Pollock Matters, The McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, September 1-December 9, 2007

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Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter, Herbert Matter

Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter, Herbert Matter

Herbert Matter recalled that in 1942, when they first met over dinner, Jackson Pollock said to him, “It’s a really wonderful time to be living.” He added,“That gave us plenty to think about the rest of the evening.” I wonder how many people would say that today. For my part, after rehearsing a string of problems and miseries irrelevant to the present topic, the amazing exhibition, Pollock Matters, which closes this Sunday (December 9) at the McMullen Museum of Boston College, I would say that we take controversy too seriously. As the debates among the presidential candidates drivel on in equivocation, and the incumbent goes about his work of ruining the country, those Americans who are interested in one of their country’s greatest painters may or may not find themselves sufficiently clear-headed to realize that this exhibition has been so much wrapped up in controversy, that few see its real issues or even care about them. It concerns the discovery of a cache of small experimental works, according to a label made by their owner, Herbert Matter, in 1958, the work of Jackson Pollock, and the collision of the discoverer, Matter’s son, Alex, with the blue-chip institution established by Pollock’s widow.

The fact is, however, that the attribution of these works which have attracted all the attention are certainly germane, but not entirely essential to the argument of this rich, complex, and brilliantly executed exhibition. They are important pieces of evidence, and their study has led to the discoveries which unfold as the exhibition tells its story, but these discoveries about Pollock’s development and the origin of his mature style, which, thanks to the work of the scholars who participated in the exhibition, is now beginning to be fully understood, are far more important than the crux about whether the paintings—some or all of them—are in fact the work of this highly mythologized hero/antihero among American painters. This exhibition tells a story. It is constructed around a story of relationships and marriage among artists, the friendships they brought about, and the crucial stimuli and influences they fomented.

It is curious that this isn’t the only exhibition in our area, which has, at least in its most important aspect, whether intentionally or not, focussed on the relationships of artists. The exhibition, The Unknown Monet, at the Clark Art Institute (rescued from being a dry study exhibition by a room full of stunning pastels), presented a recently discovered memoir by a wealthy friend and patron of the artist during his youth. Little was known about Monet’s relations with this cultivated Parisian family and its important influence on his early development, because, it seems, Monet deliberately concealed it, wishing to create an image of himself as a self-taught fauve. Making it New, offered almost simultaneously by the Williams College Museum of Art, set out to tell the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, a moderately wealthy, moderately young American couple who settled in France and exercised their social gifts on creating a sphere of friendship among the artists and writers who entered into it, for the most part entranced with Sara and grudgingly tolerating Gerald, who, it turns out, was quite a decent artist himself over his seven-year career. Pollock Matters invites us into the microcosm of two couples, their close friendship, their mutual influence, and the influence of the friends and teachers they brought together.

Most people love gossip, but there is only one reason why we should find all this interesting. Jackson Pollock’s work has become accepted as representative of his country and of his generation. Many would call him the greatest American painter of the twentieth century, whether that is true or not—whether such a statement can be true—and there is an elaborate mythology which has accrued around it. Jackson played his part, of course—the American genius from the wild west, the provincial taking over New York, bluff in manner, clumsy with words, unschooled, uninterested in things European, alcoholic—and Lee played hers, promoting her husband, playing down or even concealing sources of influence which might diminish his reputation for originality. In her catalogue essay Ellen Landau shows quite precisely how Lee distorted certain stories into legends, for example, making him ruder to her teacher, Hans Hofmann, than he actually was. In particular, she had a falling out with the Matters, the epicenter of the environment in which Jackson matured as an artist. And also there was Herbert Matter himself (who believed in Pollock’s talent as Pollock believed in his), Sweeney, Guggenheim, Barr, Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Life Magazine, not to mention American political interests. Whether he is the greatest American painter of his generation or not (and I would not question that he is a great artist), he is the most American. Rothko’s work may be more resonant and otherworldly, but he was born in what was then Russia, and he remained in essence very much the eastern European Jew. (Contrast Krasner, who was born in Brooklyn and was more assimilated.) De Kooning’s art retains a vital human referentiality Pollock’s internalized abstraction lacks, but he was identifiably a Dutchman, who only emigrated to the United States in his early twenties and never got rid of his accent.

