Researching Art and Artists of the American West
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Sixty Years of History – Wrapped in a Mystery This is a remarkable story for art lovers, a story over half a century-long, made up of ugly history and a beautiful mystery. Sixty years ago the world of art and imagery was a very different place. There were no personal computers and no cell phones. Photographs were taken with film, and color film was just coming into general use. Most painting was done on paper or canvas with historically proven methods while new methods and materials were just being introduced. One of the most publicized innovators at the time was Jackson Pollock, famed for his outrageous behavior and remarkable new style of painting. In the 1950s, art news was primarily reported in newspapers or magazines, and no one had heard of the term digital. However provincial that world may seem to us now, the news stories of the day were still dictated by human events, and sadly too, by human nature. Thus unravels this shocking, yet almost predictable tale.
In the sixty years that have passed, many stories have emerged of hidden caches of work from famous artists, usually involving spurned wives or lovers, or troves of work squirreled away by grocers, plumbers, or family members unaware of the historical or monetary value of what they held. The story that is about to unfold here makes all the others pale in comparison.
For this is not just a mystery, it is also a moral tale, with sixty years of elapsed time and purposeful disinformation creating a very different version of the last years of Jackson Pollock’s life. The facts surrounding the highly publicized death of Jackson Pollock are clear. Yet the unknown truth about what he had been doing in the last few years, and especially the last months before his death, is shrouded in clouds of dissent, jealousy, and even ignorance. It is true that this notorious artist was operating on his own rebellious and sometimes self-destructive course. But was he painting? The widow claims he was not. Friends say he was. The newspapers of the day and subsequent books all agree that he had separated from his wife, and had a new love interest in his life. Could this have been the reason for a surge of inspiration and the impetus for a creative burst? Many questions may be forever unanswered, but the truth that lay behind the work that he created will stretch the limits of the imagination.
Does it make sense that an artist, who was frequently described as “driven”, would abandon the work he loved? Doesn’t it seem just as possible that he had been deliberately withholding work from his estranged wife, and from the art world that he felt didn’t appreciate him? Who were his known associates, and what did they have to say about his work? Clyfford Still was one.
Clyfford Still was a strong influence on Pollock for a period in the early 1950s, at a time when Pollock was infuriated by Lee Krasner, his brokers, and the art world. Clyfford Still disdained art brokers, and was wary of the arts establishment and the public. Only recently, with the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado in 2011, it was revealed that Still had withheld 94% of his work from the public during his lifetime (over 2000 works of art). Did Still possibly influence Pollock to do the same?
The following passages from Stephen Naifeh and Gregory Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Jackson Pollock depict the influence that Still had over Pollock during a particularly challenging time in Pollock’s life. (1952)
Still’s precedent of withholding work gives art historians a plausible explanation for why Pollock’s legendary output would mysteriously diminish after 1952. Lee Krasner said he only painted a handful of paintings from 1953 to 1956. What if Pollock was deliberately hiding work, just like Clyfford Still?
Since he did have a new woman in his life, isn’t it likely that he might have wanted to share his newly inspired work with his muse? When the breath of gossip and scandal cools off after sixty years, we are left with conjecture… and left with the known body of work that honors his genius.
Or perhaps there is more… in the form of a newly discovered major collection of paintings. These paintings have had ten years of serious scrutiny, and some of the most advanced scientific research ever applied to a collection of art. This includes materials, fingerprints, DNA, and fractal analysis to validate an assertion that they are indeed from the hands and heart of Jackson Pollock. This collection has been given the name Pollock’s Paradigm. This is a coming to light of a unique and mesmerizing body of work that is so beautiful that it gives renewed life to Pollock’s famous quote: “I am nature!”
Provenance of Pollock’s Paradigm
Looking back to 1956, it is hard to imagine the shock and confusion that struck Jackson Pollock’s family, and his circle of friends, with his messy and highly publicized death. Pollock’s affairs were in complete disarray. His wife, Lee Krasner, had been separated from him, and had moved to Europe to get a divorce. Many of his closest friends had been concerned about him because he had been on wild drinking binges. Very little was known about his daily activities, and many more details have been lost in the sixty years since his death.
