Researching Art and Artists of the American West
A collection of paintings attributed to Jackson Pollock
Essays: G. James Daichendt, Guy Kinnear, and John Hallmark Neff
Exhibitions Director: G. James Daichendt
Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California
This first public exhibition of paintings from Pollock’s Paradigm was held at the Azusa Pacific University, California, in October, 2008. The exhibition was reviewed by the major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. (Some of the material on this page is copyright Azusa Pacific University, 2008)
Introduction to Azusa Pacific exhibition catalog
It is an unusual experience when a collection of art attributed to a major 201h century artist becomes available for exhibition, especially someone of Jackson Pollock’s reputation. My interest in Pollock’s work intensified 25 years ago when I searched through the Periodic Indexes of the San Francisco State University Library looking for articles that would inform my research on the tension between the myth and the man.
An art exhibition completes the dialog an artist begins when he or she transforms materials, adding content and concepts to the “stuff of art” and producing works for viewing. In a university setting, this process of visually engaging with works of art enhances the theoretical and practical instruction within the classroom setting. Usually, this consists of local talent and student exhibitions. The opportunity to view works attributed to an artist of Pollock’s stature intensities the richness of the dialog students and guests experience in our galleries. We hope you will benefit from this experience and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for Pollock’s work.
This exhibition of paintings attributed to Pollock involved the work of many individuals. Foremost on the list is Erich Neumeth, owner of these works. Our connection with Mr. Neumeth comes through APU Board Member Howard Kazanjian and mutual friend Russ Turner. On the APU campus, we especially thank President Jon Wallace and Executive Vice President David Bixby for their vision and support of the arts and this exhibition.
A special thanks to the hardworking university personnel on campus who have made this exhibition a success: Tom Andrews, special advisor, University Libraries and research historian for special collections; Lori Hester, executive assistant to the executive vice president; Laura Palusso, manager of special events; Louise Furrow, executive director of development; APU Department of Art faculty, staff, and students who helped install the exhibit especially Professors David Carlson and Amy Day and her Gallery Design students; Technical Manager Kris Hoffman and his support crew- John Navarro, Jeremiah Gatling, Daniel Miller, and Brian Allan.
It is with deep appreciation that I offer thanks to Professor Jim Daichendt for his tireless leadership and his fine essay, along with an insightful commentary by distinguished curator John H. Neff and a thoughtful writing on Pollock’s works by Guy Kinnear, professor of painting. The printing of this catalog would not have been possible without generous contributions from Dean David Weeks, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Vice Provost Paul Gray. I am also very grateful to the team from University Relations who have worked so diligently to promote the show and design the announcements, catalog, and website. Thank you, Maureen Taylor, Allison Oster, Brett Barry; Jason Flicker, Chris Easterly, Christian Brazo, and Sheree Black. As with all acknowledgments, I apologize to all who I have not mentioned by name. Thank you, as your contributions have made this exhibition a worthy endeavor, one of which I am proud to have been a part.
William Catling, MFA / Chair, Department of Art
Revisiting Pollock: Engaging Art Through Attribution and History
by G. James Daichendt – From Revisiting Pollock – Azusa Pacific Exhibition Catalog
Setting the Stage
Set in the shadow of Los Angeles, Azusa Pacific University serves as the host of the exhibition Revisiting Pollock, a collection of paintings thought to be the work of Jackson Pollock, one of the 20th century’s most scrutinized and mythologized artists.
In 1949, Life magazine published a story asking if Pollock was America’s greatest living artist. Mid-century critics hailed Pollock’s potential to become one of the elite, as detractors claimed his paintings were degenerate and as unpalatable as yesterday’s macaroni. Since that time, generations of historians and artists have devoted a substantial amount of scholarship toward his works, while the most powerful museums and galleries in the world hope to acquire and display his art. I invite you–the reader–to engage with these images and investigate for yourself, while learning about attribution and Pollock himself, not only to gain insight into this artist, but also to further your understanding of why we engage with great works of art.
