DATE December 15, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Museum Curator Kirk Varnedoe talks about the life and
work of artist Jackson Pollock
TERRY GROSS, host:
This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Ed Harris directed and stars in a new movie about Jackson Pollock. Pollock's
dripped and poured paintings of the late '40s and the '50s shook up the art
world, changed the direction of modern art and made him one of the most
important and controversial artists of the century. We're going to discuss
Pollock's life and work with Kirk Varnedoe. Two years ago, he co-curated a
Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. New York Times
art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote, `If you care about art, you live for
exhibitions like this in which an artist, against the heavy odds of his own
skewed talent and unhinged personality, pursued something so wild, untested
and mysterious that its full meaning was unclear even to him.'
Here's a scene from Ed Harris' film after Pollock has told his wife, the
artist Lee Krasner, that he wants to have a baby. Krasner is played by Marcia
(Soundbite from "Pollock")
Mr. ED HARRIS (Jackson Pollock): Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Where you
going. Don't walk away from me. We're husband and wife. I want to have a
baby, our baby. That's what the--that's what the progression of things is
about. That's what the union is about.
Ms. MARCIA GAY HARDEN (Lee Krasner): That's not what the union is about.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, what else is there?
Ms. HARDEN: That's not what it's about, Jackson.
Mr. HARRIS: For me.
Ms. HARDEN: The vows don't stipulate baby.
(Soundbite of breaking glass)
Ms. HARDEN: I am not going to bring another life into that. We are painters,
Jackson. We don't have any money. We don't get by. We struggle. You are a
great artist. I believe in Jackson Pollock. There's you and there's the
painting, and you need, you need, you need, you need. And I don't want to be
anywhere else. I don't want to be with anyone else, but that's all I can
GROSS: Curator Kirk Varnedoe wrote a catalog essay in which he got beneath
the mythology that grew around Jackson Pollock. When I spoke with Varnedoe
in 1998, I asked him to start with the mythology itself.
(Soundbite from 1998 FRESH AIR interview)
Mr. KIRK VARNEDOE (Museum of Modern Art): Jackson Pollock's life has a
tremendous drama to it. He struggles very hard in lonely isolation; comes
out of a poor, itinerant family in the West; moves to New York and, after 10
years of very lonely misery in the Depression years, breaks through in the
early '40s and comes to very high degree of success in the late '40s; has an
article in Life magazine; becomes the king of the hill; from out of nowhere,
becomes the leading American painter of his generation. And then, almost as
precipitously, falls off; falls into alcoholism, depression in the '50s and
then is killed in a car crash driving drunk in 1956. So it's a great
American story of humble beginnings, giant success, tragic flaw and violent
death. It has all of the accoutrements of a great, sort of mythic drama in
the American popular culture sense.
There are overtones in the image of Pollock that you see in those photographs
in Life magazine in 1949; black denim, cigarette dangling off of his lips.
There's a lot of Brando. There's a lot of James Dean. There's the whole
sense of the rebel Bohemian who pays the high price for his transgressions.
All of this surrounds his art work with an air of celebrity stardom and makes
him the first of his kind, really, in the American visual arts that, later,
Warhol and others would become, and that is a kind of star artist. And I
think the myths of him--the myths of Pollock have to do with the strongly
tragic inflection one reads into that life.
GROSS: And part of that image, too, is that macho that he brought to his
painting and to his public image.
Mr. VARNEDOE: When Pollock appeared in Life magazine in 1949, leaning against
his own painting with his arms crossed, sort of sneering at the camera with a
cigarette dangling off his lips, I think most Life readers would have thought
that an abstract painter was some curiously effete European with a beret and
strange aesthetic theories. And the idea of this sort of working-class, tough
guy, hard-drinking, bar-fighting image that Pollock projected was a complete
revolution in consciousness about what modern art was for the American
GROSS: Let's look at his paintings and his actual approach to doing them,
and then we'll get back to the story of his life and the story of his image.
Pollock is most famous for splattering and dripping paint. He didn't like to
use brushes. Would you describe his approach to painting during the most
celebrated period of his career?
Mr. VARNEDOE: Yeah. Beginning in 1947, Pollock took something that had been
a marginal part of his own procedure as a painter and something that other
painters had used in one form or another, and that is liquified paint poured,
dripped, splattered, drizzled--there are a number of different words that you
would use--onto the canvas with the canvas laid out on the floor beneath him.
He did this, sometimes, by punching a hole in a paint can and using that to
draw with, as the paint dripped down; by pouring paint down a stick; by using
a dried brush that would throw out a fan of paint. In many different
techniques with varying degrees of force and with varying degrees of subtlety
and control, he built up these webs of liquified line on the canvas.