The Pollock who emerges from this show was the closest of friends (“You know I really love that guy. I love Herbert Matter.” cat. p. 38) with Herbert Matter, an artist with seemingly universal creativity, extending from drawing to photography, to interior design and cinema, and a powerful intellect, and he absorbed profound influences from Krasner’s Bavarian teacher, Hans Hofmann,from Stanley William Hayter the English printmaker, as well as the eurocentric American sculptor, Alexander Calder. Far from being the intuitive, primally physical American, he did, in fact, absorb some theory, mostly from Matter and Krasner, if in a largely nonverbal way. What’s more, they say Americans love success stories. However today, it seems Americans of today like stories of degradation even more. Pollock provided both to posterity: he descended into the gutter in a Cadillac. Perhaps that’s another difference between the more optimistic generation of Pollock, who, protected from military service by a psychiatric deferment, could make such a life-affirming declaration to Herbert Matter at such a dark moment in the war.

To get back to the Matter paintings, the worst thing about the controversy is that it distracts the public from the truly substantial pleasures to be found in this exhibition. The visitor will see some brilliant work by Herbert Matter, including his wonderful film, Works of Calder (surely due for restoration and wider distribution on DVD), small but very fine works by Hofmann, Hayter, Calder, and Pollock himself, delightful works by Mercedes Matter, whose expansive talent was decidedly less forced than Krasner’s, particularly at this early date, not to mention Mercedes herself, who appears, her torso lightly veiled by Provincetown sand, in a stunning 1940 photograph by Herbert. Even the disputed paintings are pleasurable to look at, although they are in terrible condition. When Alex Matter found them in his parents’ storage locker and unwrapped them, the paint of some of them had already disintegrated to a powder, and the craquelure and pitted surface of the displayed works testified to the instability of the medium. The blue composition boards on which they were painted had buckled in many instances, and the process of flattening them did the paint layers no good, particularly since the first restoration was incompetently done. According to Herbert Matter’s inscription on the brown wrapping paper in which they were enclosed, they were “experimental” made between 1946 and 1949 with “Robi paints.” Robi is Herbert’s brother-in-law, Robert Rebetez, who kept an artist’s supply shop in Basel, considered by some to be the best in Europe. Ellen Landau cites an instance of an artist travelling to Basel from Paris just to buy paints. Evidently, if Pollock is the maker of these works, he was not only experimenting with style, but with materials as well, and over period of three years, the period in which his dip technique was emerging. These pigments were obviously not Robi’s most successful product.

Apart from their patently distressed look and their experimental function, the paintings provide the sort of pleasure one expects from works of art. Even on the cramped surface of the drawing boards, they show the fluidity and energy we associate with Pollock. In other words, the all-important first glance, betrayed nothing radically un-Pollockian about them. The basic patterns of Pollock’s secure works are there, and so is their relationship to the edges of the board. Pollock worked from the edges, of necessity in his large works, and bychoice in these small ones, if in fact he made them. The layers of paint and their interrelationships are important in Pollock, and their are evident in these works for the most part. Pollock frequently constructed his compositions around a core, laid in at the bottom of the paint layers, often in black, and this is present in most of them. In a few of them it is hard to see, because the artist has so heavily charged the surface with paint. Possibly this was in the nature of the experiments, but also the poor condition of the works, above all the buckled support and it effect on the paint layers played a role in this. On close examination, however, it is possible to find the core. With the exception of a few of the slighter paintings on the versos, which are hardly more than trials of the brush, all appear to be by the same hand, and I see nothing in the forms or facture to rule out Pollock’s authorship. There is also no trace of the conceptual, intellectualized stiffness one might expect to find in an imitation or a forgery. Ellen Landau has pointed to a particular hooked, or horseshoe-like pattern which she has observed often in his secure works. All of them represent Pollock’s mature drip technique, which emerged in 1947, although the formal language was already present in Free Form of 1946. They fit most comfortably with works like Number 1A of 1948 and Number One: 31 of 1950, although they are free of the obsessive horror vacui of the experimentals. Although it is problematic that the earlier part of the period indicated by Matter’s inscription is not represented, the visual evidence fits comfortably within a contained period of Pollock’s production. In other words, internal stylistic evidence is positive.