Pollock was both revered and sneered at for his dripped paintings. Since his rise to fame during the postwar period, admirers eager to learn, in addition to con artists hoping to make a quick dollar, have duplicated his work. Scientists, art historians, conservators, and aficionados are involved in many attribution cases that have surfaced after the artist’s death. It is a curious turn of events. Anything of value is often imitated. However, because Pollock’s style is difficult to comprehend, novice collectors often materialize, wondering if the look-a-like painting they acquired is worth millions. Frustrating to both sides, most of these cases are easily dismissed and miss the central aspect of why art is important.
Examining the Paintings
The experience one has with a work of art can range from frustrating to enlightening. The best way to start involves looking carefully. With Pollock, the potential value often distracts the viewer from looking at the image for what it is: paint on canvas. In my encounters with Pollock’s known works, the varieties of line and movement evoke strong feelings. Pollock’s ability to control his mark and his sensitivity to the interaction between colors, canvas, and pattern communicate carnal responses that often physically move the viewer to recognize their position in relation to the image. The largest canvases executed by Pollock reach more than 17 feet wide. The technical application of dripped paint exudes a particular strength in itself. The journey of painted line travels back and forth, ranging in speed and thickness, often overlapping, and sometimes mixing and forming a texture due to variations in consistency. Yet smaller works painted by Pollock seem to deconstruct this physical response and contain the energetic feeling within a framed space. In these instances, the small-scale gestures feel like controlled experiments due to their limited size and dwarfed movement. Similar to the rhythms of nature, the larger the image, the more physical the impact. The smaller images pack a punch, but deliver an experience on a far more intimate scale.
The images exhibited in Revisiting Pollock range in size from 24 inches to more than 10 feet, some on canvas, others on paper. Those produced on paper are all the same size and each exhibits a softer, more contained dynamic of colors not typical of Pollock. The paintings feature shorter drips where we can identify the beginning and end. These sprite marks leave evidence of quick flips from a painting instrument.
Many characteristics of the paintings are reminiscent of well-known Pollock works. For example, the groundwork or basecoat in each work pushes the most recent applications of paint forward, highlighting certain movements and colors. Despite similarities, each individual piece appears slightly different—the variety of application methods is apparent when comparing them with one another—yet there is a similarity in size, medium, and style that suggests they were completed around the same time. Some use a broader application of paint, while others have a thinned and controlled application in which the background drips contrast the marks on the surface. These lines of paint react to one another as they appear to be dripped carefully with attention to the previous marks. A wider application of paint was used to highlight these differences in particular instances, a technical aspect of Pollock paintings that often goes unnoticed.
The largest painting, Revelation I, offers a richer aesthetic much more dense and thickly compacted compared to paper works. The colors in this large painting overlap and form a deep convergence of elements that communicate an intricate web of lines in many directions and layers. The physical response to this work compared to the smaller images is encompassing, as each line appears to add another voice that overwhelms the senses. Though size is important, the amount of paint and the frequency of its application drive the strong reaction from the viewer. Similar to a crowded room full of loud voices, the painting’s voice appears to burst from the corners of the canvas extending its impact beyond the frame.
As the sizes of all the pieces range, the aesthetic experiences should as well. Viewed as a group, the images have a presence and reflect a number of different directions noticeable only after close investigation. Color schemes were chosen carefully in addition to the application, which demonstrates intentionality and purpose. In the end, the images appear to communicate a message with similarities and potential experimentation from the oeuvre of known Pollock paintings. Yet they also exhibit differences that could point toward a forgery, a possible collaboration, or an extension of Pollock’s known messages.
My own introduction to Pollock includes many slide lectures, museum visits, and history texts illustrating his importance as a member of the New York School synonymous with the movement Abstract Expressionism. This group of well known artists include Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, and David Smith, to name a few. This significant movement, internationally recognized by the field, secured New York City as the center of the art world, a role Paris previously held for hundreds of years. While the artists who made up this movement displayed stylistic differences from one another, the expressionist label references the emotional intensity associated with imagery. Pollock typified this group, often considered a poster boy for the abstract expressionistic movement (Woolfenden, 1965).