And it wasn't as if he was pouring paint in order to draw a tree or draw a
face. The whole composition of the canvas was a series of webs of movement
and line; of the splotches and splatters; the frittered-away vectors of line
as he moved across areas; the puddlings of paint as they marbled together.
The process of his art is apparent in the finished art work and determines a
lot of the shape. The actual materials he uses; the way they fall; the way
they react to each other determine the quality of the lines, so that instead
of executing a pre-ordained scheme or following a prepared drawing, he spun
out, literally, in a spontaneous fashion, like a jazz artist, his composition
as he worked. And the end result has no horizon, no up, no down, no center or
side, in the terms of standard compositions. It's, instead, a kind of cloud
or pulsing web or a series of dendrites or synapses of linear energy. And
that's--all of these things were shocking. But I think the poured or dripped
aspect suggested to many people a lack of control. It lacked the kind of
touch or personality of an artist's brush work. And it suggested an
infatuation with chaos or accident.
GROSS: Well, do you see Jackson Pollock's paintings as being involved with
chance processes, or do you think that, finally, there's a sense of order
that he, as the painter, brings to the canvas?
Mr. VARNEDOE: The more I look at Pollock's canvases, the more I'm impressed
with the sense of control that he had over what he did. He did like the sense
of dynamism and spontaneity. He liked to see the effect of paint as it fell.
And every time he would make a mark, he would then respond to that mark. So
if there was an accident or an occurrence that he didn't like on the canvas,
he would tend to paint over it. These pictures are generally done in layers.
And each layer would respond to, adjust, correct, cover over the previous
layer in selective fashion.
He had the kind of control which is not planned. It's not like he's a
strategic artist, but like a great athlete or like a ballet dancer. He had an
amazing feel for the movement of his body in the air for the medium that he
was using in which, though he was engaged in the act of painting and not
reflecting on it, he still had a fine degree of control between the thick and
the thin, the speed, the puddle, the splatter of the line that he was using.
And if you look at the paintings, you'll see that the so-called drip method or
pouring method is not one style; that he had to reinvent it on widely
differing scales so that the same gestures he made in the compass of a wrist
had to be reinvented to hold the sweep of an arm across a canvas 10 feet high.
And lines that were three inches thick at some point had to be recalibrated in
smaller works to be as fine as a hair. There's this constant sense of
reinvention and an enormous variety of expression in the work. So he was able
to control not only the palette and the color, but the feeling that the work
was aggressive or joyous, light and dancing or nebular and lush. There's a
broad range of effect in this work that suggests that he knew very strongly
the character of each picture as he worked on it and pulled that character
GROSS: Pollock liked to paint with a canvas on the floor, which is different
from the perspective painters usually use till that point, which is on an
easel or on the wall. What did it give him to be able to work on the floor?
Mr. VARNEDOE: You know, the first statement that he made about working on the
floor when he talked about the way he liked to work--he talked about the
resistance of pushing against a hard material instead of stretching a canvas
taut on a standard stretcher, the way a lot of artists do. He first worked
with it nailed to the wall. He liked resistance. He liked to push. And then
when he got it on the floor, he not only got to push against something hard as
he put the paint down on the canvas, he also got to work on it from all sides;
that he could walk around it; work the top, work the bottom, work the sides
and somehow feel that he was inside the canvas. Inevitably, when you set
something up on the wall, the connotation is like a window. It's something
you're looking into in a frame. But when the work is down on the floor, it's
a receiving ground. You have a different relationship with your body to the
work that you're making. And I think that his sense of liking to be in the
picture or over the picture to feel the work falling down on it and the
floorboards pushing back up was something that got him into working on the
The remarkable thing is that during the great period of the poured and dripped
paintings, it was precisely that sense of resistance or friction that he
seemed to like so much when he started working on hard surfaces, that he gave
up and internalized or sublimated into this choreography in the air just above
the canvas to let the material fall. So there's a kind of muscular tension
built into the way that he works, which is like a residue or a memory of his
push against the hard surfaces of the floor and the wall in his early work.
GROSS: So Pollock really works with gravity, in some respects.
Mr. VARNEDOE: Very much so. And, you know, I think when Pollock's works were
shown in 1967, they had the greatest impact on young sculptors precisely
because of the sense of gravity in his work. There was--there are many people
who felt that Pollock had, in a certain sense, pulled all the air out of the
room for painters; that his statement was so extreme that there was no way to
follow him without being merely an imitator. But for young sculptors in the
late '60s, seeing the Pollock retrospective in the context of an era then
dominated by hard-edged geometry and minimalism or the very sharp, bright
colors of pop, young artists like Richard Serra or Eva Hesse or Robert
Smithson felt that Pollock's work with gravity and his willingness to let
materials have their own form; to respond to the dynamic of the tarriness and
liquidity of black paint; to use silver paint; to let things fall, opened up a
whole body of installation sculpture; people who work worked with detritus
flung down on the ground, Richard Serra's thrown lead pieces; Robert
Smithson's poured asphalt pieces; the dialogue with the concrete materiality
of property. For a lot of Pollock's contemporaries, it was the subjective
spirit that seemed to be important. It was the psychological trauma that
seemed to be inherent in his work. But for artists of the late '60s, it was
the concrete materiality and, specifically, the relationship to gravity and
weight that was so impressive.
