January 19, 2020

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’: Masterpiece or Macho Outburst?

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956); “Mural,” 1943; medium: oil and casein on canvas. The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959. Reproduced with permission from The University of Iowa.

Rarely do we see singular artworks that, even as they represent an exact moment of transition between art historical movements, are also masterpieces in their own right. Yet that is exactly what can be seen now at the Getty Museum, which, until June 1, is showcasing abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock’s pivotal, 8-foot-high and 20-foot-wide “Mural,” commissioned in 1943 by the collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim for her New York home.

The Getty’s conservators have spent the past two years repairing the work for its owner, The University of Iowa, and before its return home, the Getty is presenting a tightly focused exhibition centered around the work, co-organized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI)’s senior scientist Tom Learner and the Getty Museum’s senior conservator of paintings Yvonne Szafran. The exhibition features one gallery showcasing the mural, surrounded by the facts of its creation, and a second gallery devoted to the conservation project and all that the conservators uncovered about the work’s storied creation.

“Mural” is beautifully composed, and contains its own internal logic and rhythm. Yet, unlike Pollock’s famous drip paintings that would follow, in this work the artist is still exploring his fascination with often amoeba-like anthropomorphic forms, all revealing Pollock’s signature confidence and personality.

“Mural” is notable in several respects. In 1943, Pollock was little-known, so Guggenheim’s commission for such an enormous work inspired the largest painting Pollack had done yet — so grand that he had to remove a wall in his home studio to paint it. The Getty analysis reveals that it was an important transitional work for the artist, in that he painted it vertically, rather than laying the canvas on the floor, as he would do with later works. He also, for the most part, used premium, high-quality paints and worked with brushes on most of the work, rather than dripping his paint or using other implements.

However, as would later distinguish his work, Pollock also used some house paint, and in some spots, he flung paint to achieve certain effects, a sign of his method that would follow. This painting, therefore, is the critical bridge between Pollock’s more traditional work and the action painting that would distinguish him as among the greatest artists of the 20th century.

It is worth pausing here for a second to acknowledge the importance of Pollock’s patron. Guggenheim was born in 1898, into a wealthy German-Jewish “Our Crowd” family — her mother, Florence, was a Seligman, and her father, Benjamin, inherited a copper-mining fortune and died with the sinking of the Titanic, having changed into evening dress with his valet and vowed to “go down as a gentleman,” after placing his mistress and her maid in a lifeboat.

At 19, Guggenheim inherited $2.5 million, and in the 1920s she moved to Paris, where she became an art collector and opened a gallery in London. However, as the Nazis were about to enter Paris, she fled to the south of France and eventually to New York, where, in 1941, she opened a combination museum and gallery of contemporary art, called the Art of This Century. Her collection, assembled in Europe, included works by Picasso, Magritte, Man Ray, Dali, Klee and several by Max Ernst, whom she married in 1941 (and divorced in 1946).

When Guggenheim was first introduced to Pollock by one of her assistants, Howard Putzel, Pollock was working as a carpenter. In July 1943, she signed the unknown artist to a year’s stipend and commissioned the mural. She did not tell him what to paint, only gave him the freedom to do so.
Pollock’s “Mural” was a tremendous success and did much to launch the career of the young painter. Guggenheim, for her part, did not take as well to New York. In 1947, after the end of World War II, she closed her New York gallery and returned to Europe, settling in Venice, where she lived until her death in 1979 and where her palazzo and art collection remain as a museum.

When Guggenheim left New York, the Pollock was too large to transport, so she loaned it to Yale University and eventually donated it to The University of Iowa. Moving a painting of such scale — from Pollock’s studio to Guggenheim’s home, from there to be photographed, then to Yale and to Iowa — inevitably caused some damage, particularly as the work was rolled up each time it was transported. In 1972, in an effort to preserve the paint, the work was varnished and a backing was adhered to the canvas. Although this saved the composition, there was a cost: The varnish dulled the colors, while the backing perpetuated sag that had developed in the canvas.

By 2009, the painting had decayed further, and experts from the Getty were invited to Iowa to assess the damage. Although the Getty’s painting collection does not extend beyond the 19th century, the GCI has been conducting a scientific study of modern paint materials for many years and was eager to apply what they have learned to Pollock’s “Mural.”
Their examination led to some important finds:

The Getty’s research debunks some of the long-held myths about the work. In an account in Guggenheim’s autobiography, as well as in one by Lee Krasner (Pollock’s girlfriend when he painted the work, and later his wife), when Pollock received the commission from Guggenheim in June 1943, she told him she wanted the painting ready for a New Year’s Eve party she was having in her Manhattan townhouse, and she told him the painting should take up an entire wall in her entryway.

The story was that Pollock was stymied by the enormity of the commission, but then, on the night before his deadline, in an alcohol-fueled frenzy, he began and completed the work. The Getty’s research found this only partially true. The analysis of the paint and its layers revealed that a large part of the painting was painted in one sitting. However, beneath the surface were several layers of oil paints, which dry slowly, proving that the painting was completed not just overnight, but over time.

Accordingly, whereas the work was previously thought to have been painted in December 1943, it is now dated between July 1943 and Jan. 1, 1944. Rather than being the product of a drunken, macho explosion, it’s now clear that Pollock made considered choices about the quality of his paints and the multitude of colors (as many as 26 were used in the painting), and he employed a variety of brushstrokes and effects to produce the final result.

“Mural,” therefore, is a complex, painterly creation that was totally original and that no one could dismiss as mere decoration. Now that years of accumulated grime and dust has been cleaned off, the varnish removed and the painting restretched on specially designed stretchers — we can once again see what Peggy Guggenheim’s guests first saw: A rough-hewn poetry of motion, as well as a painter’s career in evolution at its most critical moment.

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