The expansive Pollock legacy includes myths about his persona, characterizing him as a wild, out-of-control cowboy artist who lived on the edge and took the art world by storm until his life ended abruptly. “We revere the art of Titians, Michelangelos, and Leonardos, but it is the Van Goghs, Lautrecs, and Pollocks with whom we empathize and establish vicarious kinships. The sad fact is that the elderly lack glamour” (Jacobs, 1968, p. 121). The appearance of enamel paint dripped or thrown on canvas is akin to wild behavior. Like a candle burning on both ends, Pollock’s personal escapades provoked a lot of attention through his reckless attitude. These stories capture the imaginations of viewers as Pollock’s paintings take on a new level of understanding based upon his outrageous conduct. Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, recalls a dinner party where the couple entertained a dozen or so guests:
“Jackson and Hans Namuth were at one end of the table. I don’t know what the argument was about, but I heard loud voices and suddenly Jackson overturned the whole table with twelve roast beef dinners. It was a mess. I said, “Coffee will be served in the living room.” Everyone filed out and Jackson went off . . . “(Plessix & Gray, 1967, p. 50).
Krasner goes on to describe her husband as angry, bitter, and impatient, but not violent. Yet many stories persist to link the wild musings of Pollock to his painting style. Stories of being punched by fellow painter de Kooning or drinking escapades resulting in hospitalization earned Pollock quite a reputation. But was Pollock’s artwork out of control? Scholars disagree and authors like Coddington (1999) and Varnedoe (1999) paint an alternative picture of the wild cowboy artist. Coddington (1999) emphasizes the careful construction and implementation of various choices in media and materials of Pollock’s work. Exact combinations of pigment were carefully experimented with and ultimately executed with precise craftsmanship. Often, particular paints were mixed and poured within one another to achieve desired effects after trial and error. In a similar vein, Varnedoe (1999) noticed a disconnect between Pollock’s lifestyle and his art making. His rough lifestyle of drunken binges stood independent of his rhythms of creating art. This became especially apparent during a 1999 retrospective featuring Pollock, comparing his biography with his life’s work. The noted New York gallery owner, Betty Parsons, concurs:
“Inside himself there was a jungle, because during his life he was never fulfilled—never—in anything. Of course, this didn’t diminish his power as a painter. His conflicts were all in his life, not in his work” (Plessix & Gray, 1967, p. 55).
The reckless times clearly did not correspond with the advent and production of his work. Often, the wild lifestyle appears to personify his drips and splatters, but research demonstrates he was purposeful, rather than chaotic, in his art making. Ironically, during his uncontrollable moments, Pollock reverted back to black and white work with a figurative and human emphasis (Plessix & Gray, 1967).
A Brief History of Pollock
To understand Pollock and his artistic significance, one must gain an appreciation of his life and context. Born in Cody, Wyoming in 1912, Pollock spent the majority of his childhood in Arizona and California. His oldest brother, Charles, and his brief education at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles influenced his interest in art. In 1929, Pollock moved to New York to study with Thomas Benton, an instructor at the Art Students League. Benton was a realist who taught from a lineage with a 16th century aesthetic. Pollock was a poor draftsman as a student, yet his early images show evidence of initial attempts to stylize his imagery. Pollock quickly lost interest in the realist style propagated by Benton and took to the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. This led Pollock to join the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Experimental Workshop in 1936. In this environment, he became aware of unorthodox mediums and techniques he would later incorporate (Friedman, 1995).
Due to the war, New York City saw an influx of European artists in the 1940s, adding to the cultural richness of the city and its emergence as a cultural capital (Greenberg, 1965). European artists brought a rich tradition of art making that fertilized the thought of American artists. Many centers existed to encourage the exchange of ideas, including bars, studios, and specifically, Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery. The gallery predominantly exhibited surrealists and slowly included many of the New York School, including Pollock, who had a solo show in 1943. Pollock experienced a meteoric rise to fame during this time, achieving regional and national acclaim.
His decision to take the canvas off the wall and forgo traditional painter’s tools is considered one of the central components for his significance as an artist. In place of tradition, Pollock laid the canvas on the ground and chose to drip paint onto the surface. Regarding this new technique, he states:
“My feeling is that new needs need new technique and the modern artist has found new ways and new means of making his statement. It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the renaissance or any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique . . . “ (Woolfenden, 1965, p. 111).
This style led him to abandon realistic imagery and create an image without attention on the traditional aspects of the figure and composition. From horizon lines to a proper top or bottom, Pollock transcended these notions as he took the canvas off the easel. In a 1947 Guggenheim application, Pollock writes:
“I intend to paint large movable pictures which will function between the easel and mural . . . The pictures I contemplate painting constitute a halfway state, an attempt to point out the direction of the future. Without arriving there completely” (Stiles & Selz, 1996, p. 22).
