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For art’s sake
An exhibition of paintings said to be by Jackson Pollock will place the McMullen Museum at the center of an international conversation about authenticity—and the role of an academic museum
Like her colleagues worldwide, Nancy Netzer, the director of Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, was intrigued by a series of articles that appeared in the New York Times starting on the 11th of May 2005. “Thirty-two previously unrecorded works by Jackson Pollock have been found among the possessions of a longtime friend and will be featured in a coming show,” read the initial report. The owner of the works was Alex Matter, then a 62-year-old filmmaker. By his account, he’d come upon the stash—which included 27 small paintings—in late 2002, in a storage locker that his father had rented near the Hamptons, on New York’s Long Island. “They were wrapped up inside this very dirty brown paper and tied with old string,” Matter told the Times. “But my father’s handwriting on the wrapping paper clearly labeled the works as being Pollock’s and indicated that they were painted sometime in the late 1940s.” News of the discovery launched one of the stormiest controversies to hit the art world in recent years.
Caricatured by Time magazine at the time of his death in 1956 as “Jack the Dripper,” for decades now, abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock has enjoyed legendary status as one of America’s most influential 20th-century artists. Born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, he moved to New York to study at the Art Students League in 1930. Pollock found a patron in heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and a champion in Clement Greenberg, art critic for the Nation, but he was still relatively unknown in 1949 when Life magazine headlined a feature story: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The article illustrated Pollock’s radical style: painting by pouring, dripping, and flinging fluid paint onto canvas laid out on the floor of his studio, the method by which he made the iconic works of his most productive period, between 1947 and 1951. The fame—and notoriety—of this signature style eclipsed the fact that Pollock also produced landscapes, figurative works, and experimental pieces using more conventional means. The poured compositions make up about half his known output of over 380 paintings.
Throughout his life, Pollock struggled with alcoholism and psychiatric illness. His 14-year relationship with the artist Lee Krasner (1908–84), whom he married in 1945, veered from crisis to crisis, and his death at age 44 in a drunken car wreck near East Hampton capped his status as the archetypal hard-living, hard-drinking artist.
Pollock himself once said that people mistakenly “think it easy to splash a Pollock out.” After his death, scores of imitators and forgers sought to profit from his marketability (and the incentive to do so rose exponentially—Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, for example, would eventually sell for some $140 million, in November 2006). The 1978 catalogue raisonné, a complete, detailed listing of Pollock’s work by Eugene V. Thaw and Francis V. O’Connor, includes a section on “False Attributions,” a sampling of 40 outright copies, imitations, and other abstract drippings. The flood of faked and dubious Pollocks by 1990 led the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, established by bequest of Pollock’s widow, to convene a standing authentication board. After passing judgment on 325 objects and facing three lawsuits, the board disbanded in 1996 for reasons that have never been made public, and so missed the chance to assess the output, for instance, of Action Jackson, a robot programmed to drip and splatter paint on canvas in a lab at Washington University in St. Louis, in December 2006.
For all this, the find announced by Alex Matter and his dealer Mark Borghi in May 2005 seemed initially promising. The man who had apparently wrapped the works in brown paper—and scrawled “Jackson experimental works” on the packet and dated the parcel 1958—was Herbert Matter, an influential graphic designer and photographer for publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Arts and Architecture. Matter and his wife, Mercedes, a painter, were friends of Pollock and Lee Krasner, and often rented a summerhouse near them after their move to Springs-Fireplace Road in East Hampton. Pollock gave the Matters one of his earliest poured compositions as a wedding gift, later comforted their young son Alex after the death of his pet goat, and from time to time worked in Matter’s Tudor City studio in Manhattan. Alex Matter believes that his father took the disputed paintings with him when he moved to a studio in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. Along with all the contents of his studio, he put them in storage in 1978 in preparation for a final move back to East Hampton, but he did not retrieve them before his death in 1984.
