New York

Samson Pollen, Contract Killer on Cemetery Hill, Stag Magazine, 1973, gouache, acrylic, and mixed media on illustration board, 16 × 25".

Samson Pollen, Contract Killer on Cemetery Hill, Stag Magazine, 1973, gouache, acrylic, and mixed media on illustration board, 16 × 25".

Samson Pollen

Pulp is the raw material used for manufacturing paper, making it the ideal substrate for the pulpy men’s magazines for which brush-for-hire Samson Pollen (1931–2018) created his lovely, lurid illustrations. All of the modestly scaled drawings (made of gouache, acrylic, and mixed media on board) in this exhibition invariably and redundantly featured slim, pretty, and big-breasted women: mass-produced femme fatales that likely countless men have fantasized about in masturbatory admiration.

Pollen’s female subjects are artificial dummies worthy of Madame Tussauds. From the psychoanalytic perspective of Melanie Klein, the men who are attracted to Pollen’s ladies are infantile and schizoid, for they are stuck with a simulacral woman, a partial object—the ostensibly “good breast,” per Klein, that is actually the “bad breast.”

The male consumer fetishists of Pollen’s midcentury tableaux were as interested in violence as they were in sex, as the savagery in many of his exhibited illustrations strongly suggests. Among the works were Contract Killer on Cemetery Hill, Stag Magazine and Split Open the Mafia’s Hillbilly Fortress, both 1973. In the former, a rugged, broad-shouldered diner cook, wielding a massive phallic meat cleaver, subdues the titular assassin, a greasy-looking gangster cliché in a black blazer and tinted aviator glasses. In the latter, a fulsome young lady—a kind of hard-boiled Elly May Clampett—appears to be the reward for the winner of the quasi-gladiatorial contest unfolding before her. Two manly hunks—one a backwoods brute, the other a more polished, urbane character—come at one another with pitchforks. Of course, the male viewer of this scene is invited to identify with this dueling pair, particularly with their lust-fueled aggression.

Do Pollen’s illustrations have any redeeming aesthetic value? Yes, a good deal, for they show a clear understanding of draftsmanship and perspective—sometimes a steep manneristic perspective—as we see in The Gun Them Down Bunch, 1974 (featured on the gallery’s website, not in the exhibition), which depicts a jailbreak, perhaps from a prison hospital, where a bloodied man, shooting at police, is being lowered to the ground by a rope from the window of a tall, imposing edifice, masterfully rendered at a sharp angle. Pollen also does a lot with a restricted color scheme—take the contrasting reds and blacks in Fight or Freeze in Murmansk, 1959 (again, only on the website), a moment of erotic intrigue set in an igloo. Pollen’s pictures are not exactly “low” or “high” art, but a kind of folk art rooted in the emotional life of a particular community—predominantly heterosexual and male—and, I may add, an age-old religion: the worship of women. Pollen’s females are not exactly Virgin Marys, but they are peculiarly virginal, seemingly untouched by the studs they’re surrounded by. They may be tempting, like the prostitute in The Man Who Hated Streetwalkers, 1958, but nowhere are they shown copulating with men. The halo of light from the streetlamp above the woman in this work is implicitly hers, a metaphysical sort of luminescence. And the post from which it emanates calls to mind the peculiar marble column in Parmigianino’s sensualized portrait of Christ’s mother, Madonna with the Long Neck, ca. 1534–40. The absurd space in Parmigianino’s painting reminds me of Pollen’s, and the Madonna, with her perversely distorted body and prominent firm breast, has a certain affinity with Pollen’s females. This might be a far-fetched, forced association, but my larger point is that repetitive profane “crowd art” and singular sacred “elite art” can share the same universal concern with sex.

Pollen’s illustrations—oddly surreal dramas of conflicting forms, figures, and spaces fraught with intense and unmanageable emotions parading as vulgar naive realism—are more sophisticated than they initially appear to be. They are artful and thoughtful, once one gets past their predictable sensationalism. They convey the fundamentality of sexuality and aggression by depicting it relentlessly, albeit from a particular perspective. They are not low art fancied up into high art, as Roy Lichtenstein’s clever appropriations of trash culture are. Pollen’s images are much more authentic than that—frighteningly perfect for an adolescent, sex-mad, and violent America.