Pollock’s career continued to advance, thanks to wife Lee Krasner and critic Clement Greenberg. Krasner looked out for Pollock’s business interests (Plessix & Gray, 1967), while Greenberg, a long-time champion of the artist, used a set of principles for evaluating modern artists that favored Pollock’s style. Achieving international success as an exhibitor in the 1950 Venice Bienniale, Pollock’s paintings were acquired by major museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Despite receiving critical success, self-doubt pervaded Pollock.
“ . . .Pollock was also sustaining frivolous and damaging criticism, mostly aimed at his methods, and he received them with bitterness. He was especially vulnerable because of the personable nature of his work. It is terrible to be great alone, and . . . Pollock suffered from attention of the wrong kind” (O’Hara, 1959, p. 116).
Edwards (2006) illustrates how difficult it was for the average American to receive the genius of Pollock’s work. Whether it was a class or cultural issue, the musings of the cultural elite critics did not correspond with acceptable notions of fine art. Adding to his myth, Pollock died in an automobile accident on August 11, 1956. Alfonso Ossorio, a fellow painter, comments on Pollock’s untimely tragedy: “Jackson had no intention of dying when he died . . . He had just put lights and heat into his studio; he had new rolls of canvas, buckets of paint; he was all ready to work” (Plessix & Gray, 1967, p. 57). Soon after his death, a show planned at the Museum of Modern Art became a memorial exhibition, and the myth of Pollock began with pilgrimages to the accident site on Fireplace Road and legendary tales that often stretched the truth (Jacobs, 1968).
The Controversy: Pollock, or Not?
His short life, quick rise to fame, and growing mythology feed into recent controversies. Pollock’s work does not follow an obvious linear development, as he worked in variations of it simultaneously. This is prevalent in the 1950s, as his paintings varied and looked different from earlier known works (Kantor, 2003). In addition, he preferred to name his paintings with numbers so viewers would not look at them with preconceived notions. This ambiguity frustrates many in determining the essential qualities of Pollock’s paintings. Specifically, Alex Matter, the son of photographer and filmmaker Herbert Matter, a good friend of the Pollock family, has struggled to determine the essential qualities of Pollock’s paintings.
Matter’s case involves the discovery of 32 paintings in his father’s storage locker. The small paintings, completed in the poured and dripped style of Jackson Pollock, have left many professionals baffled. Since the find in 2002, the legitimacy of the images lies at the heart of a fierce debate. Pollock expert Ellen Landau confirmed the paintings’ authenticity, but conservators from Harvard University claim some of the images contain paint not available in pigment until 1996, while another pigment was only available after 1971 (Edgers, 2007), long after Pollock’s death in 1956. Another strike against Matter’s paintings involved findings from Richard Taylor, a physics professor who claims the paintings do not contain the patterns that regularly occur in known Pollock paintings. After all this research, the jury remains out and the debate rages for the foreseeable future.
Another notable authentication dispute involves former truck driver Teri Horton. The 73-year-old is the focus of the biographical film, Who the #%%EDITORCONTENT%%amp;% is Jackson Pollock? Horton’s story starts when she bought a $5 painting from a San Bernardino thrift shop in the early 1990s. The large image is thought to be a Pollock because it contains a fingerprint identical to one found on a can in Pollock’s Long Island studio, now a museum. The discovery leads Horton on an interesting trip through the art market, as she turns down an offer from an overseas collector willing to purchase the image for millions of dollars (Kennedy, 2006). Both attribution stories illustrate the unknowingness that historians, scholars, and aficionados must live with when potential Pollocks appear on the market. Problems extend further to include political battles waged by foundations and dealers who often have much to gain—or lose.
To combat the surface-level similarities particular abstract paintings have with original Pollock images, a system has been developed by Taylor, an inquisitive scientist, that may accurately identify the unique aspects of Pollock’s paintings. He developed a computer system to authenticate whether the drips in paintings match the characteristic geometric patterns Pollock actually performed. Taylor is responsible for attributing the large image referred to as Revelation I to Pollock. To achieve this feat, Taylor claims that the drip patterns of Pollock are fractal and can be measured. Ultimately, he concludes that the fractals within Revelation I match those found in known Pollock paintings.