Most fascinating of all is the context in which Pollock’s drip work emerged. If the visitor makes forays from the sequestered gallery into the rest of the exhibition, he or she will see works by Hofmann, Hayter, Calder, and Matter, which give a vivid idea of the examples and principles which moved Pollock in that direction, that is, helped him to overcome his reliance on drawn forms referenced to visual experience, when he was striving for an art which reflected the nature within himself. Hofmann experimented with automatic drip painting in the early forties. The untitled work included in the exhibition provides a striking analogy to Pollock’s Free Form and the experimentals. Matter himself worked obsessively with movement as an embodiment of the energy forces of the living human organism. He experimented with strobe-based methods inspired by Harold Edgerton’s experiments at MIT, as well as collage, even in his commercial work. He photographed the patterns created by ink dropped into glycerine. He drew with light, both by photographing a moving figure in darkness and directly on the negative, producing patterns strikingly similar to Pollock’s dripped forms. He also made images with pure electrical energy. Matter’s close friend, Alexander Calder, brought energy and movement into three dimensions in his mobiles. Matter photographed them on numerous occasions, going beyond the mere document and experimenting with creative lighting. Eventually he made the film, Works of Calder, which at the time seemed to him to indicate that his future lay in cinema. In the exhibition Calder is represented by his wire sculpture of Josephine Baker, displayed next to a large Pollock of 1950, marking a return to figural forms amid his mature abstraction. There was a theoretical foundation for this concern with human energy, subsumed in the catalogue under the term “vitalism.” (I shall discuss this in the second part of this review.) These comparisons are really the core of the exhibition. They show the influences under which Pollock’s mature method appeared, and the argument they support stands, whether the experimentals are by Pollock or not.

The exhibition succesfully creates a sense of this relatively upbeat period in Pollock’s life, when he was first achieving recognition, his marriage was still fresh, and he was enjoying the creative influences of the Matter milieu. The Matters, whatever problems arose for them later, are an extremely appealing couple, and in fact Herbert emerges as the true hero of the exhibition. Revered even today in the world of design, he should be better known in the context of the fine arts. Seen on a broader level, the exhibition documents the intimate connection between the fine and the applied arts. As for the quite convincing stylistic arguments in favor of the experimental paintings, these are seriously undercut by material evidence, which is amply discussed in the catalogue, and which I shall discuss in the second part of the review. Some of the pigments used in the paintings were not patented until well after Pollock’s and Matter’s deaths. In a recent paper, James Martin has expressed the view that the composition board on which they are painted was not manufactured until the 1970’s, although earlier analysis showed that they had to have been made before the inception of atmospheric tests of the atomic bomb. The conundrum presented by these works is nowhere near a solution. Materials are often manufactured and sold long before they are patented. If the paintings are forgeries, it makes no sense for the forger to have used anachronistic materials. Then, the fluidity and artistic quality of the facture has to be explained. Although Herbert might perhaps have been able to create them, everyone who knew him regarded him as a man of the highest integrity, incapable of deliberately mislabeling the paintings.

There is no denying that the Matter paintings, because of their experimental nature, their size, and their condition, are basically study works, documents of great academic interest, but little wall-power. In an ideal world, Alex Matter, the minute he found them in his parents’ storage locker, should have brought them untouched to the Straus Conservation Center and donated them to the Fogg, the pre-eminent research museum in this country. However, that implies superhuman self-control and very deep pockets. No one, except, it seems, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, can really blame him for approaching his mother’s dealer with them, but the result was tragic. The already poor condition of the paintings, noted already by Herbert in 1958, was made much worse by a restorer’s inept attempt to make displayable (and presumably saleable) objects out of them. Artifacts of such potential importance should be openly and freely studied with no restriction of access or opinion. Yet, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, while adopting the public position that it is not in the business of authenticating works of art, has made every effort to thwart their display and study. A serious academic museum of the McMullen’s high reputation is the proper place for this exhibition, which scrupulously adopts a neutral position in regard to the attribution of the paintings. Ellen Landau is one of the most respected experts on Pollock, as is Claude Cernuschi. Scientific evidence has also come from unexceptionable sources, with material research being conducted at the Straus Center and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston under Richard Newman, and the question of fractal analysis (broached by the publications of Richard Taylor, commissioned by the Pollock Foundation) of was investigated by the distinguished Boston College physicist, Andrzej Herczynski in collaboration with Cernuschi. Nancy Netzer, director of the McMullen, deserves our admiration for seeing this complex exhibition through under such difficult circumstances. Given the neutrality and quality of the research which has emerged from their efforts, it seems highly inappropriate for the Foundation lawyers to have placed restrictions on the display in the galleries and in the catalogue presentation. The organizers were only able to juxtapose images of the Matter paintings with necessary comparisons by Pollock by restricting the size of the illustrations to the point where they are useless for research. After two visits to the exhibition and close examination, I have a good memory of what I saw in the galleries, and the small reproductions in the catalogue failed to convey crucial details necessary to a proper interpretation of the paintings. If the catalogue illustrations were a particularly weak part of this project, we have only the Foundation lawyers to blame.

I can’t help thinking of Jackson’s rosy, probably boozy optimism at his first meeting with Herbert: “It’s a really wonderful time to be living.” That give me plenty to think about, as I contemplate our own times, in which the legacy of this great artist has become institutionally fossilized, and lawyers play a decisive role in art historical research.