The facts are well known about how he died. He crashed his car while driving drunk. He was killed, along with a female passenger. The only survivor of the crash was Ruth Kligman, who was one of the women that had been having an affair with Pollock, and was staying with him when the crash occurred. She was badly injured in the crash and was hospitalized for some time. After the crash, her name was flashed around in the newspapers as ‘the notorious girlfriend’ who led him to ruin, and was generally regarded as a pariah by the widow, and her supportive friends in the art establishment.
After his death, Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner immediately began a campaign of publicly proclaiming that her husband had painted very little in his last years. She staunchly maintained that he was always drunk and crazy. It may be that she really didn’t know that he had been working, or that she deliberately concealed the fact that he had been working for her own benefit. There remain persistent rumors about written evidence, in his own hand, in the form of a clearly written inventory of the pieces he created! So what was he really doing?
Caution, Genius at Work…
There is one outstanding fact that has been generally ignored by historians. Jackson Pollock was preparing for the biggest exhibition of his life! A one-man retrospective show for Pollock was scheduled to open in December of 1956, at the New York MOMA. Conversations with fellow artists indicated that Pollock felt a need to prove his genius, and silence his critics. Clement Greenberg, who was one of Pollock’s most ardent supporters, reportedly advised him to use brighter and more expressive colors in his drip/pour paintings. In researching the origins of this collection, statements were taken from witnesses who were in Pollock’s studio shortly before his death. They reported seeing “huge canvases on the floor, and stacks of paintings”.
It is a commonly recognized phenomenon in the world of art that artists who face the deadline of a major exhibition may be inspired to break through to new levels of creativity. They often work feverishly to produce their greatest masterpieces. Add to this a new love interest, and the freedom from a marriage that had turned sour, and it just may be a recipe for an amazing burst of creative energy.
This creative burst could explain why there would be such a large and remarkably beautiful collection of work gathered together in one place. Some of the pieces clearly had been saved from the past, perhaps some of the artist’s old favorites? But the majority of the work was fresh, unseen, and wildly exquisite. The latest materials and best quality canvas and papers were used. Who had possession of the collection at the time of Pollock’s untimely death? If it had been produced for and given to a girlfriend, how would we expect the widow to feel? If the girlfriend felt threatened by the widow’s vengeance, what could she have done with the pieces? What we do have is a trail of hearsay, and the undeniable evidence of a body of drip/pour masterpieces. The works speak for themselves, and have reduced many experts to stunned silence, almost always followed by a single breathless expression… “Oh my God!”
What is the real story? This is what is known… The provenance story according to Mr. Nemeth, and repeated to many people over a 50-year period, is that most of this large collection of work had been obtained sometime after the artist’s death in the late 1950s, directly from a young woman who was a friend of Jackson Pollock. This woman reported that before Pollock’s untimely death she had been given these pieces, which she retained in her home at the artist’s request. She gave her name as “Helen Rodfield,” with an address in Greenwich Village, NY. When she sold them to a third party, she asked for privacy as the sale was a ‘delicate matter’, and sold them very cheaply.
The buyer purchased the collection and retained it for several years, but found no interested buyers, and feared that the path to authentication would prove too difficult, if not impossible. In the early 1960s this person offered the paintings to Gabor Erich Nemeth to settle a debt. Mr. Nemeth agreed to purchase the pieces, and has held them for the past fifty years.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Nemeth moved to Los Angeles, California. He opened an art consulting business specializing in the conservation of old master’s paintings. He was not an expert in modern art, and had little interest in the fate of the pieces, calling them ‘geometric squiggles’. Nemeth stored the paintings that he had purchased for more than fifty years. Whenever he brought out pieces for examination, he was told that there was no way of proving who had painted these works. Occasionally someone would scoff at the pieces from this collection and suggest that they were fakes, or that Mr. Nemeth had painted them. His reply was “They are what they are, and no one else could paint that incredible pattern. I could not paint like that, or else I would go and become a famous painter myself.”
