Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Whose Drips and Splatters? Pollock Matters Exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art

On display in a subterranean corner of Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art are paintings from a recently discovered cache of art works found in a storage locker; they are the focus of a current exhibition entitled Pollock Matters. Controversy over the possibility of their attribution to Jackson Pollock has necessitated the seemingly unlikely pairing of art historians and scientists from the disciplines of both analytical chemistry and theoretical physics on a grand scale in an attempt to use all the resources available to make the most conclusive determination of their provenance. Their scientific analyses could be likened to some TV CSI drama if we were to not only pay heed to recent press coverage but consider the predominant focus of this exhibition’s own catalogue. Scientists have both sought to profile the individual or individuals responsible for these works as well as identify the creative methodology responsible for them.

The investigation of these works, now known as the "Matter paintings," has included the identification and examination of a fingerprint extant as well as the discovery of a matching one found on art materials at Jackson Pollock’s own Southampton, Long Island studio. These findings were the impetus for subsequent analyses and the comparison of paint samples found at the studio with one taken from one of the paintings. Aiding in this particular investigation has been state-of-the-art forensic technology like Fourier transform infrared and Raman spectrometry. Scientists like Richard Newman and Michele Derrick, from the MFA’s own Scientific Research Lab, have focused on the examination of inorganic paint pigments in order to date these paintings contemporaneous to Pollock. Ultimately, they have sought evidence to prove or disprove whether these paintings were indeed created as and when the labeled brown paper wrapper they were reputedly found in would lead us to believe. It was that brown paper wrapper, which includes the inscription "Pollock (1946-49)" and "32 Jackson experimental Works (gift +purchase)," that necessitated, perhaps almost immediately, a determination of whether the paintings contained within are the work of the iconic Abstract Expressionist or not.

Disputes over provenance are not uncommon, and works by long dead artists continue to be discovered. Other Pollocks have come to light in recent years and are still likely to be discovered. And one might think that Alex Matters, the discoverer of these disputed paintings and the son of the late Henry and Mercedes Matter, friends of artists Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, and artists in their own right, would be the likely bearer of some previously undocumented, authentic paintings by Pollock. But it is these paintings’ seemingly unorthodox appearance and their definition as "experimental" that have brought their provenance into question by the art community at large. Foremost among the questions raised is " why hadn’t they come to light earlier, given that the elder Matters, had not only contributed to the official documentation of Pollock’s late and most iconic work during their own lifetimes. Moreover, there is strong evidence that they would have taken advantage of an opportunity to benefit financially from the considerable market value of such works had they been known to exist and been genuine.

Other recent Pollock discoveries have more irrefutably bore the mark of the artist. While the small format of the majority of the Matter paintings defies the popular conception that Pollock exclusively painted large canvases, and many of his best known drip paintings seemingly support that, this was one of the first popular misconceptions about the Matter paintings. Although labeled "experimental," some argue that their small format would not have allowed Pollock’s exceedingly kinesthetic style of painting to evolve, but rather it would have resulted in constraints that the artist reputedly sought to avoid in the adoption of his free flowing method of creation. Size is the focus of Claude Cernuschi and Andrzej Herczynski’s own study, which resulted in the essay "Cutting Pollock Down to Size: Boundaries of the Poured Technique." The essay poignantly begins with a quote from Pollock himself: "‘I enjoy working big and—whenever I have the chance, I do it whether it’s practical or not...I’m just more at ease in a big area than I am on something 2x2; I feel more at home in a big era." Their study of the Pollock oeuvre seems to contradict the artist himself. Although Pollock may have idealized such circumstances for the creative process his output only includes twenty five percent of large proportion, and many fall within a range of 3x3 feet, close to the size of the Matter paintings.

In addition, many have argued that the materials used in these works, revealed through chemical analyses to include "gouache," multiple types of paint mediums, and additives for the purposes of a desired fluidity, are decidedly uncharacteristic of the artist’s choices. Pollock is known to have purposely sought to maximize the rheological, flexible or elastic, behavior of his chosen paint medium, for this allowed him to achieve his signature, rhythmical, paint applications. There is significant documentation bearing witness to Pollock’s own knowledge of paint mixing and how to achieve the desired effect of greater elasticity. Through a procedure whereby his stick or dry brush never actually touched a painting’s support, he used the effects of gravity to drip and splash paint. He used the paint’s, natural or affected, fluidity to realize patterns of interweaving threads on the un-stretched canvas that he characteristically laid horizontally on the floor. These details of Pollock’s creative process are given visual prominence in Pollock Matters with two large-as- life photos of the artist at work in his Southampton studio. These add to any one of the many possible narratives that the visitor can construct from the offerings of this exhibition.

