The case of the zombie Pollocks

Art sleuthing
By GREG COOK  |  January 31, 2007

On Monday, Harvard researchers kicked a hornets’ nest that has been buzzing in the art world since the discovery of 32 drippy abstract paintings claimed to be previously unknown works by Jackson Pollock. Alex Matter said he found them in his late father’s Long Island storage building in 2002. His account was plausible because his parents were pals of the famed abstract expressionist, but big bucks are involved — a Pollock sold for $11.7 million in 2004 — so there was also much skepticism. My favorite development was when a physicist pronounced them phony based on fractal analysis of the patterns in Pollock paintings, only to have another physicist testify that the first guy’s methods were crap.

The Harvard team compared the materials in three paintings to their patent dates. The first 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.

It seemed, sadly, that the debate was over. Harvard conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar says of the third painting: “Anything on top of that orange paint was not done prior to ’71. We can’t say anything about what was done underneath.” A blurry photo I’ve seen suggests that nearly the whole painting is atop that orange.

Matter, as well as Pollock scholar Ellen Landau, promptly issued statements saying Harvard may have misdated the paint and focused too much on a painting contaminated by recent restorations. Meanwhile, some suggest Alex Matter’s “Pollocks” are works by his mom’s art students. We’ll get a chance to examine them ourselves in September, when Boston College’s McMullen Museum opens an exhibit about Pollock and the Matters — which will include 25 of the disputed “Pollocks.”

In the meantime, I think wild speculation is called for. Briefly I eyed Norman Rockwell. He painted a fake Pollock for a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1962; there’s even a photo of him mimicking Pollock’s painting stance. But, alas, Rockwell died in 1978. So now I’m thinking there’s a zombie Pollock, which explains the recent materials and what Landau calls “amazing knowledge of Pollock’s working methods.” The zombie Pollock’s stiff zombie elbow would explain the fractal thing. I imagine Zombie Pollock staggering about Long Island dripping paint here and there when he’s not busy munching on human brains.

In any case, the Pollock debate continues in the 2006 documentary film Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollack, which Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art screens on February 4 and 11. It tells of a former truck driver who bought a $5 thrift shop painting only to find that a finger print on the back suggested it may have been painted by . . . Jackson Pollock. People are still arguing about who painted that one too.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Science and Technology, Harvard University, Sciences,  More more >
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