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.
Thomas Garvey says
Really, Marx – who is this “anonymous source” rhapsodizing about some “Zen-like zone of calm” in the Matter Pollocks? And why are you spinning Newman’s findings this way? Newman’s essay – via the suppressed Martin report – states that 16 of the Matter paintings include pigments unavailable to Pollock – that’s more than two thirds of the total. So only seven could even have possibly been painted during Pollock’s lifetime. Curators and the public have almost always been taken in by forgeries – hence the ballooning/shrinking oeuvres of Giorgione, Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc., etc. But rarely has the trick been accomplished in full view, out in the open.
For the information of our readers, Richard Newman’s summary remarks appear on pg. 122 of the Pollock Matters exhibition catalogue. There he suggests, based on all three of the scientific studies of the paintings, that some of the Matter paintings “could have been painted by Pollock,” but others “seem not to have been painted by Pollock.” In a third group of Matter paintings, Newman says, “Pollock could have been involved in the beginning stages of the painting, but not the latter stages.” Elsewhere in the catalogue (p. 120) Newman cautions that “Analysis of painting materials, as carried out for this essay, cannot prove that a painting was done by a particular artist. At best, a strong case can be made for the possibility if the materials and techniques identified are known to have been used by the artist in question.” [Emphasis added]
The catalogue contains eight essays in all, all of which contribute fresh information to the debate.
Thomas Garvey says
You know, a truly intriguing subject of academic study would be the mindset that keeps finding excuses to believe in the “Matter Pollocks,” no matter what. But thanks for parsing Newman so carefully – although you’ve only brought out the inherent foolishness of his careful articulated position. Really, are we so far gone that now we’re imagining some of the Matter paintings might have been “begun” by Pollock but then “finished” by somebody else? And what exactly does that last quoted sentence mean (it sounds like a conditional double negative)? The bottom line is that two analyses of the paintings indicate that most of them were definitely not painted by Jackson Pollock. This does not imply that the remaining few were done by Pollock; indeed, as the paintings were all found together, common sense would dictate that none of them are by Pollock.
Greg Cook says
Something to consider that I noted in this week’s Boston Phoenix:
Landau and Cernuschi point out that the MFA study says the possibility of Pollock’s “having painted, or simply started, some of them cannot, at this point, be categorically excluded.” But when the MFA researchers found post-Pollock materials, they were always in the earliest layers of the paintings. Someone would have to have started them after Pollock died and then let Pollock have his turn.
The Pollock Matter exhibition catalogue essay entitled “Scientific Examination of the Paint on Nine Matter Paintings” by Richard Newman and Michele Derrick of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, actually summarizes the results of three separate scientific studies (the MFA study, a previously released study by conservators at Harvard University, and a third, unpublished study by Orion Analytical LLC) of a total of twenty-six Matter paintings. Several of the paintings were included in more than one study. Newman and Derrick’s summary of all twenty-six studied paintings (quoted above) concludes that they fall into three groups: paintings with no “anachronistic” materials, which “could have been painted by Pollock;” paintings with “anachronistic materials in the lowermost layers” which “seem not to have been painted by Pollock,” and paintings with “anachronistic materials” in “parts of the structure, but not necessarily in all parts, particularly [not in] the lowermost layers.” For this last group, they say, “Pollock could have been involved in the beginning stages of the painting, but not the latter stages.” A fourth group of two Matter paintings have not undergone any material analysis.
Newman and Derrick examined six paintings that were also part of the Orion study and examined a further three paintings not part of the other two studies for a total of nine. Two of the three newly analyzed paintings from the MFA study fall into the “could have been painted by Pollock” category. The third, with “anachronistic” materials on lower levels, falls into the “seems not to have been painted by Pollock” category. Newman and Derrick also discuss the methodology used in creating these paintings.
As the new data about the Matter paintings are extremely complex, difficult to summarize, and open to misinterpretation, we urge all interested parties to consult the exhibition catalogue with great care.
Thomas Garvey says
Oh yes, let’s keep parsing that catalogue ad infinitum – but meanwhile, don’t forget that the work of “conservator” Franco Lisi looks quite a bit like the “Pollocks” he supposedly restored . . . hmmmm . . . And let’s also remember (this is my favorite part!) that for a while Alex Matter’s cat was supposed to have clawed away part of one of them . . . you know, I think I’ve changed my mind – I’m GLAD the McMullen staged this hilarious show!
Robert J. Miskines says
It has been many years past the discovery of these paintings. Where are they today? Are there images available on the internet for lay people to evaluate. I think it would make a great high school art history debate lesson.