Fuse Flash: Cabal? What Cabal? Pollock Experts Move in Small Circles

Only months ago, developments in the Pollock Matter controversies made news around the world (See past Fuse Flash and Anonymous Sources).

But the Nov. 28 International Foundation for Art Research [IFAR] symposium, “Are They Pollocks? What Science Tells Us About the Matter Paintings,” drew relatively scant media notice, even though it had been billed by some as the conclusion to one of the most heated debates in recent art world history.

None of the coverage of the IFAR symposium, moreover, mentioned the extensive, interconnected relationships between the symposium participants, IFAR, and several key players in the Pollock Matter Affair, especially the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.

Alex Matter and some of the paintings at the center of the controversy

The IFAR event, which concerned the authenticity, or lack thereof, of a group of paintings discovered in 2002 by filmmaker Alex Matter and attributed by some to Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, featured a lecture by James Martin of Orion Analytical, L.L.C., of Williamstown, MA.

Martin’s study of the Matter paintings was completed last year but not previously released to the public. His findings essentially confirmed two later studies, released in 2007, that found materials in about three-quarters of the works that are widely believed not to be available during Pollock’s lifetime.

Newspaper stories summarizing Martin’s talk appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Sun, and New York Times. The Boston Globe, which had previously devoted extensive space to the controversies and the related exhibition, Pollock Matters, when it opened at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art last September, did not provide its own coverage.

One of the three featured speakers at the IFAR symposium, Prof. Pepe Karmel, was co-organizer of the major 1998 Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art with the late Kirk Varnedoe, perhaps the museum’s most prominent curator at the time.

Both Varnedoe and Karmel taught at New York University, where Professor Karmel currently chairs the art history department.

Varnedoe also served on the former Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board, set up to pass judgment on the authenticity of reputed Pollock works. Although it was separately incorporated, the authentication board had close ties to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation through Eugene Victor Thaw, another board member and founding president of the foundation.

Thaw, a prominent New York art dealer and museum donor who has handled Pollock works in his business, was a close friend and advisor to the painter Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s
widow, during the last two decades of her life. After Krasner’s death in 1984, Thaw was the prime organizer of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, a non-profit corporation funded through Krasner’s will and supported, in large part, through sales of art work from the Pollock-Krasner Estate.

The foundation’s stated purpose is to give financial grants to working artists. Thaw is listed on its website as “president emeritus.”

Another of Varnedoe’s colleagues on the authentication board was Pollock scholar Francis V. O’Connor, co-editor, with Thaw, of the Jackson Pollock catalogue raisonné, published by Yale University Press in 1978. This key work and its supplements, which list works its editors claim are forgeries as well as ones they confirm as authentic, form the basic reference for all Pollock authentication issues.

O’Connor also wrote the catalogue for the important 1967 MoMA Pollock retrospective exhibition, organized by the late William Liebermann, another important MoMA curator who later held powerful positions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Liebermann was yet another member of the Pollock Authentication Board.

Case Western Reserve University professor Ellen Landau, a respected authority on both Pollock and Krasner, rounded out the roster of the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board. Landau received international notice when she attributed the Matter paintings to Pollock. That notice grew exponentially when her former colleagues, Thaw and O’Connor, opposed that attribution.

Landau declined an invitation to speak at the Nov. 28 IFAR symposium.

O’Connor has published in the quarterly IFAR Journal, IFAR’s chief publication, as has Ronald Spencer, attorney for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the former Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board as well as for several other artist foundations and authentication boards.

During the Matter controversies, Spencer served as a regular spokesman to the media for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, defending its positions and feeding inside information to reporters.

At least four members of IFAR’s Art Advisory Council are scholars, curators, or art conservators with close professional ties to either the Harvard University Art Museums or the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) or both. Both these institutions released scientific studies of the Matter paintings with essentially the same conclusions as Martin’s.

Richard Newman, principal author of the MFA study, was the third speaker at the Nov. 28 symposium.

Prior to working for the MFA, Newman was a conservation scientist at the Harvard University Art Museums. Another IFAR Art Advisory Council member, 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, was Newman’s superior at both institutions.

Yet another member of IFAR’s Art Advisory Council with interconnected relationships to these institutions is 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.

At the February 2006 College Art Association conference in Boston, during a session he chaired on “The Need for Connoisseurship in American Art,” Stebbins discussed several famous forgery cases and commented at the same time on the Matter Affair. He showed slides of some of the Matter works and reviewed Professor Landau’s lecture on the paintings, given in an earlier conference session.

