Seeing Is Believing? Is This a Real Jackson Pollock? A Mysterious Trove of Pictures Rocks the Art World

By McGuigan, Cathleen | Newsweek, August 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

Seeing Is Believing? Is This a Real Jackson Pollock? A Mysterious Trove of Pictures Rocks the Art World


McGuigan, Cathleen, Newsweek


Byline: Cathleen McGuigan

When Jackson Pollock smashed his green Oldsmobile convertible into a tree in East Hampton, on New York's Long Island, 51 years ago this month, his violent death at the age of 44 only enhanced his mythic status as the iconic American renegade, who'd splattered--or dripped--his tortured psyche across his revolutionary canvases. Now firmly established as the most important American artist of the 20th century, Pollock still makes headlines--most of them containing dollar signs. Last November an early Pollock drip painting, "Number 5, 1948," was sold by David Geffen for a reported $140 million--the highest known price ever paid for a work of art. In September the headlines about a show of paintings that could be Pollocks will contain a different symbol: a question mark.

Back in 2002, more than two dozen small paintings labeled pollock experiments were found at the Home Sweet Home moving company in East Hampton, in a storage locker belonging to the late photographer and graphic artist Herbert Matter, a close friend of the painter's. Though the provenance was impeccable--these were not drip paintings picked up at a yard sale--a debate broke out over their authenticity once the trove's existence was announced in 2005. When the pictures are shown in public for the first time, at an exhibition at the McMullen Museum at Boston College, opening Sept. 1, the arguments are sure to erupt all over again--even though the works won't be labeled by Jackson Pollock.

Authentication is tricky--both an art and a science. The Rembrandt Research Project has downgraded former well-known Rembrandts to "school of"; just last week experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam demoted a van Gogh in Australia, reclassifying it as a painting by a peer. The official catalog of Pollock's art was controlled by two experts and his widow, the painter Lee Krasner, who died in 1984. Later, an authentication board considered hundreds of previously unknown works but admitted only a handful. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation stopped authenticating works in 1995, but its two main experts have expressed profound skepticism that the Matter pictures are by Pollock.

But another prominent scholar who was on the authentication board, Ellen Landau, a professor at Case Western University, disagreed: she's studied the paintings extensively, and delved into Pollock and Matter's relationship as artists. Her research has shaped the exhibition in Boston, called "Pollock Matters," and it will appear in an accompanying catalog. "I was excited about this as an art-historical find," she says. But some of the scientific analysis, which casts doubt on the paintings' authenticity, has muted her enthusiasm. "I believe there are a lot of things that point to Pollock. But there's a mystery here that requires more research."

That mystery has become as tangled as the skeins of color that wind and loop through a classic Pollock. Alex Matter, 65, a filmmaker who's the son of Herbert and painter Mercedes Matter, found the small pictures--painted on cardboard in the drip style, wrapped in brown paper--after both his parents were dead. The works were dirty, and some were badly damaged. Notes on the wrapping in Herbert Matter's handwriting included the dates "1946-49" and three references to Pollock or Jackson "experiments." "The way my father wrapped them was not what he would have done with works of art he took seriously," says Alex. "He was meticulous. If he thought Jackson was just experimenting, he wouldn't have wanted to show them." Alex, named after his parents' friend Alexander Calder, has childhood memories of artists such as Franz Kline, who took him to Dodgers games. And one summer day in the late 1940s, Alex recalls, he ran barefoot across a wet painting on the grass outside Pollock's East Hampton studio. His mother was furious, but Pollock decided he liked the footprint. "Jackson was fantastic with me," he says.

Based on other notes on the wrapper, Landau speculates that if Pollock painted these pictures, it was not in East Hampton, where he and Krasner lived after 1945, but in Matter's New York City studio, using Matter's materials. …

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