Even before reading of Alex Matter’s discovery, Nancy Netzer had been contemplating putting on a Pollock exhibit at the McMullen, to highlight some innovative cross-disciplinary research by two faculty colleagues. Boston College art history professor Claude Cernuschi, the author of two books and several articles on Pollock, had been investigating, with physics professor Andrzej Herczynksi, how the laws of physics shaped Pollock’s work. In an interview, Cernuschi was reticent about details in advance of the exhibition, but he explained that they have been looking at the role of gravity in Pollock’s poured paintings, and at how the size of his works is related to technique. Although Pollock’s most famous works are large (more than 120 of them are at least four feet high or wide), said Cernuschi, “he worked in any number of different scales.” Cernuschi and Herczynski will argue that Pollock’s distinctive technique imposed constraints that “delimit the size of his work, both on the upper and lower range.” The small size of the newly discovered works—most are between 5 by 7 inches and 18 by 15 inches—seemed to present an ideal opportunity to focus on the question of scale.
The first Pollock scholar to see the Matter paintings came to New York by way of Cleveland. Ellen Landau, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, is a specialist in 20th-century American art. She has written extensively on Pollock and Krasner, including a 1989 scholarly biography of Pollock and the 1995 catalogue raisonné of Lee Krasner’s work, and was a member of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s authentication board from 1990 to 1996. When Borghi showed her the paintings, she told the New York Times in May 2005, she was “completely blown away,” and called the discovery “the scholarly thrill of a lifetime.” Borghi, representing Alex Matter, invited her to curate the traveling exhibit heralded in the Times‘s first account.
Cernuschi and Netzer were keen to explore the idea of hosting the exhibit at Boston College after its scheduled opening at Guild Hall, a cultural center in East Hampton, in summer 2006. In summer 2005, Cernuschi contacted Landau, whom he knows well as a fellow Pollock scholar, and she immediately enlisted him as a contributor to the exhibition catalogue. After lengthy negotiations, in May 2006 Netzer agreed to a contract with ISG Productions of New York, the exhibit organizer. She planned to use the traveling show as the core around which to build a McMullen exhibit that would, in her words, “play up the role of Claude and Andrzej’s research,” and that would include larger, undisputed Pollocks.
Even as they were forming the idea and discussing their design with Landau, a storm was brewing over the authenticity of the Matter paintings. At the first notice of their discovery, two of Landau’s former colleagues on the Pollock-Krasner authentication board, veteran Pollock experts Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene Thaw, went on record as doubting the works. Thaw told the New York Times (May 29, 2005) that his opinion was based on viewing seven of the paintings, which Borghi had taken to show him. Matter, through Borghi, responded by sending some of the paintings to other specialists for technical examination. Borghi commissioned a study of 23 paintings by Orion Analytical of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Headed by James Martin, a research scientist in chemistry at Williams College, the firm specializes in the analysis of cultural property. In addition, three of the Matter paintings became the subject of an independent, pro bono study by curators, conservators, and conservation scientists at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Begun in September 2005, the investigation, including materials analysis and dating, would take 15 months.
Museums walk a fine line between presenting exhibits of public and scholarly interest and lending credibility to works of uncertain status, particularly when the pieces in question might readily find their way onto the market. Some of the furor generated by the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999, which featured contemporary British art from the collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, concerned not the controversial nature of the art (including Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary fashioned partly of elephant dung), but Saatchi’s role in the show as both its principal backer and most obvious beneficiary.
The issue of sharing questionable materials is particularly acute for large public museums, because their authority implicitly sanctions claims of status. Small academic institutions can take risks that large museums won’t. “As a museum, we exist for faculty research,” says Netzer, “and in an academic setting, we care about the process of discovery.” Brian Allen, director of another highly regarded academic museum, the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, would agree. He sees nothing wrong in a show posing a question “that doesn’t have a set answer,” as long as the material is presented in a straightforward way. “It’s very brave for [a] museum to do it,” he says. Professor Nicola Courtwright of Amherst College, president of the College Art Association, elevates the airing of controversy to the level of duty for an academic museum. “It’s the job of a museum director,” she says, “to bring in the public, bring in the scholars, so there can be free exchange of ideas, and debate and argument in front of the actual works of art.”
In fall 2006, Netzer and Cernuschi started to hear rumblings about the results of James Martin’s analysis for Orion Analytical. “We heard that he was finding elements either in the pigments or in the binders that were inconsistent with patented materials available during Pollock’s lifetime,” says Netzer. She consulted legal advisors, who counseled that patent dates are not infallible guides to materials actually on the market at a given time.
