The crux of the argument of those still supporting the authenticity of the Alex Matter’s “Pollock” paintings, after Harvard reported last week that they were made with paints not available during Jackson Pollock’s lifetime, is that Harvard used the wrong references to date them.
Matter says he found 32 paintings that appear to be by Pollock in his late father’s storage facility in 2002. He and his supporters theorize that Pollock was hanging around with Matter’s dad (it’s well established that they were pals) and used paint from papa Matter’s brother-in-law, who ran an art supply shop in Switzerland.
Ellen Landau, a Pollock scholar, former member of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s now disbanded Pollock authentication board and the key authority still contending that the Pollocks may be authentic, argues
that Harvard researchers dating the paintings by comparing their analysis of the paintings’ materials to paint patents may have overlooked European patents. “Just because a pigment wasn't patented in the USA, doesn't mean that it was not available in Switzerland or Germany,” Landau writes. “We don't know the answer to that yet.” But it seems we do.
The Harvard team reported
that the first of three Matter “Pollock” paintings they studied used brown paint “developed in the early 1980s.” The second was made with paint “most likely not available until 1962 or 1963.” The third used orange paint “not available until 1971.” Unfortunately, Pollock died when he crashed his convertible near his Long Island home in 1956.
After a quick initial take
on this last week, I delved into Harvard’s footnotes for these claims and found they reference several European patents.
Harvard folks say a medium (the thing mixed with the color pigment to make it flow and stick) used in two of the paintings was “most likely not available until 1962 or 1963.” That assertion is based on patent applications in Canada in 1959, the United States in 1961, Belgium in 1962, and the Netherlands Antilles (a Caribbean territory of the Netherlands) in 1963 (see Harvard footnote 18).
Harvard cites books that I don’t have ready access to for a 1971 orange found in one of the “1963 or 1963” medium paintings and a 1980s brown found in a third painting. Harvard conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar tells me these recent books are by European authors and address “all the relevant patent and reference information from around the world, not just the US.”
The painting with the orange paint also includes a white paint for which patents were sought in Canada in 1959, the U.S in 1960, Germany 1961, and Great Britain and Netherlands Antilles in 1963 (see footnote 21). And the painting with the brown paint includes a silver paint for which patents were sought in the Soviet Union in 1967, Netherlands Antilles in 1972 and Canada in 1976 (see footnote 22).
The 1978 catalogue raisonee of all of Pollock’s then-known works (edited by two guys who also served on the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Pollock authentication board and who’ve argued for months that the Matter “Pollocks” are phony) has a whole section on fake Pollocks.
Pollock’s poured abstractions are so iconic – and seemingly easily imitable – that they inspired many admirers to copy his work, as well as less savory fakers. The catalogue raisonne identifies paintings copied from reproductions in Pollock catalogues and a whole raft of false Pollocks coming out of California. There also seems to be a group of paintings claimed to be works Pollock left behind or gave away as gifts during a trip to Europe that he apparently never took (at least that’s what my too quick gloss of the catalogue raisonee seemed to indicate).
The editors of that catalogue dubbed many as false based on their provenances, but ultimately many assertions of whether the “Pollocks” were authentic or not were based on gut feelings. That has long been the way authentication has worked. Khandekar says some of the techniques the Harvard team used have only been applied to art in the past few years.
Assuming Landau’s claims are made in good faith, perhaps she’s just not adapted to the new authentication science (which is what a New York Times
report on Sunday suggested). Maybe the Harvard science itself is somehow faulty, but at this point I doubt it. The Globe’s Geoff Edgers
hints that Matter has an explanation that “might make more sense that you would expect.” We’ll see.
At the heart of all this is a fascinating paradox: what makes Matter’s “discovery” most convincing – his father’s friendship with Pollock, the uncle’s paints, etc. – is also what makes them potentially wonderfully elaborate fakes. Either way it’s a great tale. Of course, these paintings don’t have to be Pollocks to have merit. I can’t really tell if the paintings are much good from the reproductions I’ve seen. I guess we’ll have to wait until Boston College’s McMullen Museum exhibits 25 of them in its “Pollock Matters” show in September.