Pollock?

by John Hallmark Neff

How do we know if the works in this exhibition were made by Jackson Pollock? And why do we care?

The paintings in this collection are characteristic of the 1947–50 period, in which Pollock, sober and focused, made his so-called drip (or pour) paintings, which suddenly propelled him to worldwide fame as “Jack the Dripper.”

Are they valuable because no great collection of 20th century art could be considered complete without at least one Pollock, one of the “breakthrough” paintings that played a major role in the cultural shift in hegemony from the School of Paris to the School of New York? Are they valuable because certain European critics and artists acclaimed Pollock as the first American painter to have made a difference in Western art, thereby extending his fame beyond the U.S.? Or is it merely because of their potential value in today’s global art market that we want to know if they are indeed “authentic”?

Perhaps it is because we seek reassurance of the integrity of the Pollock canon. The canon manifest in the exemplary work of the Pollock catalogue raisonné team established standards for authentication and attempted to account for each and every one of his objects, paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and miscellaneous objects (O’Conner & Thaw, 1978; O’Conner, 1995). Following Pollock’s death, this became a necessity due to numerous fakes, forgeries, and attempted copies that began to appear. Additionally, pickers scoured Long Island for overlooked Pollocks given to friends or bartered for services or groceries.

Do we care about authentication because this particular group of exhibited works questions our understanding of Pollock’s achievement and poses the risk that we might praise what we can’t confirm? Skeptics may relish the prospect that “experts” who think enough of Pollock’s work to study it in detail may be fooled, thereby calling into question their claims of its significance.

Does their unexpected appearance keep the Pollock saga open-ended? Or might the fascinating CSI-like analysis of splatter patterns offer an intriguing distraction from news about the economy and the War on Terror?

Mistakenly, Pollock is often identified solely with his three years of poured, “overall” paintings. Yet many artists in the 1930s and early 1940s in Europe and the United States practiced dripping. Art classes also used this technique to facilitate a student’s confrontation with a blank canvas and to probe the unconscious for imagery.

Pollock’s approach was very much his own, although some critics, including many cartoonists, believed that making a Pollock was fool’s play.

Stanley William Hayter, who came to New York from Paris in 1940, and in whose progressive Atelier 17 Pollock made etchings, challenged skeptics to try to imitate Pollock:

Go to it, and I’ll bet you that not one of you can make one square inch of anything that could be mistaken for what Pollock’s done . . . And they couldn’t because it’s absolutely distinctive, more than handwriting. It’s like attempts at faking Pollocks: You can’t be fooled (Potter, 1987).

Hans Namuth’s famous black and white photographs that originally accompanied Robert Goodnough’s “Pollock Paints a Picture” article in Art News (May 1951), and his color movie, in addition to photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, show the artist at work. Pollock leans in from all sides above the unstretched linen or cotton-duck flat on the studio floor, or outdoors on a concrete slab, drawing rhythmically through the air. Using sticks, stubby brushes, pierced paint cans, even basting syringes loaded with liquid oil paint or enamel, his gestures and gravity guiding into marks and stains.