And the Harvard analysis was nearing completion. The study would not be publicized until late January 2007, but word of results that cast strong doubt on the Matter paintings began to circulate through the art world. The scientists had found evidence of five pigments and four kinds of binding media—the viscous materials or liquids with which pigment is mixed to make paint—dating from 1962 (six years after Pollock’s death) to 1986. “If someone other than Pollock did do these paintings, he or she had an amazing knowledge of Pollock’s working methods,” Landau asserted in her own press release. She raised the possibility, based on a reference to “Robi paints” on the package wrapping, that Pollock had access to materials not available in the United States through Herbert Matter’s brother-in-law Robert (Robi) Rebetez, who owned an art supply store in Basel, Switzerland.
In December 2006, forewarned about the findings of the Harvard study, Netzer approached Richard Newman, head of scientific research in the department of conservation at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Newman agreed to undertake a pro bono study of nine of the Matter paintings and to contribute an essay to the McMullen’s exhibition catalogue. The focus of his essay, Newman subsequently explained in an e-mail, would be “the analytical methods that can be used to identify pigments and binders in paints, using the Matter paintings as examples.”
In a telephone conversation on June 26, Newman said that his study was not primarily for authentication purposes. The paintings vary considerably, he said. “Some of them are extremely simple little things, and some are very, very complicated.” Most are in a fragile condition and have been strengthened by the use of “coating materials and adhesives and consolidants,” presumably applied by an art restorer to whom Matter sent them for initial conservation work in 2003–04.
Previous conservation treatments can complicate the task of technical analysis, said Newman, and “there is always the possibility of contamination of samples by later restoration materials.” But such treatments should not interfere in any way with pigment analysis, he said, and he is confident that all the researchers involved have been scrupulously careful to avoid confusing restoration materials with original paint and binding media.
Speaking for his own analysis, Newman says he paid particular attention to the layering of the paint. The way Pollock worked, in his drip-and-pour paintings, was to put layers down, let them dry, add further layers, let them dry, and so on—”so his paintings are very complicated,” said Newman.
This complex, three-dimensional nature of Pollock’s paintings is one of the reasons they are—contrary to popular misconception—very difficult to imitate, according to the art historian Francis O’Connor, in his essay, “Authenticating the Attribution of Art,” published in The Expert Versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts (2004). Pollock, writes O’Connor, kept “the various layerings of paint visually distinct; they are never muddied or puddled to the point of that incoherence easily spotted in a fake.” O’Connor adds: “this writer has never seen—in over 300 examples—a really perceptive emulation of Pollock’s facture [characteristic use of materials], let alone his overall form.”
The layer structures are “pretty complicated, in a couple of the [Matter] paintings,” Newman said. Several of the paintings seem to have been worked on in various stages, with paint in upper layers in some cases applied over cracks in lower layers. Newman has considered the idea that some paintings may have been started by one artist, “and later reworked by somebody else.” But his analysis of pigments demonstrates that “the problematic materials are down in the very bottom layers in some instances, so this scenario about later, rather poor quality restoration being done by somebody years or maybe even decades after the original was done, does not seem to be the situation,” he said.
“There are a lot of mysteries surrounding these paintings that haven’t been answered yet,” Newman said. During the later years of Pollock’s life, “a lot of new paints were coming onto the market,” such as the first acrylic emulsion artists’ paints (and synthetic resins), and the dates for the introduction of some of the paint-binding compounds are “a bit squishy.” Pollock was known to be something of an experimenter, “so he could have been on the lookout for unusual and new materials,” said Newman. But Newman’s provisional opinion, based on his own analysis and that of others, is this: “It would be a little bit hasty to conclude that none of the paintings could have been done by Jackson Pollock, but given the problematic materials that are present, I think it’s pretty certain that a fair number of them couldn’t have been done by Pollock. But how they originated, we don’t know.” Newman said that his essay refers to some of James Martin’s findings, which have not been made public. A report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of February 9, 2007, quotes Martin as saying that Alex Matter’s lawyer refused permission to release the results. Martin declined to comment on any aspect of his study, and also declined to contribute an essay to the exhibition catalogue, according to Netzer and Cernuschi.
