The New York Sun’s Kate Taylor sheds more light on the Nov. 29 symposium, “Are They Pollocks? What Science Tells Us About the Matter Paintings,” sponsored by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). Perhaps less pressed by deadlines, Taylor’s Nov. 30 article provides a more complete summary of the event than reporter Randy Kennedy did in his Nov. 29 summary in the New York Times.
“The saga of the Matter Pollocks, Taylor writes, “…appears to have reached a quiet conclusion on Wednesday night, at an event sponsored by the International Foundation for Art Research that was alternately suspenseful, comic, and just plain odd.”
The symposium discussed scientific studies and other scholarship on a group of abstract paintings, reportedly discovered by Alex Matter in 2002 and attributed by some to the great Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Heated debate over that attribution has created one of the most high profile art controversies in recent decades.
Among the somewhat surreal highlights of the event, according to Taylor, was the presence of Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend during the final, tormented months of his life. Kligman survived the drunken 1956 car crash that ended Pollock’s life and killed a female friend of Kligman’s who was also riding in Pollock’s car at the time.
Besides the featured speech by James Martin of Orion Analytical L.L.C. of Williamstown, MA, the IFAR event included the opinions of New York University art historian Pepe Karmel, a leading Pollock authority who had not previously spoken publicly about the paintings. Karmel, who co-organized the major 1998 Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, argued against the Pollock attribution, claiming that “the Matter paintings were generally more homogeneous and repetitive in composition [than similar known Pollocks], while the confirmed Pollocks were often asymmetrical.”
Martin and Richard Newman of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and author of another scientific study of some of the Matter paintings, both argued that materials found in about three quarters of the studied paintings were not available during Pollock’s lifetime. Newman’s report, and a third study completed at Harvard University, reaching similar conclusions, had been previously released to the public and have received extensive media coverage.
According to Taylor “[t]he general response of scholars to the case seemed to be summed up by a post-presentation question from a curator of American art at the Harvard University Art Museums, Theodore Stebbins Jr. Addressing himself to Mr. Karmel, Mr. Stebbins asked: ‘Since most people agree that, with a very few exceptions, they don’t look like Pollocks, why are we here? Why did this [story] have legs?’
“’Fear,’ Mr. Karmel responded, noting that experts who offer opinions about authenticity risk being sued by disgruntled owners. ‘There was the truck driver lady,’ he continued, referring to Teri Horton, whose efforts to get a painting she purchased at a thrift shop authenticated as a Pollock were documented in the film Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? ‘She asked me to be interviewed for some TV program, and in her e-mail she was going on about the cabal of art historians and dealers, Mr. Karmel said. ‘Those of us who are scholars don’t want to get involved.’
Apparently, few, if any, defenders of the Pollock attribution were present at the IFAR event. Professor Ellen Landau of Case Western Reserve University, who had attributed the paintings to Pollock and co-organized the Pollock Matters exhibition, declined to attend. Alex Matter, who reportedly discovered the paintings in his parents’ estate, was also absent. According to Taylor, IFAR’s executive director, Sharon Flescher, “struggled to keep the discussion balanced, interjecting at points to defend Ms. Landau in absentia.”
“Kligman, Taylor concluded, provided “the most entertaining cameo appearance of the evening” when she asked whether research had been done on the “gesture.” Taylor described Kligman’s “elongated vowels of distain” when she proclaimed “These were all painted from the wrist. Jackson would never have done these.”