GROSS: What do you think Pollock's drip paintings represent in terms of a
conceptual breakthrough in art?
Mr. VARNEDOE: Well, like many moments in modern art, Pollock's breakthrough
in 1947, '48 had a tremendous destructive force. It seemed to eliminate many
things on which painting had traditionally depended. No standard composition,
even cubism, depended not--though it, obviously, rejected the idea of
imitation in the natural world, it still depended on a compositional
relationship of opposing masses. There was something in the picture about
balance and construction and structure. Pollock seemed to void all of that;
to get that out of there. He seemed to make the process almost take dominance
over the product. And he seemed to give up on any notion of art fulfilling a
plan. In fact, art seemed to be the result of a form of behavior in a way
that opened up into happenings; into performance art.
One of the things that's astonishing about Pollock and his legacy is that the
breakthrough he made and the kind of art he made seemed to feed or nurture
artists who produced work radically different in appearance from his own
work. So Pollock's breakthrough was to give a new sense of permission to a
lot of different artists.
GROSS: My guest is Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of the Painting and
Sculpture Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Ed Harris is starring in a new movie about Jackson Pollock. Let's
get back to our interview about Pollock's life and work with Kirk Varnedoe,
who curated in 1998 "Pollock Retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York and wrote a catalog essay.
I found it very interesting in reading the essay that, you know, until
Pollock started experimenting with the techniques that he originated, he
thought of his art as kind of derivative and unremarkable, and other people
thought of it that way as well.
Mr. VARNEDOE: Yeah. Pollock was no Mozart. I mean, it's really unusual.
He had a fixation from very early on as a teen-ager that he wanted to be an
artist. I think his older brother, Charles, who was about eight years
old--eight years older, had pursued a career in art. And I think that
Pollock, watching him leave home and establishing himself outside, got the
idea that this was a way to get out of his circumstances and this was
something he could be that would be different from what he had been as a
child. But he had no talent for it whatsoever. Charles had a certain amount
of talent. The brother closest to Jackson in age, Sandy, also pursued a
career in art. He was recognized as having a certain kind of talent.
Everybody looked at Pollock, in his brother's description, `If you'd seen
those drawings, you would have advised him to become a tennis player or a
plumber.' He just really was struggling.
And when he went to New York to study with Thomas Hart Benton, he was one of
the least facile of the draftsmen in Benton's classes; the most struggling;
the toughest in drawing. And he worked very, very hard; labored at it. But
somewhere this driving ambition to become an artist in the late '30s forced
Pollock face to face with Picasso. He just was determined that he was going
to beat the greatest artist in the world at his own game. And in order to do
that, he had to kind of swallow Picasso whole so that when he saw Picasso's
Guernica in New York and when he saw the great "Picasso Retrospective" at the
Modern in 1939, he completely absorbed--plunged himself into Picasso's
symbolism and picking up pieces from other artists as well, he began to hammer
together this style.
And when he first started showing in 1942, '43, the critics who walked into
the show said, `Oh, yeah. I see. There's this much Picasso. There's this
much Beckmann. There's a little Kandinsky. There's this much Maureau.' All
the sources were evident, and yet they all looked at the painting and said,
`Ooh, yes, but this guy is original.' This was a force. And I think you feel
it when you get those pictures grouped together again; that the way he put the
paint on canvas and, in fact, the very force of the struggle with the masters
he was trying to come to terms with is evident in the pictures and gives them
a kind of special authenticity.
GROSS: His breakthrough painting, I think, was the 1943 mural that he did for
Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector and gallery owner and heiress, I suppose.
What was the commission that she presented to him?
Mr. VARNEDOE: Well, Peggy Guggenheim had just opened a new gallery called
Art of This Century. She had moved to the US from Europe in light of the war.
