Jason Polan. Sculpture. December 2, 2009. Image courtesy the artist’s website

Remembering a New York Treasure, Jason Polan (1982–2020)

Paola Antonelli reflects on an artist who made MoMA, and New York City, his subject.
Paola Antonelli Jan 30, 2020

Magazine’s Drawn to MoMA column presents artists’ sketches that capture vignettes of everyday museum life—people lost in contemplation, queuing, arguing, taking pictures of The Starry Night, or dozing off on benches. The column was originally inspired by one very special person: artist and quintessential New York character Jason Polan, who loved doing just that. (He also loved the art, as testified by the two editions of a pamphlet he published containing his drawings of every single piece of art on display at MoMA.) Jason died of cancer last Monday, at only 37 years old.

Jason Polan. People in the Sculpture Garden at The Museum of Modern Art, July 9, 2009
Jason Polan. People in the Sculpture Garden at The Museum of Modern Art, July 9, 2009

Jason favored MoMA—along with Grand Central Station and the Taco Bell near Union Square, among other spots—as his hunting ground. He was not at all feral—quite the opposite—just disheveled enough to camouflage his presence among millions, and very gentle. Once in position, often standing by a wall or a pillar, he would whip out his Strathmore 400 sketchbook and get to work. Fast, knowing sketches would follow, made more detailed by the subject’s motion—the portraits from streets and station more fugitive than those of people in line at a fast food joint. He would then publish them in books, online, in magazines, and in zines.

From Jason Polan’s The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book, 2009
From Jason Polan’s The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book, 2009

There is nothing New Yorkers are more proud of than other New Yorkers, and those among us that devote their life to chronicling their fellow citizens in the city’s trenches are elevated to the role of municipal treasures. Jason was one. In my mind, he was up there with Bill Cunningham, the legendary photographer who invented street fashion photography (at least we New Yorkers say so), or with Brandon Stanton’s endlessly engrossing photoblog of life experience, Humans of New York.

But if bumping into Bill Cunningham always gave me a frisson of insecurity (Will he or won’t he? Am I worthy today?), bumping into Jason always gave me a burst of joy, sketch or no sketch. I never felt that he passed judgment—or at least, not using criteria that could make anyone feel excluded. I remember wondering how good it must feel to have such a productive obsession and powerful output for one’s curiosity.

Jason set out to sketch every person in New York. Because he died so soon, he only got to 30,000. But all 8,550,971 of us miss him already.

People in front of The Museum of Modern Art, December 2, 2009
People in front of The Museum of Modern Art, December 2, 2009
From The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book, 2009
From The Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art Book, 2009