Fractals, a new form of geometry, emerged in the 1970s to describe and measure the scientific field of chaos theory (Taylor, 2002). A fractal is a structure whose parts resemble the whole (Mureika, Cupchik, & Dyer, 2004). “In contrast to the smoothness of artificial lines, fractals consist of patterns that recur on finer and finer magnifications, building up shapes of immense complexity” (Taylor, 2002, p. 118). Taylor began by examining the painting Autumn Rhythm by Pollock. Along with his team, he covered a scanned image of the painting with a grid of identically sized squares. The process created a statistical pattern by identifying which squares were empty and which contained a painted pattern. Magnifying the squares to uncover a similar pattern followed. Through this process, separate colors were analyzed, as well as the entire combination and layering of the pigments. By utilizing this process on squares ranging from a meter to a small paint speck, Taylor found the patterns to be fractal over all the size ranges, an amazing accomplishment he writes, because Pollock depicts an issue of physics 25 years before its discovery in nature (Taylor, 2002).
Taylor studied additional Pollock paintings in order of completion and found the complexity of fractal patterns increased as he refined or progressed in his technique, a method that could be used to appropriately date a Pollock. Later paintings use a consistent fractal pattern, but more layers of paint build up a fractal pattern that fills more space, eventually culminating in a solid canvas (Taylor, Micolich, & Jonas, 1999). Taylor, Micolich, and Jonas (1999) explain that Pollock’s fractal patterns increased from a single layer in 1943 to multiple layers of trajectory in 1952.
The question remains whether this method can help determine authentication issues accurately. Taylor is positive about its prospects because he has examined intentionally faked Pollocks in addition to questionable art work submitted by unsure collectors, which he reveals did not contain fractal patterns. Buchanan (2007), however, remains skeptical of Taylor’s findings and claims the analysis is not foolproof. As science provides data, it should be weighed against the history and provenance of images. Yet is scientific methodology the best process to attribute works intended to be expressive? It certainly deserves a voice and, as the methodology applied by Taylor, provides positive data for the exhibited paintings in Revisiting Pollock in contrast to negative data for Matter’s images.
Regardless of whether a computer program identifies characteristic swirls of Pollock, it begs the question: does it matter? The power of art lies in its ability to transcend what words cannot. The methodology has its strengths, yet it lacks the ability to comprehend the qualitative aspects of experiencing paintings. Pollock’s work communicates an unspeakable richness and depth through the various speeds and movements of the mark-making devices he used. The aesthetic experience can only be felt in the looking process and always requires reflection. Noticing the small and large details and where they interact with one another can only be accomplished through human consciousness. When individuals engage with works of art in this way and construct meaning through the viewing process, the experience becomes the primary reason for looking.
Paintings Revealed After 40 Years
As a historian, I am concerned with the story and the significance of genuine ideas, and as an art aficionado, I am fascinated by the powerful experiences one can have with works of art.
In the 1960s, owner Erich Neumeth acquired the images exhibited, plus an unknown number making their way through the art market, from a debt owed to him. Tucked away for 40 years, only in the last 10 years have the images received outside interest (see figure 5). The unveiling of these works is timely, as many scholars wrestle with questions and issues regarding authorship. As a result of this exhibition, the images are now part of visual culture.
Several issues exist regarding the paintings, including provenance, the reliability of science, and Pollock’s impact on the art world, which still reverberate. An artist who enacted a process often compared to performance art, Jackson Pollock danced around his canvases, spreading, pouring, and dripping. Interestingly, his dance continues metaphorically as the art field shimmies around sticky issues of attribution. Through Revisiting Pollock, we reacquaint ourselves with the man and the myth, while simultaneously attempting to engage with the works objectively as art. While some historical questions are easily answered, others dealing with attribution perhaps will emerge with time. However, in the end, great works of art are displayed for us to enjoy. The potential value should not determine importance. Rather, it is the experience we esteem. The process of looking at and thinking about art is the activity we facilitate, and hopefully, through this exhibition, you will engage with the paintings and revisit Pollock.
