A rather bland history of modern American painting, using the career of Jackson Pollock as its focus. Pollock was already a hard-drinking, macho brute when he washed up in New York from Cody, Wyo., in 1930, at the age of 18. Under the tutelage of the painter Thomas Hart Benton he learned to bash the Europeans and embrace his American heritage (expressed in the tenets of self-will and the quest for purity), but it was the artist Lee Krasner, sacrificing herself to take on Pollock as a husband and a cause, who declared that to be great he would have to take on and best Picasso ``to show that modernist progress had led to the New World.'' By the late 1940s Pollock's work was arousing fervent applause and heated controversy in equal measure. Upon seeing one of his paintings, the heiress and art patron Peggy Guggenheim denounced it to her escort, Piet Mondrian, hoping to win his approval, but Mondrian proclaimed it the most exciting thing he'd seen in awhile. Guggenheim promptly ``dedicated'' herself to Pollock and provided a stipend so that Krasner could shuttle him out to the Hamptons, where, it was hoped, the fresh air would sober him up. Pollock did his best work there; it was also the site of his fatal 1956 car crash. Art critic Ratcliff (Andy Warhol, not reviewed, etc.) sets Pollock's career within the larger context of the lives and works of other artists (de Kooning, Rauschenberg, et al.), and surveys the artist's influence, which ranges from color- field painting to minimalism and extends to Brice Marden as a present-day heir. In tracing the lineage, Ratcliff argues persuasively that Pollock is the figure looming largest over postwar American art, but his writing has a bell-jar effect on it explosive center, dissipating it into the muted sounds of a drab lecture in the gray halls of the Whitney. A decent but unsurprising overview of modern art history, ideal for those more comfortable with facts than critical opinions.