The Catalogue:
Pollock Matters, edited by Ellen G. Landau & Claude Cernuschi.
Published : Chestnut Hill, MA : McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College ; [Chicago] : Distributed by the University of Chicago Press, c2007.

Description : 178 p. : ill. (some col.), ports. ; 28 cm.
Contents : Director’s preface / Nancy Netzer — Introduction / Claude Cernuschi and Ellen G. Landau — Action/re-action : the artistic friendship of Herbert Matter and Jackson Pollock / Ellen G. Landau — Jackson Pollock’s vitalism : Herbert Matter and the Vitalist tradition / Jonathan D. Katz — Cutting Pollock down to size : the boundaries of the poured technique / Claude Cernuschi and Andrzej Herczynski — Abstract expressionism and fractal geometry / Claude Cernuschi, Andrzej Herczynski, and David Martin — Scientific examination of the paint on nine Matter paintings / Richard Newman and Michele Derrick — Analyzing Jackson Pollock : scientific methods and the study of the Matter paintings / Nicholas Eastaugh — What it says on the tin : a preliminary study of the set of paint cans and the floor in the Pollock-Krasner studio / Nicholas Eastaugh and Bhavini Gorsia — Fingerprinting Jackson Pollock? / Peter Paul Biro — Appendix 1 : notes on conservation of the Matter paintings — Appendix 2 : chronology of the relationship of the Matters and Pollocks / prepared with the assistance of Nancy Cohen, Jeffrey Head, and Michael R. Weil, Jr.

Yves Saint Laurent, Pollock Top

Yves Saint Laurent, Pollock Top

If the flow of events has not permitted me to fulfill my promise until now, I shan’t apologize too abjectly, because the catalogue is of permanent value—as much to art historians as to the scientists of art—and during the intervening period our appreciation of Pollock has since been enriched by an added dimension. His drips and spatters have made their entry into the fashion world, paraded on the most fashionable sidewalks on garments of all kinds for both sexes: shirts, tank tops, dresses, and shoes. While Pollock’s drip paintings were made as the most quintessentially unique of unique artworks, characteristic motifs are now made into the most quintessentially multiple of multiples, mass-produced designer clothes: the distinguishing criterion of these articles is not the quality of workmanship or quality of design applied to an individual, bespoke example, but the uniformly recognizable distinction of a brand name. The purchaser, in wearing them, surrenders a certain portion of his or her individuality in order to assume, by being branded in this way, an extra-personal distinction, not the mark of Pollock, the artist who “invented” the design, but that of the late Yves St. Laurent and others, who borrowed it. In this the borrowing is a more potent gesture than creation. Some fashion-conscious people, either through thrift or through mischievousness, have gone a step further, dripping their own patterns on to blank garments, co-opting the brand distinction by re-borrowing it and restoring some of their individuality and some of the hand-made craft of art—which is apparently legal, since these drip motifs cannot or have not been copyrighted. Doesn’t the Pollock-Krasner Foundation have anything to say about this?

Pollock Matters and its catalogue lead us into the secrets of Pollock’s “invention” of those drips that looks so cool wrapped around your torso.

I took an interest in this exhibition first of all, because it seemed that some of the problems raised and the methods proposed might inject some life into the discipline of connoisseurship, which has been languishing in academia for around a quarter of a century now with little sign of revival, except in departments which maintain active programs in museum studies or conservation. I consider the subject worthwhile, because the primary evidence in art history consists of the artifacts themselves, and common sense (although not a fashionable entity in the more rarified academic circles) informs me that the art historian and the critic ignore the building blocks of knowledge at their peril. Even if one’s interests go beyond the “where,” “when,” “what,” and “by whom,” one needs to know them well, or at least to understand their nature as evidence. Today, while a student may find an opportunity to study connoisseurship in conjunction with conservators and laboratory technicians, traditional eye-training survives mostly in the institutions of the art market.[1]

While the initial work on fractals and the authentication of Pollock’s work by Richard P. Taylor, an associate professor of physics at the University of Oregon, much discussed in the popular press and subsidized by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, shows signs of weakness, not least in its cursory publication, the critiques of this work by Katherine Jones-Smith and Harsh Mathur of Case Western Reserve University and by Claude Cernuschi and Andrzej Herczynski, a physicist and an art historian from Boston College, who contributed to the Pollock Matters catalogue as a team, seemed to offer more promising preliminary groundwork for a method which might well enrich the methodology of connoisseurship, not only as a working method, but as an extension of the definitional and categorizing activities of the connoisseur. New approaches like this are what connoisseurship needs if it is to undergo any sort of revitalization. It is unfortunate that academic and curatorial art historians have not become more deeply involved in the discussion. The continuing dialogue and investigation, both in the immediate context of the exhibition at Boston College and elsewhere, have been pursued primarily by conservators and scientists. As far as the community of art historians is concerned, Nicholas Eastaugh’s compelling statement fell on indifferent ears: “We need an informed, impartial debate bringing together art historians and scientists if we are to solve the seemingly intractable problems these paintings present. Perhaps only together we can become the competent critics and historians the field demands.”

