Did a Secret Manhattan Cult Drive Jackson Pollock to His Death?


During Greenberg’s first months of therapy, in the summer of 1955, his therapist, Ralph Klein, moved out to stay with Jane Pearce and Saul Newton at their summer home at Barnes Landing in Amagansett. Greenberg, unable to accept a lengthy separation from the therapist he had begun to see every day, began inviting himself to stay with friends on Long Island, in particular the artist Jackson Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, who lived in Springs, only a few miles from Klein, Newton, and Pearce.

Pollock was in a period of deep crisis, one that Greenberg himself had helped create. A lifelong alcoholic, Pollock, with Krasner’s help, had managed to remain sober between 1947 and 1951, one of his periods of greatest productivity. But in 1954 he decided to take his art in a new direction, moving away from the drip paintings that made him famous.

Greenberg was unimpressed, describing Pollock’s 1954 show at the Janis Gallery as “forced, pumped, dressed up.” His review seemed to imply that Pollock had lost his way: Pollock “found himself straddled between the easel picture and something else hard to define, and in the last two or three years he has pulled back.” In the same essay, Greenberg seemed to place the crown of America’s preeminent painter on the head of Clyfford Still, calling him “one of the most important and original painters of our time.”

“So, Clem, who created the myth of Pollock—‘this is the greatest living American painter’—goes out there and says, ‘You’ve lost it, Jackson,’” said Barbara Rose, who was a close friend of Krasner’s. “‘You don’t have it anymore. You’re no good’ . . . So Pollock, who has had the assurance and confidence and backing of both Clem and Lee, has a nervous breakdown, and he starts drinking again.”

In the midst of this crisis, Greenberg became the constant weekend guest of Pollock and Krasner so that he could continue seeing his therapist, Ralph Klein. Their house was a war zone, with a drunk, angry, and highly abusive Pollock tearing into Krasner all the time. “Jackson was in a rage at her from morning till night,” Greenberg recalled.

The situation was untenable. Feeling that this violent and ugly fighting would end up killing his friends, Greenberg insisted that Krasner see an analyst immediately, and he contacted Jane Pearce, hostess and mentor to his own therapist. Greenberg, Krasner, and Pollock—one of the most famous troikas of modern American art—drove over together to Pearce’s house. Pollock’s biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith interviewed Jane Pearce about the encounter (the only interview of any kind Pearce is known to have given). “Clem pushed her to do this because he saw that Jackson was killing her,” Pearce told them. “Or allowing her to kill herself. It was a moment of absolute crisis.” Pearce recommended that Krasner begin therapy right away. Although Pollock vehemently opposed Krasner’s seeing a therapist, he agreed to begin therapy as well. “Jackson couldn’t stand the idea of Lee and me in therapy without him,” Greenberg recalled. “He didn’t want to be left out.” Pollock, too, would begin seeing Ralph Klein. When September rolled around and the analysts all returned to Manhattan, Greenberg resumed his regular sessions with Klein while Pollock made a weekly pilgrimage into the city for therapy.

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Did a Secret Manhattan Cult Drive Jackson Pollock to His Death?

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