And she brought with her a great collection of avant-garde art. And she had
the idea that she was going to mix her collection of European modernness with
showing younger American artists. And so she had advisers among curators in
New York. And they spotted Pollock as a talent. She signed Pollock to a
contract. And she scheduled him for a first monographic show in 1943. And in
that summer, in preparation for the show, she commissioned Pollock to paint a
big mural for the foyer of her apartment on the Upper East Side. And Marcel
Deschamps, who was very canny, said, `Don't let him do it on the wall because
you may move. Have him paint it on canvas.' So she commissioned an
18-foot-long canvas for--and about nine or 10-feet high for the foyer of her
apartment, in principle, to be finished in time for the show in November. And
Pollock didn't even have a room big enough to paint an 18-foot-long canvas, so
he and his wife, Lee, surreptitiously tore down a wall in their apartment and
took the drywall out in buckets at night so the landlord wouldn't know what
they were doing so they could open up a wall between two rooms large enough to
stretch this canvas.
And the accounts that we have suggest that the canvas stayed there, bare, all
during the summer. Pollock was working like a demon in August producing many
of the more moderate-sized pictures that went into the show in '43. But
apparently, by the time of November and the time of the exhibition, the big
mural was still unfinished. And there are even witness accounts of people
who went to dinner with Pollock just before Christmas who claim that there was
absolutely nothing on the canvas. And the story goes that Peggy Guggenheim
was having a party somewhere in mid-January and said, `OK. Either that mural
is on my wall or you are history. Get that thing done.' And according to
Lee Krasner, Pollock then sort of locks himself in the room and in one night
and day, in about a 15-hour session, rips this thing off.
It's a real sort of Paul Bunyan exploit story. And it sparks a certain amount
of cynicism, and yet when you look at the picture, there's clearly nothing
labored or premeditated about the picture. It has an enormous surge. It's
basically a kind of frieze of turbulent, stick-figure-type vectors that
stampede across these 18 feet of the canvas. And it's done with tremendous
brio. There's very little second thinking about it. There's no composition
under it. And it seems to have been done, if not exactly in those
circumstances, certainly in an all-out blitz of work of a tremendous
spontaneity that seems to untie every knot that's constricted together in all
the rest of Pollock's work at the time. It makes the rest of Pollock's work
at the time look comparatively stiff and packed and forced, whereas this
thing just lets loose a fantastic cavalcade of energy in a way that's very
premonitory of the large, later drip paintings.
GROSS: But he's not dripping yet.
Mr. VARNEDOE: No. This is all done with a brush.
GROSS: We'll hear more of our interview with Museum of Modern Art curator
Kirk Varnedoe in the second half of the show.
Ed Harris' new movie, "Pollock," opened today in New York and Los Angeles and
opens nationally in February.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more on the life and work of Jackson Pollock.
Also, we remember actor Werner Klemperer, who played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's
Heroes." He died last week.
And Henry Sheehan reviews the new animated comedy, "The Emperor's New Groove."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Ed Harris is starring in a new movie about the life of artist Jackson Pollock.
Let's get back to our interview about Pollock's life and work with Kirk
Varnedoe. He was the lead curator of the 1998 Jackson Pollock retrospective
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also wrote an essay in the
catalogue published by the museum. When we left off, we were talking about
Pollock's breakthrough painting, a mural commissioned in 1944 by Peggy
Guggenheim for the hallway of her town house.
So he does this mural for Peggy Guggenheim, a couple of years later, moves to
East Hampton, Long Island, which is, you know, beautiful, kind of rural area
in the outer part of Long Island. Why did he and his wife Lee Krasner move
Mr. VARNEDOE: Well, Lee Krasner was four years older than Jackson and she had
met him around 1942 and she saw that he had a lot of troubles, and that those
troubles were closely tied up with alcohol. And I think that she felt--she
certainly had a strong vision of his potential as an artist; she was very
convinced that he was a great talent. And they had gone out for the summer to
visit friends in the Hamptons, and she saw that he was much more at ease in
nature and that being away from the city did him a lot of good. She had the
very strong idea that if they moved there, he'd be able to concentrate on
his art better and their life would be simpler because he would be away from
his cronies in the city and away from the bars.
So she put down the ultimatum that they get married because she, for one
thing, didn't think that outside the city, cohabitation without marriage would
be so favorably looked on by the villagers around East Hampton. And they
bought a small 19th-century farmhouse with a little barn right in this area
called the Springs, in the East Hampton village. And they had no automobile;
they had a bicycle and they walked for the first couple of years they were out
there. And this was not the Hamptons of today; this was truly isolated. It
was a long way out.
And Pollock had now contact with the ocean. He said that he thought the vast
span of the Atlantic Ocean was the only East Coast equivalent for the spaces
that he'd grown up with as a child in the West. And you see right away that
the two series that he painted in 1946, the first year that he's really fully
painting out there, are titled the "Accabonac Creek" series, which is right
after the small stream that runs by their property. And the other one was
called "The Sounds in the Grass" series and both of them are evocative of his
new closeness to nature. So it's the distance from the bars, in some sense,
and the closeness to nature on the other, and just the sheer isolation and
focus, which I think had a crucial role in promoting the advance of Pollock's
art in that period.