James Daichendt, Ed.D., is the exhibitions director and associate professor of art at Azusa Pacific University. As a scholar, he has written on modern topics, including the intricacies of the artist-teacher while serving as an administrator for The Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, teaching at Queens College, City University of New York. He received a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University; master’s degrees from Boston University and Harvard University; and a bachelor’s degree from Azusa Pacific University.
This article was originally published by Azusa Pacific University for the exhibition: Revisiting Pollock held at the Duke Art Gallery at Azusa Pacific University from October 4-11, 2008. The Department of Art faculty and students carefully framed and hung 7 canvases and 10 works on paper lent by Erich Neumeth to record crowds and critical success for the highly anticipated exhibition.
Buchanan, M. (2007). Fractals can’t separate the fakes from the Pollocks. New Scientist, 196(2629), 11.
Coddington, J. (1999). No chaos damn it. In K. Varnedoe and P. Karmel (Eds.), Jackson Pollock: New approaches (pp. 101–116). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Edgers, G. (2007, January 30). Harvard study casts more doubt on disputed Pollock paintings. The Boston Globe.
Edwards, K. D. (2006). Jackson Pollock in the cultural context of America, 1943—1956: Class, mess, and un-American activities. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.
Jacobs, J. (1968). Of myths and men. Art in America, 56(1), 121–125.
Friedman, B. H. (1995). Jackson Pollock: Energy made visible. New York: Da Capo Press.
Greenberg, H. (1965). America takes the lead 1945–1965. Art in America, 43(4), 108–109.
Kantor, J. B. (2003). Jackson Pollock’s late paintings, 1951–1955. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
Kennedy, R. (2006, November 6). Could be a Pollock; Must be a yarn. New York Times.
Mureika, J. R., Cupchik, G. C., & Dyer, C. C. (2004, February). Multifractal fingerprints in the visual arts. Leonardo, 37(1), 53–56.
Taylor, R. P. (2002, December). Order in Pollock’s chaos. Scientific American, 116–121.
Taylor, R. P., Micolich, A. P., & Jonas, D. (2002, April). The construction of Jackson Pollock’s fractal drip paintings. Leonardo, 35(2), 203–207.
Taylor, R., Micolich, A. P., & Jonas, D. (1999, October). Fractal expressionism: Can science be used to further our understanding of art? Physics World, 12(10), 25.
Moses, H. (Director). (2006). Who the #%%EDITORCONTENT%%amp;% is Jackson Pollock? [Motion Picture]. United States: Picture House.
O’Hara, F. (1959). The great American artist series: Jackson Pollock. New York: George Braziller, Inc.
Plessix, F., & Gray, C. (1967). Who was Jackson Pollock? Art in America, 55(3), 48–59.
Soussloff, C. M. (2004). Jackson Pollock’s post-ritual performances: Memories arrested in space, The Drama Review, 48(1), 60-78.
Stiles, K., & Selz, P. (Eds.). (1996). Theories and documents of contemporary art: A sourcebook of artist’s writings. Los Angeles, University of California Press.
Varnedoe, V. (1999). Open-ended conclusions about Jackson Pollock. In K. Varnedoe and P. Karmel (Eds.), Jackson Pollock: New approaches (pp. 233–245). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
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by John Hallmark Neff – From Revisiting Pollock – Azusa Pacific Exhibition Catalog
How do we know it the works in this exhibition were made by Jackson Pollock? And why do we care?
The paintings in this collection are characteristic of the 1947-50 period, in which Pollock, sober and focused, made his so-called drip (or pour) paintings, which suddenly propelled him to worldwide fame as “Jack the Dripper.”
Are they valuable because no great collection of 20th century art could be considered complete without at least one Pollock, one of the “breakthrough” paintings that played a major role in the cultural shift in hegemony from the School of Paris to the School of New York? Are they valuable because certain European critics and artists acclaimed Pollock as the first American painter to have made a difference in Western art, thereby extending his fame beyond the U.S.? Or is it merely because of their potential value in today’s global art market that we want to know if they are indeed “authentic”?