Mr. Nemeth sold a few paintings over the years for very low prices, and occasionally had other art dealers try to represent them for sale, but his attempts often led to “bad dealings and hard feelings”. Some pieces of his collection were lost or stolen from his office. Mr. Nemeth states that at that time they were worth very little, so he did not pursue the matter. His collection of old European paintings, on the other hand, is now central to the Nemeth Art Center museum collection (nemethartcenter.org) in Park Rapids, Minnesota.
According to Mr. Nemeth, one very interesting incident occurred sometime during the 1970s, when a young interior designer, who worked at Ian Phillips Interior Design in Sherman Oaks, California, bought a piece from him. The buyer then took it to be seen by Lee Krasner, while she was visiting in Laguna Beach, California. She reportedly looked at the painting, and said, “Yes, that was definitely painted by my husband”. The piece was then quickly sold to a collector. Mr. Nemeth only heard about the authentication some years later, when a colleague of the designer secretly told him of the sale.
The question of the authenticity of the collection continued to hang in limbo for many years, and only after the death of Mr. Nemeth’s wife in 1991, and his subsequent move to Lodi, California, did his interest reawaken in getting this collection researched.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Nemeth enlisted the help of fellow church members in Lodi, California, and began a diligent, but seriously contentious effort to find the information necessary to validate the works. A part of the collection was sold to this group, and some of the research was conducted on pieces from their holdings. This association with the church group eventually had a falling out, with more of the hard feelings that had plagued this effort from the start.
Finally, in 2002, Mr. Nemeth engaged a professional art broker, and progress began toward recognition of the incredible power and virtuosity of this collection.
Another question is how such a large collection of paintings created by Jackson Pollock could exist out of the public eye for so long, without knowledge of them by those closest to him, especially his wife Lee Krasner. But it is precisely upon a close examination of Pollock’s well-documented contentious relationship with Krasner, as well as his affair with Ruth Kligman and other women, that a very plausible explanation emerges. Pollock resented Krasner’s control, and was dissatisfied with many aspects of their marriage. When Krasner left for Europe in the summer of 1956, they were very close to divorce. It is easy to imagine Pollock distributing paintings to girlfriends or friends to have a measure of control over his work, as a way to circumvent the control of Krasner. After Pollock died, the official history of Pollock’s life was carefully controlled by Krasner.
“Lee was in control toward the end and very manipulative, just as she was not in favor of books about Jackson she couldn’t control. The rewriting of Jackson’s history has been done on the basis of retelling her story.” – Fritz Bultman
Potter, Jeffrey. To A Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock, pg. 115. New York: Pushcart Press, 1987. Print.
Jackson Pollock Timeline
1912 Born January 28 in Cody, Wyoming, Jackson Pollock was the youngest of five siblings.
1913 The Pollock family moves to Phoenix, Arizona.
1917 Pollock moves to Chino, California.
1925-1929 During this time, Pollock attends Manual Arts High School, but leaves without graduating.
1930 Pollock follows brother Charles to New York City to study under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League of New York.
1938-1942 Pollock works for the WPA (‘Norks Progress Administration) Federal Arts Project.
1936 Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros introduces Pollock to liquid paint.
1940 At the Museum of Modern Art, Pollock is exposed to the work of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.
1941 The Art of This Century Gallery opens.
1942 Pollock exhibits The Flame at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1943 Pollock received his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery.
1944 Museum of Modern Art acquires She-Wolf.
1945 Pollock agrees to move from New York City to Long Island, and marries Lee Krasner.
1947 Many of Pollock’s well-known dripped paintings are created after this time, including Full Fathom Five, Lavender Mist, and Autumn Rhythm.
1948 Betty Parson’s Gallery hosts Pollock show. Pollock exhibits Mural at the Museum of Modern Art.
1949 Life magazine asks, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
1950 The Museum of Modern Art acquires Number1 A, painted in 1948.
1950 Photographer Hans Namuth takes more than 200 photos of Pollock and films him painting.
1951 Life magazine publishes the “Irascible Eighteen” article.
1952 Sidney Janis Gallery hosts Pollock show.
1956 Time magazine publishes an article titled “Jack the Dripper.”
1956 Pollock dies on August 11 in Springs, New York, when his car hits a tree. Edith Metzger, a passenger, is also killed.
1956-1957 The Museum of Modern Art turns Pollock’s exhibition into a memorial.
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