GROSS: He set up his studio in a little barn, which you describe as really
being more of the size of a tool shed. You've been in that barn. What was it
like to be in there? And what was surprising about the experience of being
Mr. VARNEDOE: I really thought that one of the cores of my experience in
doing the show and my feeling about Pollock was the moment when I stepped up,
and it's almost like going onto a stage because he moved this little barn and
put in a new floor. So we actually step up a foot or so onto the floor that
he painted on. And the floor is still the same. When Pollock got a little
money at the end of his life, he put insulation on this barn and white
wallboard, and then Lee Krasner used it as a studio and put up lights. But
you have to imagine it as it was when Pollock first worked in it: bare
boards; the wind whistled through; you could see through the boards to the
outside. He had no electricity in it; he could only paint in the daytime, and
he really could only paint in good weather. He couldn't use it all winter.
The astonishing thing about the space, however, is how incredibly small it is.
If you're used to the large paintings that we see regularly in New York, the
big "One, Number 31," 1950, that the Museum of Modern Art owns or "Autumn
Rhythm," which the Metropolitan owns, these things are colossal and they seem
to have a vast, expansive space. And you suddenly find yourself in this
closet and the feeling first is, `No, I just don't believe it. These canvases
couldn't fit.' And then you take the tape measure out and you see that,
indeed, when he put them on the floor they nearly touched both walls and left
him only a narrow zone to work in. And after you accept that physically they
fit, then you have to come to terms with how it is possible to imagine the
spaces that are in those paintings when you're physically in such a restricted
and small space.
We have a lot of photographs of Pollock working in this space, and they're
taken by Hans Namuth, a photographer of Pollock at work. And Namuth would
often get himself up into the rafters to take pictures of Pollock, looking
down at Pollock working on the canvases. And the photographs are very
deceptive. They would lead you to believe the space is like a New York loft.
Not at all. It's like a tiny New York closet in a way. And it's truly
striking to stand there and see how little distance Pollock could get from
these works. We're used to standing back 15, 20 feet, you know, and then
moving back further. This was a 21-foot square, this little room, and its
sides were stacked up with the canvases that he had already completed. So he
had even less working room, and all the pictures he had already made pressed
in from all sides around him.
It's an astonishing readjustment of the mind to stand in that space. And for
that very reason, in the exhibition at the Modern, we have recreated, to exact
scale and with old barn board, the studio, so that the visitors to the
exhibition can get precisely that shock of disjunction between the material
circumstances and the results.
GROSS: You write that Pollock had one great overpowering idea. It came to
him at the end of 1946, produced some of the most inexhaustible artworks of
the century over almost four years, and then was over as abruptly as it had
begun. What happened? Was he blocked? Was he tired of the style he had
Mr. VARNEDOE: The million-dollar question, in a certain sense, is why he
stopped. There are many contingent factors. Pollock, who had a problem with
alcoholism throughout his life was, in fact, sober from '48 to '50, partly
because of a doctor who prescribed tranquilizers for him and who he trusted.
And the doctor was killed in a car crash in the spring of '50. So when the
great tension came for Pollock's largest show of drip paintings in the fall of
'50, he had no fallback position. He started drinking again very strongly,
the show didn't sell, he got profoundly depressed and started drinking more,
and things began spiraling down. What's clear is that he was unwilling to
repeat himself. But having to risen to a certain summit on this motif and
this way of painting, that, though they were still in demand, he was unwilling
to go back, he wanted to find some new way. And he simply never found himself
again as strongly.
GROSS: Now the problems that he had with depression and alcoholism, those
were problems that originated when he was much younger.
Mr. VARNEDOE: He started drinking when he was 15 and it was clear that he had
no tolerance for it, that he was very weak for it. And he clearly had
emotional disturbances. He was a pugnacious youth. He slugged a couple of
instructors in grade school and high school; he was thrown out of high school
a couple of times. He clearly had a real problem with authority and
discipline, even though he sought out fatherlike mentors in Benton and
Graham(ph) and the other instructors that he had in art. He had a real social
problem and he had a drinking problem and the two of them linked together, and
it's very hard now to know, psychoanalytically, what the roots of these issues
were for him.
GROSS: Describe how Pollock died.
Mr. VARNEDOE: Pollock, at the end of his life, had been drinking a great,
great deal. He had split up with his wife, more or less, Lee Krasner; they
were on very bad terms. Lee had gone to Europe in the summer of '56 and a
girlfriend that Pollock had met in a bar in New York came out to the Hamptons
to visit on Saturday, August 11th, 1956, and she brought a friend of hers with
her. Pollock drank all afternoon and they started driving at night. They
were driving towards Pollock's house and Pollock was driving too fast. The
friend of the girlfriend started shrieking, `Let me out of the car!' That
goaded Pollock to drive faster. He flipped his Oldsmobile convertible and his
girlfriend survived, but her friend was crushed beneath the car. And Pollock
was thrown out of the car and hit a tree and died instantly.
