One of the most controversial exhibitions in decades, Pollock Matters, curated by Case Western Reserve Professor Ellen Landau and others, opened quietly at Boston College’s McMullen Museum just this past Labor Day weekend. But it is already turning heads.
In a preliminary look at the show, published last Saturday, the Boston Globe’s art critic Ken Johnson writes: “If the two dozen small paintings discovered by Alex Matter five years ago… are not by Jackson Pollock, then I’d like to congratulate whoever did make them. Now on view for the first time in a fascinating, much anticipated exhibition … they are beautiful little pictures. If they are not by the master, they are expert imitations in miniature of the great abstract expressionist’s late-1940s drip and dribble style works.”
This is a far cry from where things stood six months ago. Then the report of a scientific study, carried out by conservation scientists at Harvard University on a selection of these same paintings, cast serious doubt on their authenticity. Some of the materials in the works Harvard examined, the report claimed, were not available during Pollock’s lifetime. Most of the art world commentators and their media confidants concluded the Matter paintings were, in fact, fakes.
Added to the disparaging remarks of other art historians, some of them connected with the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Harvard report seemed to completely dismiss both the works and Landau’s belief in their authenticity. Clouded in swirling controversies, the already scheduled McMullen exhibition looked like it might not weather the storm.
Now the worm may turn again. Two further scientific studies of the disputed paintings, one conducted by Richard Newman, conservation scientist at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, determined that at least some of the disputed works could, in fact, have been painted in the 1940s, when Pollock was developing his famous dripped style. Newman’s essay in the exhibition catalogue, along with essays by Landau, experts in artists’ pigments, and others raise a host of intriguing new questions about the mysterious paintings.
“I can’t think of another museum show quite like this,” says our source. “Most art historical exhibitions grow out of the consensus of years of scholarly work. Few of them have the capacity to surprise, shock, and turn around minds. Even fewer feature a range of previously unknown, disputed works of this quality.
“The Matter paintings themselves are quite extraordinary. They certainly do not have the tentative, derivative quality you usually associate with deliberate forgeries. At the same time, the best of them have an assured self-confidence and control you don’t always get even in some of Pollock’s better known works. It is as if they were created in some special, Zen-like zone of calm Pollock, always a tormented soul, rarely could reach.
“These paintings have an especially strong presence that belies their small size. Though some of the unknown works at the McMullen seem very different from any previously recognized Pollock style, others fit perfectly with what Pollock was doing in the 1940s.
“On top of that, you get a mass of new material about Pollock’s important but previously mostly overlooked relationship with Herbert and Mercedes Matter [Alex Matter’s parents]. This alone has the potential to radically alter what we think of Pollock as an artist. It is a lot of new data in a relatively small space. It’s going to take me some time to absorb it all.