On January 18, 2007, before the formal release of the Harvard study, Mark Borghi visited Netzer at the McMullen Museum to pull the plug on the forthcoming touring show. “It had become clear to Ellen and to Claude that they could not do the exhibition they were planning to do,” says Netzer. And she agreed with them. But rather than give up on the exhibition, she proposed a radical restructuring. On January 29, the date the Harvard researchers released their report, the McMullen Museum issued its own press release, announcing a new emphasis for the show. “Our exhibition’s focus is on ‘the state of the question,’ not on the authenticity of the paintings; one of the aims of the exhibition will be to bring together and present to the public all the known (possibly conflicting) evidence concerning the attribution of the newly discovered paintings,” Netzer said in the release. “We hope that the high-profile discovery of these works generates public interest in this exhibition and encourages further research by other scholars who have not yet seen the works.” Landau would continue as curator, with Cernuschi taking on the role of co-editor for the catalogue.
Putting on an art exhibition is always a major undertaking. But when a show that was initially conceived as a prepackaged deal with a few additions mutates into a major project with a radically compressed time line, the pressure is on. There are loans to be secured, insurance and transportation to be arranged, gallery layout, wall color and lighting to be designed, display cases to be found or made, wall text panels and chat labels to be prepared and edited, a catalogue to be written, edited, and designed, and an audio guide to be produced. In their two tiny offices next to the gallery, exhibitions and collections manager Diana Larsen, assistant curator and publications coordinator Naomi Blumberg, and media designer John McCoy are working with Netzer and Landau to get the show installed by the end of August. In a conversation late last spring, Larsen said the exhibition was “still morphing,” even as she was starting to design the gallery layout. The object list she maintains numbered more than 150 pieces, ranging from large-scale paintings to ephemera like postcards and greeting cards that illuminate the Matter-Pollock-Krasner friendships as well as their mutual creative influences.
The exhibit will include sections on Matter’s photography, his graphic design, and the work of Lee Krasner and Mercedes Matter, both of whom studied with the German-born abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann. At least 12 undisputed Pollocks will be on display, along with works by notable contemporaries and friends, including Hofmann, Alexander Calder, and Alberto Giacometti. Some 20 of the Matter paintings will be presented in a separate room, with highlights of the technical data relating to their status.
Another question that might be asked is, who currently owns these pictures? Matter initially denied a claim in the New York Times of April 3, 2007, that he had sold an interest in some of the works to New York dealer Ronald Feldman, then retracted that denial to Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers, on April 5, telling him that Feldman now owns some of the works, either outright or partially. Neither Landau nor Netzer sees the ownership of the works as relevant to their academic and scholarly agenda. At the heart of the exhibit, says Netzer, will be an effort to “explore the context from which these pictures came,” using extensive new material unearthed by Landau on Herbert and Mercedes Matter and Lee Krasner. “I don’t think anybody doubts that Alex Matter discovered [the paintings],” she says. “Somehow they’re related to the Matter/Pollock relationship.”
For Landau, the discovery of the Matter paintings was the catalyst for a scholarly odyssey that took her from the Herbert Matter archive at Stanford University to the Swiss Foundation of Photography, she said in a telephone interview. Poring over Matter’s annotated contact sheets of the Trylon and Perisphere at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair, previously undiscovered photographs of Pollock and his work at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, and wall texts from New York art exhibitions of the 1940s, Landau began to see striking parallels between Matter’s technical innovations in photography and Pollock’s experiments with paint. Many ideas associated with Pollock, like the notion that painting is “energy made visible,” she found, were first articulated by Matter. Before Pollock made his experiments with poured paint, said Landau, he had seen how Matter dripped ink into glycerine and photographed the resulting abstract shapes.
Potential conflicts between commercial and academic interests arise in every aspect of university life, from scientific research to athletics. As Boston College Provost Cutberto Garza said in a recent interview, “It’s not our job to try to avoid conflict; we have to be sure we manage it well.” He pointed to Netzer’s commitment to transparency and full disclosure in the upcoming exhibition, and also to Boston College’s decision to fully fund the exhibition and catalogue without help from any potentially interested party.
“This is an academic exhibition,” Netzer said in an interview. “We hope to raise the level of discourse in general about how one arrives at conclusions concerning the authenticity of pictures, to make it clear that it’s no longer just the province of art historians. There has to be a confluence of evidence pointing in the same direction to arrive at a conclusion.”
“Pollock/Matters” opens at the McMullen Museum of Art on September 1. It will show all sides of the controversy surrounding the 32 works found in a Long Island locker in 2002. But the central objects—the works themselves—remain wrapped in mystery.
Jane Whitehead is a writer based in the Boston area.
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