"Untitled no.9," among the Matter paintings, has revealed through analysis an "acrylic emulsion" that would support the idea that, like Pollock, whoever produced these paintings purposely mixed paints for reasons of elasticity. Analysis has also revealed a "plasticizer" in the purple-red pigment found on the drip paintings on paper in the exhibition, which could support attribution to Pollock given both the stylistic similarities to his work and his propensity for mixing paints. But even with state-of-the-art analysis at the forefront of this investigation, scientists repeatedly, as in the case of the aforementioned identified "plasticizer," were unable to provide an identification of that additive, or, ultimately, an irrefutable conclusion about many of the paints and materials examined. These, simply, may never be forthcoming because of the incomplete record of paints and other materials manufactured and used in the creation of art at any time.

One of the most potentially revealing sources of physical evidence in determining some of the unanswered questions in this investigation is the floor in Pollock’s studio that the artist once painted his un-stretched canvases directly on, according to Nicholas Eastaugh and Bhavini Gorsia’s "Preliminary Study"(143). This floor includes not only outlines of paintings attributable but a significant record of paints used by the artist. Scientists also believe that this paint may be contaminated, given that tourists currently tread on it. Scientists offer conjecture about what evidence may reveal, but the fear that significant contamination to this potential information source makes the discussion of the future discovery of any eventual conclusive evidence from specifically this source seemingly moot.

The discovery of a "latent impression" fingerprint on the recto of the painting "Untitled no.1" and matched with a fingerprint found on a paint can extant at Pollock’s studio has succeeded in confounding the situation even more. Since there is no known documentation of Pollock’s fingerprints, forensic verification relies solely on the provenance of those paint cans found decades after Pollock’s death in a studio subsequently used by his wife Lee Krasner. An inability to make a conclusive connection between Pollock and the paint cans casts doubt on the owner of those fingerprints; subsequently, these paint cans have been the focus of an extensive analysis of their contents which have been compared with paint samples from the Matter paintings.

The most conclusive and damning evidence against sole attribution of the Matter paintings to Jackson Pollock came from an analysis of samples from the paint cans and from the paintings themselves. Paints contemporaneous to Pollock were seemingly only found to exist below layers of more recent paint applications on some of the Matter paintings. This suggests that Pollock may have made some initial contribution that was subsequently added to by additional "campaigns" of paint in imitation of him by others in subsequent years. Findings also place considerable doubt on the paint cans as Pollock’s own because they held no remnants of "an acrylic resin" that has been proven to be one of the building blocks of Pollock’s drip painting methodology. Given these findings, we have to ask why should it be believed that Pollock himself ever used these cans, or that the fingerprint on them is his? The absence of Magna paint amongst these paint cans is also a point of contention, for it has also been established that Magna was a key ingredient to "all the late Pollocks" (149).

The significant cracking that characterizes the physical state of many of the Matter paintings has been attributed to multiple "campaigns" of paint application. These multiple layers of paint give credence to a theory that the substrate may include initial campaigns by Pollock with undocumented early examples of paint not yet patented or even available in American markets as well as subsequent campaigns of paint by an unknown artist or artists over the period of years. It is also plausible that such pigments, in addition to the Swiss-made "Robi paints" documented on the brown wrapping paper, that Henry Matter may have supplied for the artist’s use, were of either pre or post-Second World War era European manufacturing; therefore, allowing the possibility that their composition was neither patented nor documented in that time and place or known internationally.

Central to this analysis of paint was the determination of "terminal dates" for pigments used in the Matter paintings, which simply means the date before or after which the materials used in the paintings were not available. Any materials used that were identified as only existing after Pollock’s death date in 1956 "could not, ipso facto, have been used" by him (135). But, for argument’s sake, such desired termini could not be conclusively determined if one considers that some pigments may have been available to Pollock before their known patent date. Such concessions made by the authors of the scientific analyses of pigments further confound any conclusive determination of the provenance of these paintings. If we were to consider simply that the Matter paintings included titanium-coated mica pigment that documentation tells us only existed since the 1960s, or the presence of a shade of orange found in "Untitled no. 19" that contained two pigments of a paint class that only came on the market in 1971, or, finally, in the case of two of the Matter paintings, "Untitled no.17" and "Untitled no.19," the presence of a red pigment that wasn’t patented until 1983, we might totally abandon the idea of any attribution to Pollock. But what if these paints existed before their patent dates and simply weren’t documented?