In December 2001, before the Matter paintings were discovered, both Stebbins and Pollock-Krasner Foundation attorney Ronald Spencer spoke at another IFAR conference titled “Catalogues Raisonnés and the Authentication Process,” which concerned scholarly, financial, ethical, and legal issues with writing and publishing catalogues raisonnés. IFAR published the conference proceedings five years later in a double issue of IFAR Journal.

Samuel Sachs II, veteran director of several American art museums, wrote the introduction to that issue. He is identified in the IFAR publication as “President of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation… [and] also a member of the Board of Directors of IFAR.”

Spencer’s 2001 conference contribution, in a section of the publication headed “Legal Liability for Giving Opinions,” was called “Are Opinions Dangerous Things to Give? Suits Against the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board.”

In that paper, Spencer described three lawsuits brought against the authentication board alleging, in part, unfair market practices and conspiracy to limit the supply of authenticated Pollocks.

Joan Vitale, an art dealer who bought a painting attributed to Pollock at auction in 1969, brought the best known lawsuit against the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1993. Vitale had tried to sell her painting for many years without success. Early in the process, when Vitale took the painting to New York’s Marlborough Gallery for authentication by Lee Krasner, the work was confiscated and not returned for five years. It later appeared in O’Connor and Thaw’s catalogue in a section titled “False Attributions.”

According to Spencer, Vitale “took [her painting] to various galleries and auction houses, but was told the same thing by all: the Pollock authentication committee, at the time headed by Lee Krasner, would have to authenticate the painting before they would buy or auction it.”

Vitale’s suit claimed, Spencer said, “that the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board was monopolizing the authentication and sale of Pollock and Krasner paintings for the purpose of reducing the number of paintings on the market and driving the prices up to the benefit of the Foundation, which owned Pollock and Krasner paintings.”

“Of course,” Spencer continued, “any authentication board or committee that the art market recognizes as the last word on authenticity questions does have a kind of monopoly but it is a monopoly quite different from the one that Microsoft was alleged to have.” Spencer did not elaborate on his rationale for distinguishing between the two.

The Vitale suit eventually lost on a technicality— she had waited too long to sue. The judgments in two subsequent lawsuits, however, endorsed Spencer’s assertion that the plaintiffs had signed an enforceable contract clause that agreed not to sue the board or foundation no matter what opinion they issued.

The judge in the third suit, Emily Jane Goodman, also ruled that anyone who breached such an agreement by suing the board was liable for damages, including the defendant’s legal costs.

In other words, the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board and its successors were now free to issue irrefutable opinions that could transform paint and canvas to a modern masterpiece worth tens of millions and back again, with no public scrutiny, accountability, or recourse. Anyone who tried to avoid the board’s judgment would simply find that the art work they owned had no market value.

In his IFAR paper, Spencer hails these legal decisions (which must turn Wall Street brokers green with envy) as “a major victory for freedom of scholarship.”

And the successor to the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board? Apparently it is IFAR itself. Since the board was disbanded around 1996, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation has referred those seeking authentication to IFAR’s own authentication service.

One of those who sought authentication from IFAR was Teri Horton, the retired Californian truck driver who bought a Pollock-like canvas in a thrift shop for $5. Horton’s frustrating, 15-year quest to have her painting recognized as a genuine Pollock is described in the 2006 Harry Moses documentary Who The #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

In 2002, IFAR rejected Horton’s Pollock attribution in an unsigned, undated commentary without a letterhead. The report explained that “in this case, as in all reviews of works attributed to Pollock, the experts have requested that we not reveal their names.” IFAR has refused to comment further on the report.

In his summary conclusions to the 2001 IFAR catalogue conference, Stebbins wrote “years ago when prices were low and lawyers disinterested, the fact that the art history field is disorganized to the point of chaos could be seen as charming. Now it is dangerous… As several speakers [at this conference] have said, the potential for conflict of interest is everywhere. There is no question about this. All of us who deal with the market in any way need to be aware as we can be of potential or perceived conflicts.”

But six years later, at the IFAR Pollock symposium on Nov. 28, Stebbins struck no such note of caution. Instead, according to the New York Sun, Stebbins asked Profesor Karmel: “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…” Professor Karmel answered. “There was the truck driver lady. 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. Those of us who are scholars don’t want to get involved.”

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts