NEW YORK — Jeffrey Potter was an aspiring writer working as a building contractor in the Hamptons in 1949 when he developed a friendship with a gruff, taciturn neighbor who shared his passion for oversized machines like backhoes, bulldozers, dredgers and jacks big enough to lift a house from its foundations.
The neighbor was Jackson Pollock, the avatar of abstract expressionist painting who was sometimes described by art critics as a painter of the unconscious, or the subterranean. Pollock and his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, lived in the tiny Long Island village of Springs, near Potter’s home in Amagansett, until Pollock died in a car crash in 1956.
Potter, who was 94 when he died of pneumonia on Dec. 15 in a Southampton hospital, told friends he had spent years trying to write a novel based on the life of his brilliant and mysteriously inconsolable friend, but never felt able to capture the multitudes Pollock contained.
So the book he published instead in 1985, “To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock," was a collection of many narratives about Pollock: selections from hundreds of taped interviews Potter conducted with family members, friends, former friends and fellow artists, all of them trying in some way to describe the charismatic formlessness that defined him.
Potter’s was one of several biographies of Pollock published in the 1980s that served to revive interest in Pollock’s work — and helped set off a scramble in Hollywood to make a movie about this colorful and sometimes violent master of modern art.
Potter wrote other books, but “To a Violent Grave," which was his last, entangled him in an emotional and legal contest that lasted a decade.
Soon after its release, a production company representing Barbra Streisand and Robert De Niro bought the film rights. When the authors of another biography, “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga," which won a Pulitzer Prize, signed a competing deal in 1990 with another film company, Potter accused them of having plagiarized his work. The authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, sued Potter over the accusation.
The dispute dragged on for years. The movie that was finally released in 2000, “Pollock," starring and directed by Ed Harris, was made by the company aligned with the Naifeh-Smith book.
Even so, during filming of the movie, Potter met frequently with Harris to share his memories of Pollock as well as some of the notes he took for his novel.