The idea was simple: A) There is New York. B) There are people in New York. So, C) There could exist a total, whole and complete document of Every Person in New York.
Photos by Matthew Leifheit
Artist Jason Polan is trying to draw every person in New York City, and he’s failing.
Over six years ago, the idea formed in his head, and when it existed in the laboratory that sits between his ears, the concept was so simple, so clean, so utterly perfect in the way a circle drawn by some theoretical supercomputer is perfect. A) There is New York. B) There are people in New York. So, C) There could exist a total, whole and complete document of Every Person in New York.
But then, just after conception, the idea left his head and entered the world—as any art that ends up actually existing does—and became subject to the brutal elements of this sloppy place where drawing a perfect circle is, it turns out, inherently impossible. Suddenly, “Every Person in New York” was flawed, messy, ugly even.
Drawing by Jason Polan
Jason wouldn’t know if he was drawing residents, tourists or those just passing through. He could go door-to-door with piles of census data, but there’d still be plenty of people who existed off the grid, or people who moved here since the last data collection, or babies being born, or people dying, or some other factor that made New York a subject that just wouldn’t sit still. Any way he approached it, there would be countless tiny gaps in a portrait of the city, holes that would render the thing fatally incomplete. And even if Polan somehow disentangled this logistical puzzle, there was still the most glaring problem of all: He would have to draw something like 14 people an hour for 70 years to include “every person.”
In short, an idea was born in Jason Polan’s head perfect, and when exposed to the cruel inadequacies of existence, it turned unrecognizably imperfect, leaving Polan with just one way to restore the thing to its original state of immaculate beauty: Finish it.
And so, Polan walks the streets of New York City everyday with his pen and notepad, “failing.” He draws portrait after portrait after portrait, works on side projects (often at MOMA), and every so often, he organizes meetings of the Taco Bell Drawing Club (exactly what it sounds like) so that he can share his experience with others. He does it all with a smile on his face, never frustrated or defeated, totally comfortable playing a game that he full well knows is rigged. In fact, he seems happy just to be playing at all, proud to be playing as hard as he is.
It’s almost as if Polan has come to terms with what lies at the core of one of art’s great intrinsic dilemmas: The whole thing is, by its very nature, a sisyphean task. That is, in the context of all our constructions surrounding stuff like truth and representation, art is always an attempt at something impossible. It always fails. It’s never perfect because in order to exist, it must exist in the imperfect place we call “here.”
See, Polan could have created a portrait of New York the way most sane artists/documentarians probably would, selecting a diverse range of characters that are meant to “represent” the entire city. He could have drawn a handful of people from every borough, a handful of people of every race, a handful of people of every economic standing, and so on, stopping when he felt like the story was told. But while employing that tactic might have yielded a successful finished product, that product would always contain a misleading simplicity, a false neatness. It would have been an artistic document presenting itself as the real deal when, in some sense, it’s the consolation prize. It would have been the ever-practical seven colored rainbow posing as the entire color continuum.
Drawing by Jason Polan
Instead, Jason Polan indulges failure. He meanders around the super well-traveled intersection of art and mortality by meandering around NYC all day, reaching for the proverbial stars in earnest. He doesn’t gloss over or circumvent the impossibilities inherent in art. He makes them his subject.
Earlier in his career, Polan drew every kernel of popcorn in a microwave popcorn bag and called the project “An Entire Bag of Popcorn.” It’s the counterpoint to his city-sized magnum opus, in that the scope is so small, the task so goddamn doable. But even then, in what might be the most ridiculous of his many projects, Polan was making ambitious art about art. When he sat in his living room, meticulously organizing each kernel so as not to draw the same one twice or drop one on the floor, he was, consciously or not, conducting some strange artsy experiment by doing what any scientist worth his salt does: Examine the small to understand the big.
It’s no suprise that Polan always says MOMA is his favorite place in the whole wide world—at his core, he’s a fan. He’s the kind of guy capable of being in awe of art. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the sort of thing that gets hung on prestigious white walls or just some friend’s basement creation. If it’s something that has the gumption to fail and fail spectacularly, it’s good, and maybe, a little miraculous.Gideon Jacobs is the creative director of Magnum Photos, New York. He was an actor and now is a writer, soon to publish a book called Letters to My Imaginary Friends. Follow him on Twitter.