Sickened by capitalist opposition to the W.P.A.'s Federal Arts Project, Jackson Pollock produced what was arguably his greatest masterpiece. Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the forthcoming book, DREAM PALACE, fills us in on the details:
With the onset of World War II, the forces aligned against unfettered capitalism, dog-eat-dog individualism, and American imperialism--forces with which most Chelsea residents had traditionally sided--had fallen into disarray. American Socialists, Communists, and liberals had divided into bitterly-opposed pro- and anti-Soviet factions. Some Chelsea residents and guests, including Mary McCarthy, Nicholas Nabokov, Benjamin Stolberg, and James Farrell, were persuaded by such Soviet abuses as the show trials in Moscow to work with the U.S. government in opposition to the Communist cause--even to the point of writing for CIA-sponsored publications in many cases. Others, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and future resident Arthur Miller, continued to hope that the old American dream of social community and fairness could be resurrected from the ashes of the Soviet experiment.
But even as Chelsea (and other) intellectuals and artists tried to find a foothold in the new, post-WWII world order, American capitalists--with the help of well-intended government agencies that Chelsea idealist Herbert Croly had helped inspire--were consolidating their power to a stunning degree. Jackson Pollock found himself face-to-face with the reality of this new economic and political power at a Chelsea Hotel luncheon arranged by gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. During the Depression, Pollock had practically been rescued from starvation by the WPA's Federal Arts Project, which drew on the Chelsea-style Enlightenment tradition in treating artists, for the first time in America, as legitimate workers just as deserving of work and pay subsidies as construction workers, factory laborers, bureaucrats, and everyone else in society. Like Virgil Thomson, Joseph Losey, Paul Bowles, Arthur Miller, and other current or future Chelsea residents, Pollock had been able to develop his art free of the need to please individual patrons or consider the pressures of the marketplace. With $23.86 a week in their pockets, he and other FAP artists could afford the studio space, supplies, food, and whiskey required to move forward productively with their work.
Now, in 1943, however, Pollock found himself breaking bread with the wives and friends of the very capitalists who had forced Roosevelt to cut the Federal Arts Project in 1939--aided by conservative Republican Congressman and stockbroker John Parnell Thomas, who attacked the W.P.A. arts programs for providing "propaganda for Communism"--leaving artists again dependent on the passing whims and tastes of the wealthy for their survival.
Pollock's response to this situation was to drink too much at the luncheon until he vomited on the carpet, causing the other guests to instantly disperse (although one of them, Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, advised the hotel staff to cut out the square of carpet with Pollock's vomit on it and frame it, as it would likely prove an excellent investment someday). Other Chelsea residents and visitors, however, began to use the tools of their trade to identify the truths of American society in the face of a monolithic mainstream culture, thus undermining and attacking the means and methods of social control.