Stamp Out Smoking

Without a cigarette in the picture, is it really Jackson Pollock? Maybe not, but the U.S. Postal Service doesn't mind a little image adjustment.

February 20, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Saints and postage stamp figures have this much in common: Both must be deceased.

No chance, then, that American painter Jackson Pollock would have shown up at the U.S. Postal Service ceremony in Georgia on Thursday unveiling the 1940s installment of the "Celebrate the Century" stamp series, in which Pollock appears on a stamp commemorating Abstract Expressionism. It wouldn't have been his kind of party, anyway. No beer, no bourbon, no smoking.

Pollock drank and smoked a lot. He smoked so much that you have to flip through many photographs of him before you find one in which he's not smoking. The cigarette -- dangling from his fingertips or lips -- became as much an element of the Pollock persona as the blue jeans and denim jacket, the T-shirts, the rugged looks evocative of his roots in the American West. A native of Cody, Wyo., Pollock in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the art world's Marlboro Man.

This presents certain complications for a quasi-governmental agency such as the U.S. Postal Service honoring Pollock in the smoke-free, drug-free, 98 percent fat-free, child-friendly 1990s.

In August 1949, Pollock was introduced to America by a Life magazine photo essay, the opening photograph showing the artist standing in front of a horizontal scroll of a painting, the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lower lip, the crossed-arms pose suggesting sexy James Dean defiance. Fifty years later, he again enters the popular stream, this time by way of a postage stamp.

The stamp image is adapted from a black-and-white photograph Martha Holmes shot for the Life layout, showing Pollock hunkered down at work on a painting that would become "Number 1, 1949." The original background of the photograph has been cleaned up, removing the view of a corner of the barn studio in East Hampton, N.Y., and substituting a larger version of a painting that was leaning against the wall in the photo. And, oh, yes, the cigarette perched in the left corner of Pollock's mouth has been removed.

"It was an instruction to me: Remove the cigarette," says Howard Koslow, the free-lance illustrator who made seven of the 15 images in the 1940s stamps series.

Koslow, of Toms River, N.J., has done 33 stamps for the Postal Service since 1971 and has only nice things to say about his client. Koslow didn't question the art director's instructions, assuming that the change was made "to maintain the health situation."

Koslow recalled how a friend and fellow artist had been told to remove a cigarette from the mouth of bluesman Robert Johnson in adapting a photograph for a stamp issued in 1994. A cigarette was similarly plucked from the fingers of playwright Thornton Wilder in creating a stamp issued in 1997.

Koslow says the change in the Pollock photograph doesn't bother him, but says, "I know there are going to be purists who will say this is not what the man looked like."

Postal Service spokesman Don Smeraldi says Pollock -- who died at 44 in a 1956 drunken-driving accident -- was chosen about three years ago to represent Abstract Expressionism by the 13-member Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. He says Pollock was chosen as the most well-known member of a group of painters based in New York who came to dominate fine art in the late 1940s and through the 1950s.

As Smeraldi tells it, the question of removing the cigarette from the Pollock photograph was not a question at all. There's no written policy about it, he says. It's just understood.

"There could be people out there who could say the Postal Service is endorsing smoking" by publishing stamps with images of smokers. Besides, says Smeraldi, it's "not an essential element of the design."

Whether the ever-present cigarette is an essential element of the Pollock image is another question. Whether removing it constitutes misrepresentation is yet another.

"We recognize that there are some people that have concerns about it," says Smeraldi. In looking at future stamp designs, says Smeraldi, the service will take these objections into account.

"As a historian, it rubs me the wrong way," says Jay Gitlin, an associate professor of American history at Yale University. "It's editing of history, it's censorship."

The Postal Service is offering the stamp images as part of a history instruction kit for about 300,000 American classrooms, a "virtual field trip through the 20th Century," according to a press release.

A specialist in American social history, Gitlin says he believes smoking is less socially acceptable today than drinking alcohol was during Prohibition. As a result, efforts to push smoking to the cultural fringes are generally approved, especially among well-educated or affluent people.

In this political climate, says Marita Sturken, assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, "things are seen in very black-and-white terms. ... There's not much nuance on the question of whether representing something is endorsing it."

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