Jackson Pollock was famous for creating abstract paint-splattered canvases, but he had a domestic side as well. "He was a man who loved puttering in his garden, gifting vegetables to his friends, baking loaves of bread and apple pie," says Robyn Lea, author of Dinner with Jackson Pollock (Assouline.com). She discovered recipes hidden at Pollock's former residence (now a museum), which he shared with his wife, Lee Krasner, who was also a painter.
Sally Swift: Why are you so interested in Jackson Pollock?
Robyn Lea: Jackson Pollock, I think for a lot of people internationally, including us in Australia, is an iconic figure of 20th century art. As I was growing up, I was very aware of the power of the symbol of this person who changed the course of art.
Part of that was because in Australia in 1973, the National Gallery purchased a major work of his, "Blue Poles," for $1.3 million, which was a huge scandal at the time. That just became solidified in all of our young minds as this extraordinary turning point for Australia, that we had acquired this major work of this iconic man.
SS: Scandalous because of the cost?
RL: It was because of the cost. At that stage there were very few works being sold at that level.
SS: You went to the Pollock house on an assignment that wasn't about food. What was it like when you found those recipes?
RL: It was overwhelming in the sense that it was very unexpected. I went originally to take some photographs and write a story for a magazine, and then kept going back in different seasons. Of course I ended up in the pantry because being a foodie myself, that's the spot of the house that I'm drawn to.
After speaking to the director of the museum, she said that they did have some handwritten recipes of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Then with further investigation, diving into their recipe books, we found dozens of others inside the back and front covers of these recipe books.
It felt astonishing. I was surprised that not every inch of that house had been devoured and dissected by researchers over many decades. But I suppose their focus was the art and the studio. It was one of those moments that I thought, "Here I am from Australia discovering this very domestic, day-to-day side of a man who has become an icon."
SS: You do not think domesticity when you think about Jackson Pollock.
RL: You don't. Yet he was a man who loved puttering in his garden, gifting his vegetables to his friends, baking loaves of bread and apple pie. Yes, it was a different side to this man.
I think it's a story that warrants being told because of the fact that someone like him becomes a caricature the more famous they become. I feel like these are lovely, simple, everyday stories that match with beautiful heartwarming recipes.
SS: I was struck that he was the baker of the two, which you would not associate with him and his wild ways.
RL: Exactly. Coming into the project I felt the same way. I thought he was this genius paint-splattering icon. I didn't think that he would be precise enough to approach baking a loaf of bread. He won a prize for the apple pie at the local fair. He would often bake bread.
But interestingly, in recent scientific studies of his work, including one that's currently at the Guggenheim in Venice titled "Alchemy" from 1947, there's a grid and there's a layout. It's an underlying textured layout that shows that there was an incredible precision to the way that he approached his work. In that same work, not only is there this structure that shows the precision of the approach, but funnily enough, that painting was painted on a tablecloth. To me that is the ultimate combination of food and art.
SS: What was Lee like?
RL: Lee was more of [the type who would] scribble down a recipe at a dinner party, who cares if the spelling is not right, throw things into the pot. That shows the intuitive side of her as a cook.
But she was also a very strategic hostess. She would gather collectors, gallerists, people around Jackson at the table and make sure they were there, they were loving their meals, they were having those interesting conversations. She would talk to these people about his work. That dinner party marketing was fundamental to his success. It says a lot about her in terms of being very strategic.
She was also sometimes quite dictatorial in the way she wanted food presented. She would often ask friends like Francile Downs to prepare dessert and bring it over. But it had to be prepared in exactly this way, with this particular type of pear, and it had to be laid on the platter around like this, and the sauce would be drizzled just so. It was a very particular aesthetic that she wanted to bring to the table. I think that's very reflective of her creative outlook.
SS: Yes, and her relationship? She was an artist as well.
RL: Exactly. She was an artist as well. If you look at the works after he died, you can see this explosion of color and food-like forms in some of the titles. There was one titled "The Seasons" and another titled "Cornucopia." They're very visual, vivid, rich colors and food themes. I don't know if I'm just searching for those things, but I'm seeing that right now in her work. It was interesting that explosive color came out after he had died in 1956.
SS: As I was working my way through your book, I wondered how Jackson Pollock would look at some of the plates that chefs send out these days with those spatters of sauces and dribs and drabs. It's, of course, very similar to his artwork.
RL: It is indeed. In fact, a foodie friend in New York, Harris Damashek, pointed out to me that most of the chefs he works with often say they're inspired by Jackson Pollock. There's the concept that there's a freedom there, composition, color, form. You can see why that's the case.
Jackson’s studio in high summer, Springs. (Photo: Robyn Lea)
Jackson and Lee’s collection of paint pigments that they kept from their WPA art projects. (Photo: Robyn Lea)
Shoes and paint in the studio. (Photo: Robyn Lea)
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.