Perhaps it is because we seek reassurance of the integrity of the Pollock canon. The canon manifest in the exemplary work of the Pollock catalogue raisonne team established standards for authentication and attempted to account for each and every one of his objects, paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and miscellaneous objects (O’Conner & Thaw, 1978; O’Conner, 1995). Following Pollock’s death, this became a necessity due to numerous fakes, forgeries, and attempted copies that began to appear. Additionally, pickers scoured Long Island for overlooked Pollocks given to friends or bartered for services or groceries.
Do we care about authentication because this particular group of exhibited works questions our understanding of Pollock’s achievement and poses the risk that we might praise what we can’t confirm? Skeptics may relish the prospect that “experts” who think enough of Pollock’s work to study it in detail may be fooled, thereby calling into question their claims of its significance.
Does their unexpected appearance keep the Pollock saga open-ended? Or might the fascinating CSI-like analysis of splatter patterns offer an intriguing distraction from news about the economy and the War on Terror?
Mistakenly, Pollock is often identified solely with his three years of poured, “overall” paintings. Yet many artists in the 1930s and early 1940s in Europe and the United States practiced dripping. Art classes also used this technique to facilitate a student’s confrontation with a blank canvas and to probe the unconscious for imagery.
Pollock’s approach was very much his own, although some critics, including many cartoonists, believed that making a Pollock was fool’s play.
Stanley William Hayter, who came to New York from Paris in 1940, and in whose progressive Atelier 17 Pollock made etchings, challenged skeptics to try to imitate Pollock:
Go to it, and I’ll bet you that not one of you can make one square inch of anything that could be mistaken for what Pollock’s done … And they couldn’t because it’s absolutely distinctive, more than handwriting. It’s like attempts at faking Pollocks: You can’t be fooled (Potter, 1987).
Hans Namuth’s famous black and white photographs that originally accompanied Robert Goodnough’s “Pollock Paints a Picture” article in Art News (May 1951), and his color movie, in addition to photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, show the artist at work. Pollock leans in from all sides above the un-stretched linen or cotton-duck flat on the studio floor, or outdoors on a concrete slab, drawing rhythmically through the air. Using sticks, stubby brushes, pierced paint cans, even basting syringes loaded with liquid oil paint or enamel, his gestures and gravity guiding into marks and stains.
First impressions and films aside, however, scientific, analysis confirms the pour paintings weren’t simply the result of a single prolonged outburst of energy and concentration, but evolved during numerous re-workings. This is similar to Monet, whose famous Grain Stacks and other series, once thought to have been completed rapidly outdoors to catch the changing light, were in fact refined later in the studio to work as an ensemble.
Pollock often returned to his paintings to nuance, inflect, or intensify colors, adjust the reflective or absorbent qualities of matte and gloss paints, submerge and/or reaffirm discrete images, and throw them back into the ambiguous flux of his painting. Indeed, his best work is as visually and materially complex as the Old Masters he most admired (Coddington, 1999; Karmel, 1999; Mancusi-Ungaro, 1999; Storr, 1999). Pollock frequently insisted that his work was not accidental, but controlled.
Nor is it simply “abstract.” Infra-red, ultra-violet, and other sophisticated imaging techniques reveal that beneath even the most “atomized” of Pollock’s constellations lies the representational (if calligrapl1ic) armature for what we experience as abstractions, those stick figures and heads to which he returned in 1951 after the three-year run of pour paintings that made his reputation (Karmel, 1999).
His physically complex paintings contain unique structure and are seemingly forgery-proof. Yet Pollock’s idiosyncrasies and superstitions complicate the task of authenticating possible forgeries.
For instance, Pollock would often invite friends to add marks of their own. And, in order “to goad him to work” during one of his debilitating bouts of depression, artist Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, sometimes initiated painting on the bare canvases herself.
Nor did Pollock like to sign his work. He hated it, famously procrastinating until the last minute when creating paintings for exhibitions or a rare collector. To sign his name imposed unwelcome closure and the end of possibilities – a kind of death.
Titles proved equally limiting. He avoided naming his work until pressed to do so, welcoming suggestions and feeling free to change them later. This further complicated identifications, exhibition histories, and provenance.
