Jason Polan, artist of the everyday

Remembering the late artist's contagious delight in the visual world

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Advice on jumping off the deep end.

Jason Polan (1982–2020)

Looking back over this newsletter so far, I feel like I’ve been having a running argument with myself about to what extent any serious creative practice requires a certain degree of anxiety, selfishness, masochism, chronic dissatisfaction, and outright suffering—versus how much one should prioritize the equally important prerogatives of enthusiasm, inspiration, collaboration, serendipity, and good old plain fun.

One person who, it seems to me, embodied the latter approach was the artist Jason Polan, who died a year ago last week, and whose work his friends, collaborators, and admirers have been sharing on Instagram with the hashtags #WeLoveJasonPolan and #WorldsBiggestDrawingClub. (There is also a new Everything Jason Polan Instagram account, hosting work from his archive.)

I was lucky to know Jason a bit when I lived in New York, and though we weren’t close friends, I got to experience his almost tangible delight in the visual world all around him—in particular, the people teeming through New York City, riding the subway, rubbing shoulders at gallery and museum openings, or eating a solitary meal at Taco Bell.

To me, Jason always seemed excited—but not in a hyperactive, overcaffeinated, or performative way. His enthusiasm was native to his being, and it was counterbalanced by his essential gentleness and even shyness. He always said that he didn’t like people to know he was drawing them, and if someone gave him a weird or questioning look, he would immediately stop.

Most people didn’t notice him, however; when he was drawing, he had a way of fading into the background. But when you knew him, he had a way a making everything feel livelier and more open. He was the opposite of a tortured artist. A tortured artist does not start the Taco Bell Drawing Club, which is exactly what it sounds like, and which anyone was welcome to join, either by sitting with Jason at his favorite location near Union Square or by communing in spirit at whatever Taco Bell you found yourself in.

If Jason didn’t take himself too seriously, he did take his work seriously, dreaming up immensely challenging projects and then executing them, such as The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book, which, again, is exactly what it sounds like. His Every Person in New York project was dramatically more ambitious, to the point of impossibility—though it wasn’t a joke or a stunt. Jason really was going to see how many of his adopted hometown’s residents he could draw, adding to the project every day that he was in New York and posting new drawings to the project’s blog every night.

In ten years, Jason drew an estimated 50,000 people. On the blog, he wrote, “When the project is completed we will all have a get together,” and it was easy to imagine a 70- or 80-something Jason, looking more or less the same as ever, having a big party at his beloved MoMA to show off all the drawings he’d made in the preceding decades. Who knows how many New Yorkers he ultimately would have drawn? Somehow capturing all 8.5 million individuals did not seem impossible when Jason talked about it.


If you’re not familiar with Jason’s work, Jerry Saltz and Paola Antonelli wrote lovely tributes last year that are very much worth reading, and this video from WNYC is a good introduction to his process:

If you have your own memories of Jason, I’d love to read them:

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In last week’s newsletter, I offered advice to a new freelancer who feels like she’s jumping off the deep end. I also asked readers to add their own advice via an open discussion thread, and I’m really pleased and impressed by the quality of responses that came through; I even picked up some good tips for myself. Thanks to everyone who weighed in, and if you’d like to add more ideas, the thread is still open:

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