Scientists have also sought to relate theoretical physics to an analysis of Pollock’s established brushwork in comparison with that exemplified in the Matter paintings. Specifically, a fractal analysis would focus on both the aforementioned drips and splashes of the artist’s work. Through microscopic studies of the painting’s surface the possibilities of Pollock’s own improvisational method of pouring and dripping paint and the "inherent fluid instabilities of his streams of paint" might allow the condition whereby the known factors of "chaos theory" may be present. These might be evidenced by particular geometrical patterns extant in the work. But this type of scientific analysis was also inconclusive, for only one of the Matter paintings presented the condition necessary for a fractal analysis. From the outset such an analysis could only "attempt to eliminate a work of art as genuine." More disappointingly such an analysis can not determine who was responsible for a work of art. That, according to Nicholas Eastaugh, in "Analyzing Jackson Pollock: Scientific Methods and the Study of the Matter Paintings," is "the job of the scholar" (133).

Confounding the possibility of a deception through imitation by someone is the inconsistent fact that these paintings were not produced with any thoughts of their survival for any length of
time, so why would someone have gone through all the trouble? Before their scientific analysis, some of the paintings were actually restored to the point of obstructing their verso making a complete examination of them difficult. Reinforcement was applied to the verso of some these presumably to reinforce their deteriorated state. Alex Matter has made the claim that there were works that disintegrated when he opened the aforementioned wrapping paper for the first time; hence, there was an immediate need for restoration. Photos documenting the warped state of some of the canvas board seems to support this decision, yet for some this decision has succeeded in further exasperating the suspicion that some type of fakery is at the heart of these paintings’ existence.

There are a number of other plausible scenarios regarding the origin of the Matter paintings suggested by the art, text, and material presented at Pollock Matters. The facts tell us that the Pollocks and the Matters were all artists in their own right and friends. The paintings were found among the belongings of Herbert Matter. They were packaged in a brown wrapping paper with an inscription and date verifiably written by the hand of Herbert Matter himself. The historical record tells us that Pollock’s career as a artist was less than stellar until his breakthrough drip paintings around the late 40s; in fact, Pollock was producing both semi-abstract paintings, that had characterized much of his career for a decade or more, and total abstractions, like Composition with Pouring II, as early as 1943. At the same time, and the McMullen provides examples of these for the purposes of comparison, Lee Krasner and the Mercedes Matters were experimenting with a similar fluidity of line in their respective mediums, as was Hans Hoffman, mentor to both Krasner and Mrs. Matter. Additionally, Herbert Matter, a photographer, had been experimenting with light pencils and long film exposures which resulted in squiggly white lines and multiple blurred poses of figures on exposed film, which are alarmingly like the "drip" paintings in their kinesthetic execution. It seems possible that all of these experiments and ideas were a popular topic of discussion among these friends. These ideas may have come together and been physically realized through some impromptu experimentation by Pollock and the others.

These disputed paintings may indeed be that missing link between Pollock’s earlier documented work and the studio paintings in his Southampton studio that brought him great recognition a short time later. I believe that because Pollock synthesized these ideas through repeated experimentation and executed a significant body of work he deserves the recognition he has received, but these other artists are part of a important narrative in art history. Their contributions to this specific moment should be mentioned too, and this scientific analysis that plays such a prominent role in Pollock Matters serves a novel function in that it presents a number of plausible narratives about the creative process of art; one of these might be that the Matter paintings are examples of that rarer occasion when collaboration included a communal execution of works as well.

Although this exhibition presents much scientific analyses, some of these studies remain decidedly inconclusive. The suggested inconsistencies in the termini of painting materials will succeed in maintaining the strong, initial intuition held by many that these painting are not the work of artist Jackson Pollock until some more conclusive evidence to the contrary comes to light. It is also likely that these findings will succeed at maintaining the initial mystery of these paintings for others who wish to perpetuate the notion that these paintings may not only be the work of Pollock but may collectively serve as a type of Rosetta stone for Abstract Expressionism, for such an outcome would mean that such art treasures still lay out there waiting to be discovered. Ultimately, this novel pairing of scientific analysis with art historical scholarship offers an exhibition experience that presents multiple narratives and invites the visitor to come up with their own conclusions.

Landau, Ellen G. And Claude Cernuschi, eds. Pollock Matters. Mc Mullen Museum of Art/Boston College, 2007.

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