Monday, February 19, 2007

Update: New 'Pollocks'?

A Williamstown, Massachusetts, researcher has completed examination of more of the paintings Alex Matter claims to have found that look like they could be previously unknown Jackson Pollocks, but is being barred from releasing his results by Matter’s attorney, according to a Feb. 9 scoop by Steven Litt, an art critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. (See here and here for background.)

James Martin, a Williams College chemical research scientist who runs the Williamstown firm Orion Analytical, told Litt that he was hired by Matter’s art dealer to examine 23 of the “Pollock” paintings in 2005 with the agreement that he could release his findings when he was done, but now that he’s completed studying the paintings Matter’s lawyer has told him that he is “not authorized to release or disclose any analysis, findings or conclusions concerning the Matter paintings until further notice." Yikes.

Litt carefully notes that Martin doesn’t reveal the specifics of his research, but that Martin emailed him: "I am delighted that colleagues at Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston are confirming Orion's findings.” This suggests that his results agree with a recently released Harvard study of three of the Matter “Pollocks” that concluded that the paintings include paints not made until after Pollock’s death in 1956. And that the study Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is doing on four of the “Pollocks” is headed toward the same conclusion.

Strangely, Geoff Edgers’ story in yesterday’s Boston Globe about Boston College’s plans to exhibit Matter’s “Pollocks” this fall doesn’t mention anything about the Williamstown study – and mistakenly suggests that the question of the authenticity of the Matter “Pollocks” remains much in doubt.

"This whole question of Pollock attributions, and the different reasons for believing or not believing, is so complicated," Edgers quotes Pepe Karmel, a New York University professor who co-curated a Pollock show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998. "It is so highly subjective, and personal investments are so high on both sides of the issue that it's hard to have a rational discussion on this subject."

The question of attribution here isn’t “highly subjective.” In my interviews and reading, I’ve found nothing that seriously challenges the credibility of the Harvard research. Ellen Landau, the chief Pollock authority still supporting the authenticity of the Matter “Pollocks” and who is helping organize the BC show, theorizes that the problematic paints came from Europe, where they could have been available during Pollock’s lifetime – but, as I noted here, the Harvard study directly refutes this claim.

And I’m troubled by the shoddy thinking of the BC physics professor Andrzej Herczynski that Edgers quotes saying: "I think Harvard did a beautiful job on the report. … But do you see that it is very hard to conceive of a scenario whereby 24 paintings or 32 are faked on the proper board with some paints that are OK but others that are not and somebody said, 'All right, I'm going to take the world for a spin but I'm not going to do one, I'm going to do 32?' And not only this, suddenly these things appear in the storage in a wrapper signed by a friend. I don't understand what this is."

It’s pretty easy to conceive of a scenario in which the paintings – worth millions if they turn out to be by Pollock – were faked. Imagine someone who knows their claim will be given credence because his or her parents were friends with Pollock. And so imagine this person looks at all the old cardboard and paint in his or her parents’ garage or storage locker and figures the stuff probably dates to Pollock’s lifetime – and most of them do, but unfortunately a few don’t. And imagine that this person practices Pollock’s technique until he or she gets it just right – maybe he or she refers to the 1999 MoMA conservation reports for tips. And imagine that while he or she is faking Pollock’s technique, that he or she fakes Pollock’s friend’s handwriting too to invent a note claiming the paintings to be genuine Pollocks. And imagine that this person thinks he or she can get away with it because art conservation science is not refined enough to discover the fakery – but conservation science catches up with him or her.

I’m not saying the little fantasy I just outlined is what happened. But until someone refutes the Harvard study (and perhaps soon the MFA and Orion Analytical studies too), the scientific evidence says these can’t have been painted by Pollock. I’d like to believe that the reason for Matter’s apparently mistaken claim is something innocent – maybe the paintings were done by students of his mother and for some crazy reason mislabeled by his father. Edgers blogged on Feb. 4 that Matter’s “reasoning, which we'll detail soon in the paper, might make more sense that you would expect.” But Edgers has yet to reveal it.

(Thanks to Harvard conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar for pointing me to Litt’s report.)


Post a Comment

<< Home