Like many exhibition catalogues today, Pollock Matters consists of a collection of essays by various researchers, each offering its own point of view and method. These fall into three groups. Art historians Ellen Landau, Claude Cernuschi, and Jonathan D. Katz introduce the themes of the catalogue and lay out the biographical, historical, and intellectual background of the relationship between Pollock and the Matters. In the second, Claude Cernuschi joins Andrzej Herczynski and David Martin in two essays discussing Pollock’s technique and fractal analysis. The third part of the essays consist of discussions of the materials and techniques of the Matter paintings in relation to authenticated works by Pollock by Richard Newman, Michelle Derrick, Nicholas Eastaugh, Bavini Gorsi, and Peter Paul Biro. The appendices consist of a useful chronological outline of the relationship between the Matters and the Pollocks, as well as an account of the two conservation campaigns on the Matter paintings.

At this point the reader may wish to refer back to Part I for a reminder of the basic issues, but here they are anyway. In 2002, following his mother’s death Alex Matter found a package in his father’s storage locker, which was inscribed as follows in Herbert Matter’s handwriting:

Pollock (1946-49)

Tudor City (1940-1949)

32 Jackson experimental

Works (gift + purchase)

Bad condition

4 Both sides. All drawing boards.

Robi paints.

MacDougal Alley 1958

It contained 32 paintings which recalled family friend Jackson Pollock’s drip style. Alex approached William O’Reilly and later Mark Borghi, Mercedes’ dealer. Since some were in dire condition, actually disintegrating, they were hastily conserved. When the time came for them to be studied, the Pollock Krasner Foundation took a negative point of view, and, although the Foundation had abstained from pronouncing on questions of attribution for some years, but they changed that policy in the case of the Matter paintings. Not only did they fund Taylor’s fractal research, but the art dealer Eugene Thaw, President Emeritus of the Foundation and Francis V. O’Connor, who co-authored the catalogue raisonné of Pollock’s works, made public statements questioning the authenticity of the paintings, while Ellen Landau supported it. Thaw even issued an extraordinarily aggressive statement,“I’ve spent nearly half my life working on Pollocks, and if Ellen Landau’s opinion prevails, people will happily buy them and they’ll go into museums and books, but not the ones that I have anything to do with.” As the copyright holder of Pollock’s and Krasner’s work, the Foundation has also placed restrictions on how the Matter paintings are shown and published. Hence the small, almost useless reproductions in the catalogue, its most significant shortcoming. In spite of the controversy about their attribution, the paintings have revealed in a most vivid way the artistic exchanges which flourished between the Pollocks and the Matters. Matter, as learned and thoughtful artist with multifaceted outlets, provided a theoretical stimulus to the more intuitive talents of his wife and their friends.

While Ellen Landau’s essay brings all this together within the purview of the relations of the Pollocks and the Matters, I shall begin with Eastaugh’s valuable essay, “Analyzing Jackson Pollock: Scientific Methods and the Study of the Matter Paintings,” because it does in fact offer some salutary proposals for the moribund discipline of connoisseurship, mainly by offering scientific theoretical models in a way in which they can (and should!) be discussed by art historians and, in particular, by offering a critique of the methods employed in the examination of the Matter paintings. In it Eastaugh provides a probing overview of technical examination which should be on any relevant syllabus. At the very beginning, after stating his “commitment to the scientific method and its application to art” he broaches “the science of authenticity,” a theoretically under-supported and methodologically flawed practice at best. However, he is able to outline a recognized group of procedures on which the “science” is based, consisting of examination with imaging techniques like X-ray, microscopic examination, chemical analysis of materials, examination of “technique,” and the comparative study of historical documents on materials used in the past. New methods are in limited use, and all methods require further refinement in their application.

Eastaugh draws a useful distinction between the process of determining authenticity and that of making an attribution. The latter is, as he writes, “both pro-active and controversial,” involving “taking a painting without prior assumptions , and, through analytical means, determining authorship.” The determination of authenticity, on the other hand, “involves the application of analytical methods to uncover contradictory evidence for what something is believed to be.” The philosophical foundation for this process is Sir Karl Popper’s concept of falsification, whereby if one piece of counter-evidence is found, the belief in question must be abandoned.