GROSS: How do you think his early death affected his reputation and his
Mr. VARNEDOE: I think that the market for New York art was poised to
accelerate anyway. The late '50s were a period of time for enormous expansion
for American culture and the world in general. And prices started going up
sharply. But Pollock's death and the rarity that introduced into his work
obviously boosted his prices enormously, as this general wave happened in the
late '50s. And I think that it's clear that he was not headed in a good
direction when he died. And the fact that the life was snuffed out and
stopped short gave it a kind of tragic wholeness that made it mythic in the
eyes and in the minds of many people; made it--confirmed his role in the
popular imagination as a tragic rebel. And that can't have hurt.
On the other hand, I think it was great art. It always was great art that he
produced. It's proved to be, over the years, fabulous and terrific art. And
the art transcends whatever myth surrounds it, I believe.
GROSS: Now you spoke a little bit earlier about how you think Pollock's
paintings influenced other painters and other sculptors. I'm wondering about
how you think his life influenced younger artists, younger artists who were
always trying to live up to their role models and copy them.
Mr. VARNEDOE: You know, I think Pollock's life is one of those things that
people like to dream about but not imitate. Almost immediately after Pollock
died, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you got the model of Jasper Johns or,
then, Andy Warhol--much more detached from the work. Warhol's model of an
artist: building a career, in a certain sense; living in the city; being hip,
being urban, being ironic, being detached; the sense of burning yourself up
for your art, which was a kind of ideal of Pollock's generation, a beat
generation idea of authenticity gained by spurning the world and plunging into
the work. That's not an ideal that was very attractive to artists in the '60s
who wanted something a little more distant, a little more cerebral or more
ironic. And I think that the sort of romanticized Pollock, the Bohemian
tragic Pollock, has not been the kind of thing very many artists have been
willing to model their actual working life after.
GROSS: Now how do you think critical evaluations of him have changed over the
Mr. VARNEDOE: I think in the 1950s and even afterwards, one tended to look at
Pollock's art as a kind of direct extension of his life; that you had a
turbulent turmoil of a life that realized itself in an angst-filled,
storm-tossed set of pictures. And yet now when we look back at these
pictures, we see that they're elements of real lyricism and beautiful,
delicate, decorate properties in these pictures that are absolutely the
opposite of the macho bar fighter that everybody presumed earlier.
Similarly, I think people looked at the pictures earlier as the representation
of the kind of fragmentation of the Atomic Age, of a kind of alienation or
apocalyptic energy, whereas now one can see them as suffused with a kind of
romanticism. I think that, over the years, we've come to deal more with the
pictures themselves as a life lived on canvas independent of or separate from
the life that the man lived and related to its time, but also larger than
that. And we're still in the process of understanding these pictures.
GROSS: Kirk Varnedoe is chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum
of Modern Art in New York. We spoke in 1998 when Varnedoe organized a
retrospective of Jackson Pollock's work.
A new movie about Pollock, starring Ed Harris, opened today in New York and
Los Angeles and opens nationally in February.
Coming up, we remember Werner Klemperer, who played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's
Heroes." He died last week.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Werner Klemperer discusses his acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're going to remember actor Werner Klemperer. He died last week at the age
of 80. Klemperer starred in "Hogan's Heroes," the World War II sitcom set at
a German prisoner of war camp. Klemperer played the incompetent camp
commander, Colonel Klink. He was nominated for an Emmy during each year of
the series' run from 1965 to '71. He won two Emmys. He was born in Germany
in 1920, fled the Nazis with his family in 1933, and eventually settled in Los
Angeles. Klemperer's father was the famous conductor Otto Klemperer, who was
I spoke with Werner Klemperer in 1987 when he was starring with Joel Grey in a
revival of "Cabaret" set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. Klemperer
played the Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz. I ask him if audiences who knew
him as Colonel Klink would be surprised by his performance in "Cabaret."
(Soundbite from 1987 FRESH AIR interview)
Mr. WERNER KLEMPERER (Actor): Well, I think I certainly am showing a
different side of me as opposed to Colonel Klink in "Hogan's Heroes." And in
some ways, a different side of me with some of the rather harsh and villainous
parts I've played, but I don't think it's something that's that foreign to me.
It's a great joy to do it because the part is truly sympathetic and an actor
always loves to do that. And also, I had a chance to sing, which is not my
specialty, although I've done a little of it, and for me to have an
opportunity to work on Broadway also singing meant something to me.
