Fuse Flash: Another Shoe off the Pollock Matters Centipede?

For those still perusing the shopping mall of controversies built around the Pollock Matter Affair (see past Fuse Flash and Anonymous Sources posts) another well-polished shoe (or more) may drop later this month at an International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) symposium in New York City.


The program, titled “Are They Pollocks? What Science Tells Us About the Matter Paintings,” takes place on November 28 at the National Academy building in Manhattan. The most anticipated speaker on the IFAR roster is James Martin of Orion Analytical L.L.C. in Williamstown, MA. Martin is the author of a mysterious “third scientific report” on the group of disputed Jackson Pollock-like paintings found in 2002 in a storage locker belonging to photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter, a close friend of Jackson and his wife, Lee Krasner.

Unlike scientific studies of the Matter works previously released by the Harvard University Art Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (both of which found materials in most of the paintings that are widely believed not to have been available during Pollock’s lifetime), Martin’s report has never been made public. It has been read by a number of people close to the Pollock Matter controversy, though.

Publicly known details of Martin’s study, released via the media or summarized in the MFA’s report, suggest that his study does not support any attribution of the Matter works to Jackson Pollock. In fact, Martin is alleged to have withheld his findings thus far out of fear of a lawsuit from those with financial interests in the works, including Alex Matter, Herbert Matter’s son, who discovered the paintings.

Also speaking at the IFAR program are Richard Newman, head of scientific research at the MFA and principal author of the MFA report, and Pepe Karmel, associate professor of art history at New York University. Professor Karmel is possibly the only recognized Pollock specialist that has not already expressed a public opinion about the Matter paintings.

Founded in 1969 “to fill a need for an impartial and scholarly body to educate the public about problems and issues in the art world and to research the attribution and authenticity of works of art,” IFAR has well established, overlapping connections to several key players in the Pollock Matter controversies, including Harvard University, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. The current list of IFAR’s Art Advisory Council includes Arthur C. Beale, former Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard University Art Museums and chair emeritus, Conservation and Collections Management at the MFA; David G. Mitten, curator emeritus of Ancient Art at the Harvard University Art Museums and Loeb Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at Harvard; Konrad Oberhuber (who died earlier this year), former curator of drawings at the Harvard University Art Museums; and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., former curator of American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and current curator of American art at the Harvard University Art Museums.

Stebbins and Ron Spencer, attorney for the Pollock Krasner Foundation and the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board and frequent spokesman for both organizations (see “Fuse Flash: The Warhol-Pollock Axis” October 10), both participated in a December 2001 IFAR conference on “Catalogues Raisonnées and the Authentication Process: Where the Ivory Tower Meets the Marketplace.” IFAR Journal, IFAR’s main publication, has published several articles by Ron Spencer, including “Suits against the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board,” in volume 8. (Spencer was attorney for the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board during its existence in the early 1990s.)

The organization’s journal has also published work by Pollock scholar Francis V. O’Connor, co-editor with E.V. Thaw (founding president of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation) of the Pollock catalogue raisonnée,. O’Connor and Thaw, both also associated with the former Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board, were among the first to speak publicly against attributing the Matter paintings to Jackson Pollock.

Will the IFAR program finally close the book on this long running, high profile case? Well, maybe not. There are said to be at least four additional studies underway on various issues related to the Matter paintings, including some second and third looks at the scientific methods used to study them.

Meanwhile, the once aggressive media interest in the Matter controversies has faded but not altogether. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Steven Litt, a consistent critic of attempts to authenticate the Matter paintings as Pollocks, summarized his discussions with 15 paint chemists and other pigment experts in an October 24 Plain Dealer piece.

Only one of Litt’s sources told him there was more than a “very small” possibility that the anachronistic pigments were available prior to their commercial introduction, well after Pollock’s death in several cases. But other observers note that the history of modern pigments is very poorly understood and that similar “majority opinion” journalism also proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Interested scholars and scientists are also beginning to discuss the array of tangential questions raised by the Matter works, including Pollock’s previously underappreciated relationship to Herbert Matter and his use of unconventional materials in his work.

Jackson Pollock is well known to have been an avid experimenter with paints and pigments as well as in artistic technique. But only a handful of his fully authenticated works have been studied with anything like the scientific rigor imposed on the Matter paintings. The attributions in the Pollock catalogue raisonnée, base line for all Pollock authentication, were made almost entirely without scientific confirmation. Once more Pollock paintings are scientifically studied, some wonder, will still more surprises and mysteries turn up?

Art world insiders point out that attribution controversies like those of the Pollock Matter Affair often drag on quietly for decade after decade, with each side of the debate endlessly searching for the one overwhelming argument or compelling piece of evidence that will force the other side to back down. That almost never happens, though. Instead, time itself often has a way of sorting out the unquestionably authentic from the clearly fraudulent and the infinite gradations that lie in between the two.

Outright fakes, created to dazzle the art audience of a particular moment in time, typically date very badly, looking downright preposterous after a generation or two. (It is almost impossible to believe, in 2007, that Hans van Meergeren’s infamous “Vermeers” fooled Europe’s most distinguished specialists in the 1930s.) At the same time, outstanding artistic quality, like that of the frequently reattributed “Polish Rider” at the Frick Collection in New York, tends to survive after the original doubters have passed from the scene. Sometimes such a beloved work can win a coveted artistic label by popular acclaim alone— at least until a new crop of scholars raises its own questions.

And so it goes.

Admission to the November 28 IFAR event is by ticket only. See the IFAR website for more information. The Matter paintings are on view, free of charge, in the exhibition Pollock Matters, at B.C.’s McMullen Museum through December 9.

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