Three particular problems emerge from Popper’s concept: underdetermination, the Quine-Duhem problem, and what he calls the ”hypothesis test” problem. In other words, first one must be sure that one is testing the right hypothesis. Also, since hypotheses must consist of several components, one must have sufficient knowledge of the subject to grasp these components. Thirdly one’s tests must be procedurally sound, i.e. one’s equipment should be calibrated correctly and the tests carried out in the proper way. Another method is dating. If, for example, a pigment or a binder is found which was not in use until after Pollock’s death, it will establish the necessary counter-proof, but one must of course be certain that this is factual. Commercial paints are often not patented, and therefore documented, until after they have been on the market. The situation is further complicated by the possibility that Pollock may have had access to experimental materials from Europe through Alex Matter’s brother-in-law, “Robi” (Robert Rebetez, who kept a highly regarded artist’s supply shop in Basel), who is mentioned by name on the wrapper in which the paintings were contained. Ultimately the more we know of the object of study, the more facts we have from which we can deduce interesting conclusions. The problem remains that few of Pollock’s finished paintings have undergone technical analysis, and more remains to be done on the Matter paintings. In this way, Eastaugh performs the valuable service of providing a methodological framework for the analyses of Newman, Derrick, and the others. He closes with a quotation by Giovanni Morelli: “It has been said, sarcastically, that the art connoisseur is distinguished from the art historian by knowing something about the art of the past. If he happens to be of the better sort he abstains from writing on the subject. On the other hand, the art historian, although writing much about art, really knows nothing about it; whilst the painters who boast of their technical knowledge are neither competent critics nor competent historians.” As Henri Zerner, from whom Eastaugh derived the quotation, continues: “If I had to define connoisseurship, I would say it is the articulation and symptomatic examination of the visual evidence. If we understand it in this sense, it is hard not to agree with Morelli that it has to be the necessary foundation of art history.” The fact remains that few connoisseurs or art historians have become seriously engaged in problem of the Matter paintings.

Connoisseurship is not an intellectual discipline—although it may have acquired some intellectual trappings, as it rolled along. It is a skill that is developed through deliberate practice and chance experience. In this spirit there is no exercise I could recommend more highly than working with unfamiliar material. Although I did once study Pollock from this point of view some years ago, it was a matter of a few drawings taken from his estate, and not an unknown, as the Matter drawings appear to be. [2] The Matter paintings purport to be small-scale experiments executed around the time of Full Fathom Five (1947)—the period in which he was developing his drip technique. Now the nature of intentionality in Pollock’s drip paintings is fundamentally different from that of a Dürer, a Raphael, a Delacroix, or a Picasso. In painting Pollock presumably tapped his will deep within his physical energies, far out of range of the intellectual control essential to classical art. What’s more there is the question of scale. The muscular process, and therefore the creative process, is necessarily different in a 50 x 30 inch canvas like Full Fathom Five, and a card or sheet of paper averaging roughly 9 x 12 to 12 x 18 inches. The experience of making them would be totally different. We must ask if it was even like Pollock to work his way into a large-scale conception through small, experimental works. His known drawings in his fully developed drip style tend to be significantly larger, at least twice the size of the Matter drawings. In examining the Matter paintings on two visits to the exhibition, I thought that in several the overall “design structure” corresponded with Pollock’s recognized work: the patterns of paint, their relationship to each other, and to the edges of the support were convincing, but would these forms necessarily work the same way on such a small field, when Pollock is calling on the muscles of his fingers, hand, and forearm rather than his entire body?

Claude Cernuschi and Andrzej Herczynski address just these questions in their essay, “Cutting Pollock Down to Size: The Boundaries of the Poured Technique.” They begin by justly observing that Jackson Pollock is generally associated with his large paintings rather than his small ones, in spite of the fact that a census of his work conducted by Jeffrey Wechsler and Donna Gustavson has established that only 25% of it exceeds 72 inches in one dimension and around half of it is under approximately 36 x 36 inches. While they never use this to say more than that it supports the possibility of Pollock having painted such works as the Matter paintings, they move into important and interesting corollaries like the points I have mentioned above, about the physical and technical differences between painting a small work and a large one. They fail to mention, however, the mundane fact that, since in most cases, including even Pollock’s dripping method, a the making of a large work involves considerably more time and effort than the making of a small one. What’s more, it is harder to sell, and there is no reason to believe that Pollock’s legendary self-destructiveness went that far.[3]

