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A case of identity

'Pollock Matters' at Boston College
By GREG COOK  |  September 4, 2007
WHODUNIT? Untitled No. 2 is one of the “Pollock” paintings found in Herbert Matter’s storage locker.

In 2002, the year after his mother died, as Alex Matter tells it, he found a brown paper package in his father’s storage locker on Long Island. Inside was a pile of small paintings that resembled the work of Jackson Pollock. A note on the outside said that’s just what they were.

Matter’s account is plausible. His parents hung out frequently with Pollock and Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, at their homes and studios on Manhattan and Long Island. Alex’s father, Herbert, who died in 1984, was said to be making small purchases of Pollocks by 1944. Alex Matter reported that though some paintings had disintegrated inside the package, 28 had survived. He added that he’d found six more Pollock-style paintings among his dad’s effects.

The note, said to be in Herbert’s hand, identified the hoard as “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.” If they really are Pollocks from 1946 to 1949, they represent Pollock very early in the development of his drip technique, when he was experimenting in the run-up to his breakthrough poured paintings of 1947. It was an astonishing find, one that could be worth millions. So people began asking questions.

More than 20 of these “Pollocks” appear in “Pollock Matters,” which opened Saturday at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art. Working with Boston College art historian Claude Cernuschi, organizer Ellen Landau, a Pollock scholar at Case Western Reserve University, has assembled more than 170 artworks and ephemera to make the groundbreaking argument that Matter was a key inspiration for Pollock’s signature poured paintings.

A PERFECT COMMUNION? Alex Matter, Mercedes Matter, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock, in a
1948 photo by Herbert Matter.

This exhibit also summarizes materials analysis of the paintings by the Williamstown firm Orion Analytical (whose findings have not been fully released) and scientists led by Richard Newman at the Museum of Fine Arts. Orion concluded that 16 of 23 Alex Matter paintings contained materials patented after Pollock’s death. (He flipped his convertible near his Long Island home in 1956.) The MFA team studied six of the same paintings and concurred. They concluded that one of three previously unexamined paintings included a red pigment patented by a Swiss firm in 1983. A January Harvard University Art Museums study stated that the three “Pollocks” it examined contained materials patented after Pollock’s death.

This news casts suspicions on the package’s note. Why would Pollock’s close pal attribute 32 paintings to his friend? And add the years they were made? And where and with what they were made? These extensive details suggest that if the “Pollocks” aren’t real, then this may not be an innocent mix-up but a fraud.

“Pollock Matters” is a story of a web of relationships in the New York art world of the 1930s and ’40s. Herbert Matter was a crackerjack Swiss modernist designer and photographer who emigrated to New York in 1935. The painter Fernand Léger introduced him to the painter Jeanne (Mercedes) Carles in 1938. Krasner and the painter Hans Hofmann attended their 1941 wedding. Krasner and Mercedes Matter both studied with Hofmann, but they didn’t meet until they were both arrested at a 1936 protest.

Soon after Krasner began dating Pollock, in 1941, she brought him to the Matters’ home in New York’s Tudor City apartment complex. The women talked while the men sat silently. Mercedes Matter left the room to bathe baby Alex, and Krasner joined her, but the men remained quiet. Afterward, Herbert Matter said, “What a wonderful fellow,” as his wife reported in Jeffrey Potter’s 1985 oral biography of Pollock, To a Violent Grave. “I told him they didn’t seem to have had much to say to each other. ‘Not at all. Jackson said this is a terrific time to be living and that gave us enough to think about.’ So they had a perfect communion — always.”

The art here is mostly minor stuff, including lesser works by Krasner, Hofmann, Alexander Calder, and Pollock. The point is the connections: Krasner funneling Hofmann’s ideas to Pollock; Matter funneling his friend Calder’s biomorphic abstraction to Pollock; the Matters helping bring Pollock to the attention of dealer Peggy Guggenheim; Matter’s photos inspiring a Hofmann drip painting.

MAN DRESSING: You can see how Herbert
Matter’s experimental abstract photographs
could have inspired Pollock.
Landau makes a convincing case that Pollock drew inspiration for his drips and compositions from Matter’s experimental abstract photographs. You can observe the affinity between Pollock’s signature style and Matter’s Abstract Photograms (Electrical Discharges) (circa 1942-’43), which depicts loops of sparking electrical wires, his Abstract Photogram (circa 1942-’43), which depicts silhouetted skeins of wool or thread, and his Ink and Glycerin (1943), a photo of ink dripped into glycerin to create a smoky fluid abstraction that resembles jellyfish. Matter exhibited some of these in May 1943, before Pollock premiered his initial round of poured paintings at Guggenheim’s gallery that November.

The exhibit concludes with the Alex Matter “Pollocks” and package. The paintings are mostly dense compositions of layered looping poured paint in various colors. A few resemble little lines of fireworks bursting across a blue page. I’m charmed by one featuring loops of gray green, black, and bluish white punctuated by tiny orange dots. Many feel polished, but none is much bigger than a couple of feet wide, so their effect is modest.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Alex Matter , Jackson Pollock , Lee Krasner ,  More more >
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