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Remembering Jason Polan, the Jewish, Taco Bell-loving artist who captured New York

Possibly the most quintessentially New York artist of this century was a Jewish millennial from Michigan.

Jason Polan, who died of cancer on January 27 at the age of 37, didn’t just make the city’s people his subjects, and its streets his studio. The city was also the spirit animating his work.

Polan’s best-known project was an attempt to draw every person in New York. It began in 2008, and in 2015, resulted in a 408-page book called “Every Person in New York.” Refiguring the New York City crowd in book form, it has no page numbers, possibly because Polan’s subjects refuse to be nailed down to coordinates — they’re mostly anonymous, and always on the move.

Time and change were inherent to Polan’s approach: He drew each person for exactly as long as they remained in front of him. Some portraits are detailed, some consist of a just a few jagged lines and others are missing body parts. Some have brief captions, others don’t. There are drawings of groups that look almost abstract, with overlapping squiggly lines and circles and disembodied heads. Polan, who had over 80,000 Instagram followers, shared a kind of a matter-of-fact “anti-style” with another young New York artist and Instagram star, Liana Finck. Their drawings prioritize expression and getting an idea across as economically as possible. Polan’s sketches are about gesture and movement — but also each subject’s quirky, individual character.

I moved to New York in 2000, a few years before Polan did, and I remember the moment when I first became sharply aware of the rhythm and pace of the city, the marvel of its communal choreography. I was getting out of the train with my toddler in a stroller, when the stroller’s front wheels got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform. When my kid was just about to be squished by the closing doors, two men, strangers to each other, materialized on either side of the stroller and lifted it out of the gap. Before I had a chance to thank them, they made it onto the train, and were gone. I imagine these men and me and my daughter and all the people on the platform experiencing our separate yet interdependent New York minutes in Jason Polan’s drawings.

“I draw people every day, and usually, nobody will notice me,” Polan told WNYC in 2010. But he loved to collaborate. On his blog, he invited people to make two-minute-long appointments on specific street corners, where he might or might appear to draw them; if he did, he would later post the drawings. “I like the idea of it being a surprise,” he said.

But his most ingenious public initiative was the Taco Bell Drawing Club, a weekly gathering of sketch artists at a Union Square Taco Bell. The Club, he reasoned, could potentially have as many branches as there are Taco Bell franchises. Its ethos was and is unpretentiousness. Most New Yorkers have at some point taken advantage of the inadvertent democracy of corporate food establishments — doing their homework at McDonalds, charging their phones at Dunkin Donuts, writing their novels and cover letters at Starbucks. It took a Midwestern transplant with a big heart and an awesome sense of humor to formalize this experience instead of trying to ignore it. As an artist, and especially as a newcomer to the city, it takes courage and freedom of imagination to inhabit the current version of New York, rather than reaching for its nostalgic past. It’s likely that if Andy Warhol lived today, in our city of insane rents, his Factory would have taken up residence somewhere like a Taco Bell, too. “If you draw at a Taco Bell, you’re a member,” Polan told the New Yorker. Everyone was welcome, and you could draw whatever you wanted. Members mostly drew other customers, but also, their burritos.

Polan grew up in Franklin, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in anthropology and art before coming to New York in 2004. His other projects ranged from drawing every object on exhibit at the MOMA to collaborating with Marvel and Uniqlo on t-shirt design. “I was smitten instantly by his wild drawing mind,” the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote on Twitter. Polan’s art was generous, joyful and inventive.

“As long as I’m living and I can draw, I’ll be thinking about this project,” Polan told WNYC about “Every Person in New York.” Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, he spoke about completing the project as though it were in fact possible to capture everyone in the city, person-by-person, sketch-by-sketch. But New York is like a river, always changing. People leave, and others arrive, and neighborhoods change only slightly slower than the populations of subway platforms between arriving trains. But maybe the process is the whole point. Attempting to include everyone feels stubbornly optimistic, but also necessary in divisive times. “When the project is completed we will all have a get together,” Polan wrote on his blog.

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