In fact many artists—from Cimabue onwards and probably always—have painted simultaneously on large and small scales, and this had important aesthetic and technical implications as much for, say, Annibale Carracci, as it did for Pollock. Ignorance of scale in comparing photographs of one of Annibale’s small oils on copper with a panel from the Farnese Gallery can lead to gross misunderstandings. Scale affects proportion, modeling, and color. Cernuschi and Herczynski discuss the interrelationship between scale and the more intangible aspect of technique most intelligently, but perhaps most thoroughly and cogently in discussing Pollock’s larger canvases. A detailed analysis of one or two small Pollocks would have been helpful. They emphasize the importance of scale in respect to Pollock’s “allover” aesthetic, his avoidance of any focus of interest, which makes it only more difficult to make the transition from large to small. (They rightly observe that if one were to reduce a large Pollock and enlarge a small one to the same size in a photograph, they would look remarkably different, and the would have had no reason or means to make such broad lines in the large work as appear in the small. They also point out that the size of Pollock’s paintings is anthropocentric, not only in terms of his own bodily dimensions, but in that of the viewer. All is related to the measure of man. However, if Mark Rothko said that he painted large works in order the provide a human-scaled and intimate expression, there was an element of shrinking man down to the appropriate size. Furthermore, there may well be some edge—even snideness—in Rothko’s statement.

At this point Cernuschi and Herczynski are ready to embark on the question of natural form in Pollock’s art in terms of order and chaos and of nature and convention. Here they introduce the notion of fractal geometry and its ability to provide partial analyses of the forms in his work, as well as Pollock’s devotion to “naturalness.” In conclusion they make a crucial point, that is, that it was Pollock’s quest for the natural that led him to abandon some of his control as an artist. “What makes Pollock’s art singular…is not his concern with or even metaphorical evocation of nature, but the extent to which he relied on chaotic dynamics—the two perturbative mechanisms affecting the flow of paint under gravity—to ‘co-author’ his poured abstractions.” Here Pollock was in accord with his contemporary John Cage, who also sought to relinquish some of his control as a composer setting down precise notations of pitch and duration in his score.

Although Richard Taylor pursued some fractal analysis of paintings by Jackson Pollock in the 1990’s, we would not be discussing the subject today if the Pollock-Krasner Foundation had not funded his work on six of the Matter paintings, which, according to accounts published in Nature and the New York Times simultaneously on February 9, 2006, cast doubt on their authenticity.

It is interesting to note that Taylor has applied fractals to the study of other kinds of art, for example the architecture of Frank Gehry. It is also interesting to observe how fractal geometry, a mathematical system which has been used to analyze natural forms like trees and ocean waves, has come to function as a tool for the analysis and attribution of works of art, at least in an inchoate way. Pollock himself explicitly compared his work—or rather himself—to nature. In their catalogue essay, Cernuschi, Herczynski, and Martin go into far greater methodological detail, providing colleagues with a useable definition of the science and its application, and the layman with a valuable introduction to the subject. You will find no clearer, simpler explanation of what fractals are and how scientists work with them. Beyond that, their argument is basically a critique of Taylor’s incompletely published studies, demonstrating that the results of fractal analysis of Pollock’s works is in many instances ambiguous. While some of his securely attributed paintings exhibit fairly consistent fractal patterns, others do not. For example Katherine Jones-Smith and Harsh Mathur in their own research project showed that Pollock’s Wooden Horse, Number 10A (1948) “‘fails to satisfy the fractal authentication criteria’ employed by Taylor.” The diminutive size of the Matter paintings is another factor likely to have affected their relation to fractal geometry. Non-conformity to fractal patterns is not a criterion for rejecting an attribution to Pollock, as defined in Eastaugh’s Popperian method.

The authors also discuss in some detail Taylor’s conclusion that Pollock’s paintings are not only fractal, but double-fractal, that is, consisting of two characteristic dimensions, i.e. “the artist’s arm movements and the instabilities of his paint.” Other researchers have found this quality in the work of other artists working in a similar mode, for example, Jean-Paul Riopelle. Here they point to yet another interesting parameter, “edges,” that is the “luminance gradients between adjacent colors.” Of course anyone who has examined graphic works or, above all, paintings under even moderate magnification will know that there is virtually no such thing as a pure line, that is, one totally free from gradations or irregularity of some sort.

Their own fractal analyses demonstrate the limitations of the method yet further, especially under the circumstances that our data is so incomplete, barely 5% of Pollock’s oeuvre. Taylor’s implication that fractal analysis and other scientific methods can provide objective criteria for attribution which could threaten to make the subjective criteria of connoisseurs obsolete is naive, to say the least. Given the persuasiveness of the authors’ scepticism, one might ask if fractal analysis is at all worthwhile, since it will clearly not replace the variety of methods traditionally brought to bear on problems of attribution. The mere fact that some works of art do exhibit fractal characteristics is sufficient to justify the continuation of this research. Too little is understood about it at this early stage of research. Another sobering fact is that computer-generated fractal art, a popular genre in certain circles, looks profoundly different from “handmade” art, which rarely if ever shows the same consistency and detail. What’s more, I have yet to see one of these works that engages me as a beautiful or moving work of art.

