A New Wave of Appreciation for the Man Who Drew New York

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A somber gathering of artists and illustrators took place at a gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan on a recent Friday evening. They were there for a Wright auction preview of the drawings and personal belongings of Jason Polan, the celebrated New York street artist who died of cancer at 37 in 2020.

The auction, “I Want to Know All of You: The Art & Collection of Jason Polan,” is part of a new initiative to preserve his legacy, but as the night carried on, Mr. Polan’s friends seemed content just to be in the presence of objects that let them feel closer to him.

A few guests wiped away tears as they looked at his impressionist sketches of city life. They included scenes of a hot dog vendor on Broadway, a woman carrying balloons on Canal Street and the fashion influencer Derek Blasberg ambling down Greene Street.

Armed with a Uniball pen and a Strathmore sketchpad, Mr. Polan chronicled the life of the city with an observational hunger that earned him the status of a doodling New York folk hero.

After moving from the suburbs of Michigan to Manhattan at 22, Mr. Polan developed a style that fed off the metropolis’s chaos. He spent his days on street corners and in subway stations conjuring his vignettes. He became known for his quixotic project, “Every Person in New York,” in which he attempted to capture each and every city dweller, resulting in a 2015 book that included a foreword by Kristen Wiig (who was one of his subjects).

“I am trying to draw every person in New York,” Mr. Polan wrote in the project’s blog. “It is possible that I will draw you without you knowing it.” He ended the mission statement by noting: “When the project is completed we will all have a get together.”

Mr. Polan’s inclusive ethos was encapsulated in the Taco Bell Drawing Club, in which he invited anyone to join him at a Taco Bell near Union Square to illustrate with him on Wednesdays. He also enjoyed commercial success, collaborating with brands like Uniqlo, Warby Parker and the Criterion Collection, and he had a visual column, “Things I Saw,” for The New York Times’s Opinionator blog.

That night at the gallery, the writer Emma Straub studied a pencil once held by Mr. Polan. The creative director Jen Snow reminisced about working with him to design postcards for Russ & Daughters Cafe. And the artist Richard McGuire said that Mr. Polan had shared a “similar spirit” with Keith Haring.

“Like Keith, it wasn’t about creating some precious art object for Jason,” he said. “It was about getting his art out into the world.”

Rich Jacobs, a close friend, said that Mr. Polan had dreamed of seeing his drawings at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Jason always had an ambition to have something in the MoMA’s permanent collection,” Mr. Jacobs said. “The style of his drawings probably didn’t help him in the uptight art world, but his work deserves to be there.”

Jen Bekman, the founder of the online gallery 20×200, reflected on Mr. Polan’s legacy while she sat beside his sketches.

“These are not doodles,” Ms. Bekman said. “That word is diminishing. People remember him as an illustrator, but Jason was a great artist, and his practice was his life.”

“There’s an inherent tension now about preserving his legacy, because people love his work for its accessibility, but Jason also took himself very seriously as an artist,” she continued. “He was humble, so it would have been hard for him to make his wishes known, and his illness happened fast. The missing puzzle piece of what Jason might have wanted is hard for me, but if there’s no effort to support his legacy, he’ll fade away.”

In the coming weeks, the rest of the initiative to preserve Mr. Polan’s legacy will unfold. In addition to the Wright auction — which was scheduled to take place on Friday — the New York Public Library is in final discussions to acquire hundreds of Mr. Polan’s sketchbooks for its permanent collection. Printed Matter’s New York Art Book Fair will bestow its inaugural Jason Polan award. And the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., is planning to acquire some of his belongings.

But handling the legacy of an artist who died young is a fraught endeavor. And while Mr. Polan received recognition during his lifetime, he died half a year after his colon cancer diagnosis.

Lauri London Freedman, a former head of product development of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is the acting director of the newly formed Jason Polan L.L.C. (She is now the director of creative partnerships for New York University).

“We have endless gratitude for the veneration Jason’s work received in his lifetime, but in the world of capital-A art, accessibility can be interpreted as simplicity, and Jason’s practice was anything but simple,” Ms. Freedman said. “It’s up to all of us who were left behind to give people the chance to take a second look.”

After Mr. Polan died in 2020, his father, Jesse, started the process of clearing out his son’s cluttered SoHo apartment, which was piled with heaps of his Strathmore sketchbooks. He drove his son’s belongings back to Franklin, Mich. There were about 1,800 boxes filled with the artist’s possessions.

His father died a year later, and Mr. Polan’s mother, Jane, began working with Ms. Freedman and a team of her son’s friends to sift through the boxes.

As the volunteer group — which included Stacey Baker, a former photo editor at The New York Times Magazine, and Fritz Swanson, a writing professor at the University of Michigan — made their way through the collection, they discovered piles of rejected New Yorker cartoons, childhood crayon drawings, rare comic books and dozens of paperback copies of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The final tally of sketchbooks numbered 769. While archiving them, the team studied the evolution of Mr. Polan’s style, from straightforward drawings of New Yorkers to increasingly sophisticated abstractions.

They also discovered countless examples of his serendipitous celebrity sketches: Jerry Seinfeld eating a pizza, Diane Keaton hailing a taxi, Lindsay Lohan on Spring Street. (A grandfather of Mr. Polan, Saul Turell, was a president of Janus Films and won an Academy Award for making the 1979 documentary short “Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist.”)

Jane Polan, who keeps her son’s drawings taped around her home, reflected on the initiative in a phone interview.

“I think Jason would have loved to be as famous as Keith Haring one day,” she said. “But he cared most of all about wanting his work to recognize the importance of all people. Jason wanted people to know that everyone he drew was special and of value.”

Last week, as part of her preparations for the legacy initiative’s rollout, Ms. Freedman navigated the New York Art Book Fair to judge the works of honorees for the first Jason Polan Award.

“I don’t know how Jason would have felt about judging,” Ms. Freedman mused. “Because it means by definition there’s a winner and a loser, and he didn’t really think about things that way.”

And on a recent evening, she visited a Manhattan Mini Storage facility in Chelsea, where Mr. Polan’s sketchbooks are temporarily being kept. She seemed preoccupied, burdened by the weight of dealing with a friend’s life and legacy. But as she started flipping through Mr. Polan’s sketchbooks, she brightened.

“He loved drawing these plants,” Ms. Freedman said, holding up a page. “Those little ones that grow out of city sidewalks.”

Then she considered a sketch of a bald man napping on a C train. Despite the bustle all around him, he seemed peaceful in his slumber.

“Jason wasn’t just looking at people,” she said. “He was seeing them.”



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