Jackson Pollock, whose paintings are still divisive within the art community to this day, died in an automobile crash in 1956. According to the official story, he had been intoxicated and angry that two of his girlfriends—both of whom were around half his age and in the car with him when he died—had wanted to attend a party that he did not.
“You want to go to this party?” he allegedly said. “How about this?” he asked before speeding and failing to make a turn on Springs-Fireplace Road in East Hampton, a mistake that proved to be fatal.
For obvious reasons, Pollock’s lifestyle was just as controversial as his abstract paintings. A new theory suggests that his poor choices were influenced by a cult called the Sullivanians, who advocated excessive drinking and sexual libertinism.
Who Were the Sullivanians, and How Was Jackson Pollock Affiliated With Them?
The Sullivanians’ New York, revisited. https://t.co/LCQAE4Xinc— New York Magazine (@NYMag) July 8, 2023
Prior to his death, Pollock—a lifelong alcoholic—had been on a sober streak for years. Due to his ongoing mental health issues, however, he was encouraged by art critic and fellow alcoholic Clement Greenberg to seek therapy from the Sullivan Institute, based on the Upper West Side of New York City.
The Sullivan Institute, led by married psychotherapists Saul Newton and Jane Pearce, fronted as a psychoanalysis research institute, though in reality, it was a cult that encouraged its members to delve into alcoholism, have affairs, and leave their children. Its influence on Pollock was apparent in his abuse of his wife, painter Lee Krasner.
“[The Sullivanians] gave you permission to indulge yourself in anything that made you feel good,” said art historian and friend of Krasner, Barbara Rose.
“You drive and drink, don’t worry about it. Lee was very angry, and she didn’t want him to see [the Sullivanians], but Pollock was very happy.
“And then they said, do you like young girls? And they’re beautiful and your wife is old and she’s ugly. Go after the young girl.”
What Became of the Sullivanians?
Jackson Pollock, born 102 years ago today, on art, labels, and mortality – rare interview shortly before his death http://t.co/F01RmRYq8K— Maria Popova (@brainpicker) January 28, 2014
For a time, the Sullivanians were a prominent cult amongst the socially elite in New York City. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they caught the attention of the press, who dubbed them a “psychotherapy cult.” As a result, membership swiftly began to decline.
Co-founder Saul Newton died from sepsis in 1991, and the cult more or less died with him. Their story can be read about in the new book The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille. The book goes into greater detail on the influence that the cult had on Jackson Pollock.