GROSS: I really enjoyed your singing very much, and you seemed to really sing
from the heart, and I also...
Mr. KLEMPERER: That's so nice of you to say, because I have great--you know,
I don't feel very secure about that part of my work because that's not, you
know, what I've done so much, and I'm glad to hear when somebody tells me it
GROSS: You lived in Germany during the period that "Cabaret" is set, and your
family fled Germany after Hitler was elected chancellor. Is this a very
personal role for you?
Mr. KLEMPERER: I give you one example, and that might make it clear to you.
In this show, as you'll remember, in the last scene that I'm involved in, when
I say goodbye to the younger couple and tell them that I am moving from one
apartment to another to be further away from Fraulein Schneider, the woman
that has decided not to marry me, I mention the name of a place, a square in
Berlin where this apartment is that I'm going to. Well, I hate to tell you
this, but it's the truth. Our family lived 200 yards away from that place,
and every time I have to say that name of that place, I have shivers up and
down my spine, because I had to go through that square to go to school every
morning. I went to grammar school at that time, so that brings everything
very much into focus for me.
GROSS: Do you have memories of Hitler coming to power? Do you remember what
it felt like?
Mr. KLEMPERER: Yes. I have memories of a child about the excitement of the
city, about some of the young SA men running around the street throwing bricks
into Jewish stores and creating turmoil everywhere, and the police having
fights with them, and that sort of thing. I have those kind of images, but
nothing more than that, really.
GROSS: So you were really very young when your family fled the country and
you couldn't really understand the political ramifications and the religious
ramifications of what was happening.
Mr. KLEMPERER: Well, I understood it to some degree, because my father and
mother made sure that we children were kept somewhat knowledgeable about what
was happening, but I didn't really realize the heaviness of the situation.
The interesting part is, you know, that many of our friends and acquaintances,
many of the Jewish faith didn't think, as many German Jews, did not think that
this was going to last. This was going to be a passing phase, as the
character that I play says. And they just sort of put blinders on and said,
`This is ridiculous. There'll be another regime soon and everything will be
fine and I must stay with my country,' and of course, the rest is history.
GROSS: So you and your family moved to Los Angeles.
Mr. KLEMPERER: Well, eventually. We were in Vienna, Austria, for a couple of
years, but then we moved to Los Angeles because my dad was offered the post of
the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
GROSS: I'm listening to your voice and you don't really sound like you have
much of a German accent. I guess you moved young enough to...
Mr. KLEMPERER: Well, I work--it depends on how I concentrate. Now I'm
not--I'm reasonably relaxed with you, and I am trying to just speak as
straight as I can. There are times when it creeps in more. There are other
times when I can lose it completely if I really have to force myself.
GROSS: For a man with a German accent, were your roles at the beginning of
your career limited...
Mr. KLEMPERER: Stereotyped.
GROSS: Stereotyped, yeah.
Mr. KLEMPERER: But then it changed. And also, you have to remember, if
you--in this business, particularly in the motion picture and film industry,
if you have an accent, they give you foreign roles, not necessarily of one
country, and you just change a little bit, change the accent a little bit, so
I could play--I've played Frenchmen. I've played villains in almost any
country you want to think of. You know, before "Hogan's Heroes," I used to be
a heavy a lot in television. Nobody knew my name, but I played heavies all
over the place.
GROSS: When you were first offered the role of Colonel Klink...
Mr. KLEMPERER: Yes.
GROSS: ...in "Hogan's Heroes," what did you think of this idea for a TV
series, a sitcom about a German prisoner of war camp?
Mr. KLEMPERER: Well, the rea--no, no, no, no, let me explain to you. When I
was offered this role, I wasn't offered it in the first place. I was just
called to meet with the producer, and my agent--I'll never forget this if I
live to be a thousand years old--called me up and said, `Werner, I have an
interview for you for a half-hour show in which they are looking for the
commandant of a POW camp in World War II.' I said, `Fine.' That's all he
said. He never mentioned comedy. He just--and I'd been playing some of those
kind of roles straight and serious.
So I went to the interview, met the producer, sat down and talked to him, and
he said, `You know, this is a comedy,' and I thought for a minute the guy was,
you know, kidding me. And then he shoved some pieces of paper in front of me
that was a couple of scenes that had been written already for the pilot. I
looked at it and it began to look quite clever, and I began to be more
interested. The material was very persuasive because it was very cleverly
done, and it was very satirical and it appealed to me. I made one--when they
offered me the role, I made one stipulation to the producer. I said, `If, in
any of the segments, the character of Colonel Klink wins out in the end, I
will not be with this show anymore.' And that was the end of that. He never
won out anyway. That wasn't written that way.
