Jason Polan, fast-drawing artist of the offbeat, dies at 37

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Jason Polan, fast-drawing artist of the offbeat, dies at 37
Man at Lenwich on Second Avenue and 77th Street, December 15, 2019.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Jason Polan, an incessant sketcher whose eclectic drawings and art projects — one was called “The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book” — made him one of the quirkiest and most prolific denizens of the New York art scene, died on Monday in New York. He was 37.

His family said the cause was cancer.

Polan’s signature project for the last decade or so was “Every Person in New York,” in which he set himself the admittedly impossible task of drawing everyone in New York City. He kept a robust blog of those sketches, and by the time he published a book of that title in 2015 — which he envisioned as Vol. 1 — he had drawn more than 30,000 people.

These were not sit-for-a-portrait-style drawings. They were quick sketches of people who often didn’t know they were being sketched, done on the fly, with delightfully unfinished results, as Polan wrote in the book’s introduction.

“If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple,” he wrote. “If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that had been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg — it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.”

Polan’s other creations included the Taco Bell Drawing Club, a loose group that initially consisted of anyone who joined Polan, who lived in Manhattan, at a Taco Bell outlet off Union Square and drew something. As the group expanded, any Taco Bell would do for club gatherings.

“If I am out of town,” he told The New York Times in 2014, “I will try to have meetings wherever I am. Luckily, there are a lot of Taco Bells.”

Polan’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries.

“Polan has managed to strike a curious balance between the fleeting and the iconic, the famous and the pedestrian, the glitzy and the mundane,” Dave Delcambre wrote in Indy Weekly, reviewing a 2009 exhibition at the Lump gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina. “His most significant accomplishment is that he has taken seemingly random things from everyday life, internalized them and made them into something highly personal.”

Jason Daniel Polan was born on July 17, 1982, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father, Jesse, was in real estate development, and his mother, Jane Gordon Polan, did volunteer work.

Polan grew up in Franklin, Michigan, and attended the University of Michigan, earning a dual degree in anthropology and art and design in 2004. Fritz Swanson, a lecturer in the English Department there, met him when Polan was in his freshman composition class; the two found they had similar tastes not only in literature but also in comic books and illustration work, and they became fast friends.

“Once, we were talking about art; Jason was still in school at the time,” Swanson said by email. “He and I were struggling with how other students did or didn’t care about things we thought were obviously important. Jason said: ‘It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.’ Jason wanted people to see things; he wanted to call your attention to what he saw, and how he saw it.”

Polan moved to New York after graduating. He was a particular fan of the Museum of Modern Art and, he said, came up with the idea of drawing every piece of art a museumgoer might see in hopes that the effort might somehow get him a job there. It didn’t, but his self-published book of the drawings earned a following.

Polan’s work also appeared in numerous publications, including The Times. For some months he drew a series for the paper’s Opinionator blog that was titled simply “Things I Saw” — a seam ripper in a tailor’s shop, four boxes piled on Wooster Street in Manhattan, an ear of corn in a Michigan cornfield.

In 2011 he had his first solo show in New York, at the Nicholas Robinson Gallery in Chelsea. It included a Ping-Pong table on which he had drawn animals.

“Also in the show, until the end of June, is Polan himself,” Roberta Smith wrote in her review in The Times, “working at a big table stacked with books and magazines that provide source material — existing images being another subject. He is adding drawings — and also small clay sculptures — to the show as they are made and is available for Ping-Pong or conversation. Relational aesthetics, if you want to call it that, has rarely seemed more charming, direct and user friendly.”

For the “Every Person in New York” project, Polan would sometimes post his itinerary for people who might want to be sketched. (“I will be on the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue on the northeast corner of the street from 2:42-2:44 p.m. this Thursday wearing a bright yellow jacket and navy rubber boots.”) He also invited interested subjects to email him with a location where they intended to remain stationary for two minutes.

Plenty of others, though, were unaware that they were being drawn.

“At its heart, Jason’s ‘Every Person in New York’ project was an exercise in optimism and inclusivity,” Jen Bekman, founder of the online gallery 20x200, which represented him, said by email.

“It suggested that he could capture everyone, and he pursued that goal earnestly and indefatigably for many, many years. He had a sharp eye for celebrities, and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of who’s who in every social sphere imaginable, but he also made celebrities out of everyday people with a few deft strokes of his Uni-ball pen.”

Polan is survived by his parents and a sister, Jamie MacDonald. Another sister, Jennifer, died in 2000.

The Taco Bell Drawing Club earned Polan almost as much attention as the “Every Person in New York” project did. The club wasn’t so much about producing great art as it was about finding a meditative, observational moment in a busy city.

Many of those who showed up to spend a few minutes drawing with Polan acknowledged that they had no particular artistic ability. Some would bring an object to draw, others would just take their subject from what was at hand.

“A lot of people draw what they eat,” Polan told The New Yorker in 2018. “We get a lot of drawings of burritos.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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