His works from the 1930s into the mid-1940s received verbal, allusive titles derived from invocations of classical and Mezzo-American mythology, his years spent with artist and mentor Thomas Hart Benton, his transformative experience working with Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, and his Jungian-based therapy. As his work became more abstract around 1947, moving away from Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Orozco, and others, he began to number the works instead, only occasionally using names. In order to simplify inventory, his new dealer Sidney Janis urged Pollock to use names. This coincided with the reappearance of the figure in Pollock’s paintings and drawings around 1951-52, reemerging from its structural, generative role beneath his veils of looping lines, drips, and spatters. This startling change appeared regressive to fellow artists and once-supportive critics.
These quirks and inconsistencies were compounded in the aftermath of Pollock’s fatal car crash the evening of August 11, 1956, not far from his modest home in Springs on Long Island. Krasner quickly took charge to sort out the contents of his studio. Even so, close friends were certain that some paintings had already been removed from the old converted barn during the confusion. Krasner established three categories: those done by Jackson, those done by others, and “collaborations.”
Not surprisingly, these paintings and drawings were largely unsigned, though Pollock’s finger-, hand-, and footprints, and cigarette ash also witness to his authorship. Allegedly, some of these were inscribed by his widow, others at her behest. Consequently, we have examples of authentic Pollocks with forged signatures, but apparently not vice-versa (Potter, 1987).
These and other authentication issues may be resolved in time. Even so, does it matter? What is so important about the paintings of Jackson Pollock, apart from their value as cultural commodities? Why do we care?
Is it the art historical legacy of Pollock’s process, not his imagery, that liberated younger artists? Richard Serra splashed liquid lead into a corner to form sculpture untouched by his hand. Barry Le Va created scatter piece installations. Robert Morris used gravity to give sculptural form to incised rectangles of suspended felt. Not to mention Helen Frankenthaler’s stain paintings and Color Field Painting, among others.
Or is it perhaps what the great Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, accompanied by artists Gino Severini and Lucio Fontana, saw in 1950 when previewing the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale? He turned around and saw a painting by an artist unknown to him and said, “Ah, ah .. . this is new. Vitality, energy-new!” (Potter, 1987).
For this writer, that says it all. More than 50 years later, Pollock’s best work remains powerful-still challenging, still new, still intense, still raising questions.
Art historian John Hallmark Neff, /Matisse, Kiefer, 8. Newman, Art m Public Spaces), is an independent scholar, curator, and consultant for museums and foundations. Formerly director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago and other museums, he taught 19th and 20th century European and American art history at Williams College and was art advisor to the former First National Bank of Chicago. He received a B.A. and Ph. D. from Harvard University.
O’Connor, F. V., & Thaw, E. V. (1978). Jackson Pollock: A catalogue raisonne of paintings, drawings, and other works. New Haven: Yale University Press.
O’Connor, F. V. (Ed.) (1995). Supplement number one to Jackson Pollock: A catalogue raisonne of paintings, drawings, and ot11er works. New York: The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Inc.
Potter. J. (1987). To a violent grave, An oral biography of Jackson Pollock (pp. 98, 268). Wainscott. New York: Pushcart Press.
Coddington, J. (1999). No chaos damn It. In Varnedoe, K. & Karmel, P. (Eds.), Jackson Pollock, new approaches (pp. 101-1 15). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Karmel, P. (1999) A sum of destructions. In Varnedoe. K. & Karmel, P. (Eds.), Jackson Pollock, new approaches (pp. 71-99). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Mancusi-Ungaro, C. C. (1999). Jackson Pollock: Response as dialogue. In Varnedoe, K. & Karmel, P. (Eds.). Jackson Pollock, new approaches (pp. 11 7-1 20 and 145-153). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Storr, R. (1999) A piece of the action. In Varnedoe, K. & Karmel, P. (Eds.). Jackson Pollock, now approacties (pp. 33-69). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Paintings from the Azusa Pacific exhibition
P4 28×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 20
P2 26×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 21
E3 28×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 22
P1 28×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 23
E4 26×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 24
M6 26×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 25
H7 26×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 26
E6 28×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 27
D7 26×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 28
P3 28×40 in – oil on paper – catalog page 29
C1 52×126 in – oil on canvas – catalog page 36
(Referred to in Richard Taylor’s letter as Revelation I)
S5 38×47 in – oil on canvas – catalog page 30
J9 30×48 in – oil on canvas – catalog page 31
C14 24×72 in – oil on canvas – catalog page 32
C13 24×77 in – oil on canvas – catalog page 33
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