If you don’t have somebody there promoting you, you might as well give up—or give up on a career,” explained Helen Harrison, executive director of the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center. “They have to have somebody vouching for them, someone giving some validity behind the claim that this is great stuff.”
Ms. Guggenheim was a key supporter in Pollock’s corner—for, if nothing else, her last name alone, though she had broken from her familial ties long before meeting Pollock in 1943.
Her parents had belonged to an elite group of the wealthiest Jewish families in New York in the 19th century, and she was raised like many upper-class children at the time. She was not close to her hypochondriac mother, Florette, but adored her father, Benjamin, who was known to be a womanizer. In 1912, he died aboard the RMS Titanic. His daughter was 13, left with a $450,000 inheritance once she turned 21—a significantly lower payout than her cousins received.
Nine years later, while working as a clerk at the Sunwise Turn bookshop, she befriended writers, poets, artists and creative types, including Lawrence Vail, the man she would marry and, later, divorce.
Because she harbored no special talent herself, Ms. Guggenheim decided she would help support the artists she liked as a patron of the arts. In 1943, she became aware of Jackson Pollock. And she introduced him to the world through her gallery, though reluctantly, at first.
It was only at the urging of her artist friends that she gave him a one-year contract—a monthly stipend of $150 per month, plus a settlement at the end of the year if he made more than $2,700 after commission, a third of his earnings, was paid to Ms. Guggenheim. However, if he made less, she would keep his work to make up for the difference.
In 1946, Ms. Guggenheim granted Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner, a $2,000 loan as a down payment on their house and studio in Springs. His new, two-year agreement promised a $300 per month stipend, minus $50 toward repaying the loan. In exchange, she received his output for each year, minus one painting of his choosing. That is how 30 Pollocks wound up in her personal collection, not including a portable, nearly 180-square-foot mural.
By the end of Pollock’s contract, the dealer was ready to close her gallery and move to Europe. But she didn’t want to leave the artist stranded. Given his reputation as an alcoholic, he wasn’t the easiest sell. Fellow artist Betty Parsons was the only volunteer. She was the one to make him famous.
Also a child of privilege—and a proverbial black sheep—she was disinherited by her parents following her amicable divorce from Schuyler Livingston Parsons, heir to his family’s fortune. And her alimony disappeared, as well.
Ms. Parsons first met Pollock through their mutual friend, curator Barnett Newman, who shared her appreciation for modern art. When she visited him at home in Springs, he was sitting on the floor, drawing, breaking pens as he went. They were kindred spirits, Ms. Harrison explained, and he gave her the drawing, titled “The Orchestra of the Insects,” when he was finished.
Two years later, Ms. Parsons was officially representing Pollock, and it was a commercial and economic failure. He rarely sold a work for more than $1,000 during the first years.
But, artistically, it was a triumph. Pollock wasn’t repeating himself, Ms. Harrison said, for better or for worse.
“When Pollock started doing his black-and-white pictures in ’51, the critics liked them,” she said. “But the buyers didn’t. That’s when he went to Sidney Janis.”
Mr. Janis was born into a large family in Buffalo, where his talent was dancing. He returned to western New York when he finished serving as a Navy machinist during World War I, to work for his brother, who owned a chain of shoe stores. He soon went his own way, founding the label M’Lord, which specialized in men’s shirts—one of the only businesses to prosper during the Depression.
A lover of modern art, the dealer already represented the likes of Willem de Kooning and Joseph Albers when he heard Pollock was leaving Betty Parsons. At first, Mr. Janis was worried the market was oversaturated with Pollocks. To that, Ms. Krasner reportedly replied, “The surface hasn’t even been scratched.”
Years later, Mr. Janis admitted that she was right. In his first year, Pollock earned $11,580—placing him into the top 4 percent of wage owners in 1952. He would be the man to fill Pollock’s bank account.
“I was flabbergasted. I thought, ‘Top 4 percent? My God, that makes him sound like some kind of a mogul!’” Ms. Harrison said. “But, actually, that was his best year ever. Having gone back to drinking in 1950, his production declined as his drinking and alcoholism increased. In 1955, which was his last show with Janis, he had to do a 15-year survey, because there wasn’t enough new work.”
All three of Pollock’s dealers accepted the artist. They understood his limitations, his problems and considered his work to be the antidote. But it didn’t save him from getting behind the wheel drunk on August 11, 1956, fatally crashing into a tree.
“People don’t think of him as being concerned about his career, but he was,” Ms. Harrison said. “He was very much aware and how it needed to be managed. He was no Eiffel Tower of artists, up in the clouds, thinking that somehow this stuff is magically going to be accepted and bought. And here are these works that are now considered masterpieces.”
“Pollock’s Champions: Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parsons, and Sidney Janis” will remain on view through October 31 at the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center in Springs. Open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays by appointment only. Admission is by one-hour guided tours, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $10, $5 for children, and free for infants. For more information, call (631) 324-4929.