The ultimate confirmation of an attribution is the ability to fit the work under study into a biographical, historical, and intellectual context. In fact, although the Matter paintings themselves remain in question, the most fruitful results of the exhibition appear in this quarter, as set forth in the Introduction by Cernuschi and Landau, Landau’s own essay, and Jonathan Katz’s study of the philosophical background of Pollock’s and Matter’s connection.

Taking Michael Leja’s extensive discussion in Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940’s as his point of departure, Katz attempts to provide a spiritual matrix for Pollock’s drip paintings, relying primarily on certain statements by Pollock, his high school art teacher, Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, a book which is known to have been in his library, and inferred interests of Herbert Matter. Since it is known that Pollock was not a great reader, it is assumed that he would have absorbed these notions from his more theoretically inclined European friend. There is no doubt that Schwankovsky, a Theosophist and friend of Krishnamurti, had a profound influence on Pollock, the alienated teenager in a middle-class high school, who desperately craved guidance and became, at least for a while, a passionate apostle of Theosophy. In the book, Modern Man: His Belief and Behavior (1936), the author Harvey Fergussonexpressed a debt to the philosophy of Henri Bergson and its concept of the élan vital. Of course we have no idea what Pollock thought of it or if he even read it. Fergusson was a popular and even respected writer of novels about the American West. His work was considered the quintessence of Western life and traditions, and Pollock may well have been attracted to it as part of his identity as a Westerner. However, Fergusson and other popular writers mentioned by Leja also show how Bergson’s philosophy as well as elements of Theosophy and the teachings of eastern gurus like Krishnamurti might freely flow together (although Bergson and the Theosophists could not be more different), especially in Pollock’s alcohol-sodden mind. Herbert Matter’s work with photographic impressions of electrical charges and Edgerton-like motion photography doubtless reflect this interest, but it is too much to say that, because he was Swiss, he was familiar with the Goetheanum outside Basel and the teachings which lay behind it. (As a modernist he may have found it fascinating.) It would certainly be interesting and valuable to know more about Matter’s view of the world, but not enough is understood to get a very clear idea of how he might have influenced Pollock, beyond the palpable connections in their work (as amply demonstrated in the exhibition and in Landau’s essay: see Part I of this review.), especially during the period of their closest friendship, when Pollock was gestating his famous drip style. In other words, there is reason to believe that Katz, following Leja, is pointing in the right direction, at least in respect to Bergsonian ideas, which could possibly have become fused with the Theosophical and Jungian notions Pollock absorbed earlier in life.

As Ellen Landau shows in her rich and lively essay, the connections Pollock made through Lee Krasner were crucial in forming his mature style: Hofmann, Calder, but above all Mercedes and Herbert Matter. The small experimental paintings remain unattributed, and material evidence is negative in respect to some of them. The investigation they have stimulated, on the other hand, has been extremely fruitful, and we now understand much more about the origins of Pollock’s drip technique. Mercedes is in many ways an extremely appealing artist and woman, while Herbert emerges as the hero of the story—a brilliant artistic polymath who is as influential today as he was during his lifetime. Ultimately the little paintings, with their occasionally packed interweavings of dripped and daubed skeins of paint, can stand as symbols of the intellectual and personal friendship between the two couples. If they did not collectively intermingle flows of paint, as they may well have done in some cases, they most definitely did intermingle strands of thought and creative energy…dare I say élan vital?

1. As Sotheby’s asserts in promoting their educational programs, “…concentrating principally on Old Master paintings, modern art, furniture and ceramics, the MA in Fine and Decorative Art teaches connoisseurship, a skill rarely featured in other academic settings…The defining characteristic of this program is its frequent and regular visits to museums and galleries, the auction house, and country house collections for first-hand observation of art objects. The visual and hands-on approach, supported by a thorough grounding in materials and techniques, gives a firm foundation for postgraduate research and the excitement of unravelling the material culture of the past.”

2. It is interesting to note that if Pollock were a few generations older and unburdened with a foundational posteriority, the storage facility of a close friend and collaborator would be thought to be a reliable source.

3. In fact Sherman Lee, when in 1980 he thought Pollock’s reputation had survived long enough to merit inclusion in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, he deliberately acquired the smallish Number 5 (ca. 54 x 39 in.), as was his custom with the art of that generation.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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