Image Jason Polan via Every Person in New York

Every Person in New York Loved Jason Polan

The artist who drew every piece of art in the Museum of Modern Art (twice) passed away last week at age 37.

by Annie Armstrong
Feb 2 2020, 10:37am

Image Jason Polan via Every Person in New York

Jason Polan’s drawing sensibilities are scribbled all around New York. And not just because over a decade ago he set out to draw "every person in New York," he later published some of his attempts into a book titled... Every Person in New York. His feverish etchings of life in the city have been lauded by critic Jerry Saltz as “an art of taking pleasure in and appreciating the people, places, and things of the world, [...] a mirthful illustrated encyclopedia of modern life, body language, styles, and habits.” His urgent, frenetic scrawls feel like watching the city in real time.

Last week, Polan’s untimely death at age 37 due to cancer was felt beyond the island of Manhattan; he was beloved by those born and bred in the city as much as by those who have only visited through books, photos, movies, and television. His drawings marry the perspectives of both a dazzled newcomer and someone incredibly in the know—for instance, in his 2015 book, a portrait of Zadie Smith mingles on the same page as “Man Sleeping On Downtown 6 Train.” This lack of pretension crossed over into where he worked—he’d be as readily seen at a Gagosian opening as he would the Taco Bell in Union Square, where he hosted his famous Taco Bell Drawing Club.

Jason Polan joins the ranks of beloved New York City voices alongside folks like Bill Cunningham or Fran Leibowitz. His reverence for the frazzled energy of New York will stick with me for life, literally, in the form of a stick-and-poke tattoo on my left arm, which I got within a month of moving to the city. The piece I picked by Polan was lifted from a sketch of a man in Central Park throwing a frisbee, which I combined with the creepy smiling head from a David Shrigley drawing and text from a Christopher Wool painting that hangs at The Broad in Los Angeles: “Why Must I Feel Like That, Why Must I Chase That Cat,” it reads.

A couple months after I got the tattoo, I met Polan at the New York Art Book Fair where he was selling a zine about his recent trip to Tokyo. Somewhat insecure that I’d come off as a creepy fan, I tried to contain my eagerness to roll up my sleeve and show off the collage. Eventually, I swallowed my pride. I still remember feeling confused at his astonishment to have his work next to the other two artists. If I recall correctly, he remarked something along the lines of, This will probably be the only time I’ll ever see my stuff alongside theirs! Of course by this point his work was held by the Whitney, he'd had several gallery shows, and his drawings had been published in two books.

Though he’ll no longer be seen at openings, at MoMA, or just on the street scribbling away, you can still see Polan’s spirit everywhere. I don’t mean that metaphorically, either: his work hangs on the walls at the NYC stronghold Russ & Daughters, his books can be bought pretty much anywhere books are sold, and each piece of art at the Museum of Modern Art has held his attention long enough for him to draw it. Next time you’re at a Taco Bell, whip out a pen and scribble down what’s around you on your napkin. Who knows who you might see.