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Recognized at the time of its making as a groundbreaking painting in both Jackson Pollock’s development as an abstract artist and the field of advanced American art, Mural of 1943 is a massive work—the largest that Pollock produced, in fact—at a staggering 95 5/8 × 237 3/4 inches. These monumental dimensions were prescribed by the size of the entryway in collector and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim’s Upper East Side townhouse. At just thirty-one years old, Pollock was still an unknown quantity in July 1943 when Guggenheim commissioned Mural (she gave Pollock carte blanche); began paying him a stipend of $150 per month as an advance against future sales; and scheduled his first solo show, held at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, for November of that year. Already by 1951, when Guggenheim donated Mural to the University of Iowa, Pollock’s idiosyncratic method of dripping and pouring paint onto canvases laid on the floor had gained him critical praise, institutional recognition, and commercial success, and made him emblematic of Abstract Expressionism. Though unfortunate, a flood that forced a permanent evacuation of the University of Iowa Museum of Art building in 2008 also created an opportunity to submit the painting to scientific analysis and conservation treatment at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in concert with the Getty Museum’s Paintings Conservation department. Mural was delivered to Los Angeles in July 2012, and this past spring was installed in a single-object exhibition jointly curated by Scott Schaefer, curator emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum; Tom Learner, head of science overseeing the GCI’s Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative; and Yvonne Szafran, head of paintings conservation at the Getty.
In the first of the exhibition’s two galleries, Mural throbs. As the painting was four times larger than any Pollock had previously created, the thinking goes that the canvas’s tremendous size enabled Pollock to finally and fully unleash forces that had been hinted at but restrained in earlier paintings dense with Jungian-analysis-informed imagery. A throng of large, intertwining curlicue shapes in dark brown, gray-green, blue-green, yellow, pink, and red jostle one another from edge to edge; knots of white paint fill in the spaces between the boisterous arabesques. A compositional skeleton laid down in umber brown amounts to the painting’s most salient vestige of figuration: a procession of approximately seven vertically oriented forms in striding positions. Torsos are curved lines that evoke arched backs; wide inverted Vs indicate legs, emphatically parading forward, right to left; here and there a loop of paint suggests a tossed-back head or gesticulating arm. So, if figures, they are stick figures. Surely the feeling of lifelikeness is equally a function of Pollock’s dynamic, gestural brushwork.
With one exception, the paints are oils. The Getty’s technical study reveals that the white paint applied between linear colored forms is a water-based casein (i.e., milk-derived) retail trade paint. One of the great surprises of the study, this finding is a cornerstone of the exhibition’s thesis, as identified in its title, that Mural is the transitional moment of Pollock’s career. The inclusion of a retail trade paint among high quality oils is understood as presaging Pollock’s later experiments with non-traditional paints, such as house paints, industrial enamels, aluminum paints, and solvent admixtures. Further supporting this thesis is the presence of splatters in red, orange, and yellow alongside thin skeins in pink evidently thrown or flung at the surface, which are presented as foretelling Pollock’s hallmark practice, begun in 1947, of pouring and dripping paint on horizontally oriented canvases (Mural was made in a vertical position). The transitional moment signifies a pivot away from figuration to pure abstraction, from the exclusive use of oils to experimentation with paints, from brushing and dabbing to pouring and dripping, and from small-scale easel paintings to mural-scale “wall pictures,” as Pollock called them.
Built into the notion of transition is the implication that the drip paintings that followed Mural by four years were somehow inevitable or that the course toward them was teleological. In this sense, the transition concept does not account for the fact that drip painting was a radical yet brief phase in Pollock’s production, lasting from 1947 to 1951, and followed by a return to figuration. More problematically, it risks suggesting that Mural’s value is verified only by the subsequent drip paintings—that what matters about Mural are its clues to Pollock’s succeeding, iconic methods.
The exhibition’s second gallery explicates the methods and discoveries of the technical study and conservation treatment in clear and fascinating wall texts, images (archival photographs, ultra-magnified views of paint samples), and video didactics. These focus on what the material facts of the piece illustrate concerning Pollock’s process; en route, viewers are brought up to date on the state of the art of conservation. For instance, the most persistent myth surrounding Mural is that it was painted in a twenty-four-hour period (legendarily, a frenzied, booze-fueled night), a claim made by Pollock’s wife, artist Lee Krasner, reiterated by Guggenheim in her memoirs, and codified in Pollock’s 1978 catalogue raisonné. The technical analysis concludes that distinct layers of dried paint beneath subsequent layers of slow-drying oils demonstrate that the painting could not have been generated in a single day. However, there are wet-into-wet interactions among the paints, and hyperspectral imaging reveals that the brown, figurative compositional substructure was laid down at the same time as three other highly diluted paints. Therefore, the story of the single-day genesis might have some truth to it, and might better pertain to Pollock’s initial campaign to sketch out the bones of the painting in broad, vigorous brushstrokes of umber, lemon yellow, dark teal, and cadmium red. This first phase of painting (certainly rapidly executed, maybe in an all-night session) was followed by one of adding definition and detail to the major forms in a variety of colors (some twenty-five paints in all) and a range of application techniques, and then a final phase of retouching (for example, cleaning up some of the paint trails).
The conservation treatment entailed removing a layer of acrylic resin varnish that had been applied by the University of Iowa Museum of Art in 1973. The varnish dulled Mural’s bright colors and leveled the differences between matte and glossy paints. It was essential to remove the varnish, as it threatened to become too insoluble to eliminate without using solvents so strong they might harm the paint surface. Additionally, the painting was restretched. Because Pollock’s stretcher was not sturdy enough to support the weight of the enormous canvas, the horizontal edges of the painting sagged. When, in 1973, Iowa constructed a new, stronger, and perfectly rectangular stretcher (one slightly larger than the irregularly shaped painting), unpainted areas of white primed canvas were exposed on the surface. To prevent flaking of the paint surface, the 1973 conservators adhered a secondary canvas to the back of the painting with wax-resin; unfortunately, this lining made the prominent sag a permanent feature. Getty conservators created a shaped stretcher that mimics the sag, thereby returning areas of unpainted canvas to their proper place at the sides of the painting and ensuring that only the original painting is visible on the surface. Given this emphasis on historical restoration, one wishes it would be possible to view the arguably “site-specific” painting in a gallery that replicates Guggenheim’s narrow, low-ceilinged entrance hallway. That might have enriched an understanding of Pollock’s classification of Mural as a wall picture or, indeed, mural. (Naturally, one understands that a thirteen-foot-wide gallery could not accommodate such large crowds as the Getty attracts.)
In recent years, scientific analyses of Pollock’s paintings have been mobilized to adjudicate authenticity disputes with “hard” evidence—fractal patterns, pigment testing and carbon dating of supports, and crime scene investigation-like forensics connecting paintings to rugs in Pollock’s home, his shoes and hair, etc. It is a breath of fresh air, then, to learn about the material structure of Mural outside the context of forgeries and the mega-million dollar market. Yet I wonder if there is not another kind of authenticity on the line. In no small part because of the Abstract Expressionist rhetoric of spontaneity, existential struggle, and self-expression, museumgoers often want modern artists to be angsty and ardent, particularly if their work is going to be abstract, recalcitrant, and difficult. But while epiphanic is a welcome attribute, unskilled and unintentional are not, and I read as defensive the exhibition and accompanying catalogue’s reiterations that Mural proves that Pollock’s process was conscious and deliberate. The multiple insistences that while the first stage of the painting might have been produced in a turbulent, automatic manner, the following stages were careful, circumspect, and protracted, seem positioned to lend credibility to—to authenticate—Mural and, perhaps, Abstract Expressionism or abstraction, by extension.
That said, by installing the piece in a gallery to itself, the Getty doubles down on the significance of concentrating on a painting as powerful and beautiful as Mural, now all the better for viewing.
Visiting Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies Program, Occidental College
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