When Archives of American Art acting director Liza Kirwin invited me to be the guest curator of a show celebrating Jackson Pollock’s centenary, I jumped at the chance to dive into the original documents. The digitized collection is a fantastic resource, but there’s nothing like the real thing to take you into the artist’s world. One drawback, however: I live on eastern Long Island, and the documents are in Washington, D.C., quite a curatorial commute. But by traveling via the Internet to the material online, I was able to make a preliminary selection, so I knew what I was looking for when I got to the Archives and hit the boxes.
One file that caught my eye is labeled “Fan Mail to Pollock.” In it is a letter from a woman named Helen K. Sellers of Charleston, SC, written on August 8, 1949. That was the publication date of the now-famous Life magazine article on Pollock, headlined, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Mrs. Sellers wrote on behalf of her seven-year-old son, Manning, who loved one of the paintings in the color spread, the long canvas identified as Number Nine. (It’s now called Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, and it’s in the Tate Modern in London.) Manning asked her to tell Pollock that he’d put it in his scrapbook, “the first painting that he has ever cut out,” and that he wanted Pollock to have his picture in exchange—not a painting, but a photograph of him with his cocker spaniel, Snafu. I’ll bet Pollock never had a more heartfelt and sincere tribute. He kept the letter and the photo, and there they were, sixty-three years later, in the Fan Mail file.
Well, Manning may have fallen in love with Number Nine, but I fell in love with Manning and Snafu. Not only did I want the documents in the show, but I thought that Manning would like to know about it. Again thanks to the Internet I was able to track him down in Florida. He was surprised to hear from me, and thrilled to learn that his fan letter has survived—although Snafu has long since gone to that great dog park in the sky.
Helen A. Harrison is the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, New York.
“Memories Arrested in Space, a centennial tribute to Jackson Pollock from the Archives of American Art” will be on view from January 28–May 15 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.). Admission is free.