GROSS: Werner Klemperer, recorded in 1987. He died last week at the age of
Coming up, Henry Sheehan reviews the new animated film "The Emperor's New
Groove." This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New Disney film "The Emperor's New Groove"
TERRY GROSS, host:
"The Emperor's New Groove" is a new animated comedy from Disney. It features
the voices of David Spade, Eartha Kitt and John Goodman. Film critic Henry
Sheehan has a review.
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
For an industry that prides itself on providing light entertainment, modern
Hollywood certainly does a crummy job producing it. Hardly a comedy comes by
that doesn't spend most of its time poking the audience in the ribs, asking
the nagging question: Are we having fun yet? Disney's animated feature "The
Emperor's New Groove" is a happy exception. This story of an obnoxious young
Incan emperor who is magically transformed into a llama sets out with a sly,
winking tone and hikes its way to belly laugh territory. It takes the
potentially off-putting sarcastic humor of David Spade, who provides the
emperor's voice, and makes it into something more than the defensive vitriol
of a weakling. Emperor Kuzco is so focused on himself that he doesn't even
notice when the people he's needling turn him into a four-footed beast.
This transformation occurs in his luxurious palace in the quarters of his
former adviser, the aged Yzma, who is voiced by the vocally awesome Eartha
Kitt. Kuzco has fired Yzma and she, along with her dumb but loyal hunk of a
bodyguard Kronk, has decided to poison the emperor at an intimate farewell
(Soundbite from "The Emperor's New Groove")
Ms. EARTHA KITT: (As Yzma) A toast to the emperor. Long live Kuzco!
Unidentified Man: Don't drink the water. (Clears throat)
(Soundbite of drinking)
Mr. DAVID SPADE: (As Emperor Kuzco) Ahh, tasty!
Ms. KITT: Finally! Good work, Kronk.
Mr. PATRICK WARBURTON: (As Kronk) Oh, they're so easy to make. I'll get you
Ms. KITT: Now to get rid of the body.
Mr. SPADE: OK. What were we saying?
Ms. KITT: Ahh, ahh, we were just making a toast to your long and ha--healthy
Mr. SPADE: Right. So what are you gonna do? I mean, you've been around here
a long time and--I really mean a long time. Umm...
Ms. KITT: Ahem.
Mr. SPADE: I mean, it might be difficult for someone of your age adjusting to
life in the private sector. Hey, Kronk, can you top me off, pal? Be a
SHEEHAN: As you can hear, the movie thrives on chaos. The animators have
also brewed up an eclectic mixture of animation styles. On one level, "The
Emperor's New Groove" is a typical Disney film. The emperor's palace is huge
and labyrinthine in the interiors and looming in its exterior. And when Kuzco
lands in the middle of a pack of hungry jaguars, the ensuing action with its
flashing blacks and reds is yet another manifestation of the studio's
brilliance with color.
The dialogue is also familiar from contemporary Disney films. It's all
wisecracks, heavy on the anachronisms and spun by Spade's brand of caustic
humor. This works often, but not always, and if the movie has a weakness,
it's in the relentlessly showbizzy chatter.
But if the backdrops, color and talk are pure Disney, the characters and the
action are inspired by a wholly unexpected quarter: the Warner Bros.
animation style, and in particular the work of Chuck Jones. Even unpracticed
eyes can see Jones' influence. Yzma, for example, looks like the older sister
of The Grinch from Jones' classic holiday animation. In typical Jones style,
Yzma is a victim of her own personality. She'd like to be evil, but she
doesn't quite have the chops or the shape for it. She cradles her cocked head
in a hand of long, bony fingers, casts her eyes heavenward in thought and
comes up with a complicated plan, but those plans turn out to be so
complicated that the Road Runner--excuse me--Kuzco gets away time and again.
Kronk, the hunk of naive muscle who gets his voice from Patrick Warburton, is
the funniest character in the movie and another example of the Jones
influence. In his Warner days, Jones used to create some dog characters with
bulky torsos and tiny legs. Their personalities matched their physiology:
large masses of potential violence, which were supported by dainty affections.
Kronk is exactly the same shape and, though he's the biggest, strongest
character in the movie, he never once uses that strength against another
person. And when he moves, he doesn't stride, but almost tiptoes, even if
it's tiptoeing with jackhammer speed.
Director Mark Dindal blends the disparate styles into a seamless, cohesive
whole that never draws attention to itself. That's the mark of real
entertainers. They only want the act and never the sweat to show, but that
doesn't mean they aren't clever, and it doesn't mean they haven't sweated the
details. We can take "The Emperor's New Groove" lightly because Dindal and
company took it so much to heart.
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for The Orange County Register.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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