boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Harvard study casts more doubt on disputed Pollock paintings

Alex Matter found 32 disputed Jackson Pollock works in 2002. Alex Matter found 32 disputed Jackson Pollock works in 2002. (Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times/FILE 2005)

Three paintings at the heart of a bitter dispute over whether they were painted by Jackson Pollock use materials not available during the artist's lifetime, according to a study released yesterday by the Harvard University Art Museums.

The yearlong study found that a pigment in one of the paintings wasn't introduced as artists' paint until 1996, and a pigment on a second work has been available only since 1971. Pollock died in 1956, having completed his most famous works from 1947 to 1950.

The report adds to a growing body of research that questions whether a trove of 32 works discovered in 2002 could have been painted by Pollock, whose masterworks are regularly sold for millions at auction. One large painting recently fetched $140 million at auction.

Still, its release has not discouraged Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art from exhibiting the disputed paintings. Yesterday the McMullen announced that an exhibition, "Pollock Matters," would open in September.

"We're doing a scholarly show," said McMullen director Nancy Netzer . "What we will be doing is taking the newly found works, displaying them in a separate section, as problems for study."

She said the show, which is due to feature more than 100 works, would explore the relationship between Pollock; his wife, Lee Krasner; photographer Herbert Matter; and Matter's wife, painter Mercedes Matter.

In 2002, the Matters' son Alex announced the discovery of 32 pieces labeled as the work of Pollock in a storage shed in Long Island. Many displayed Pollock's signature drip style, and Matter said the artist made them in the late 1940s.

At his request, Harvard's Straus Center for Conservation began its examination of three of the works last year. The group behind the study, which included Harry Cooper, the Fogg Art Museum's modern art curator; conservator Narayan Khandekar; and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art, issued its 10-page report yesterday.

Pollock scholars had mixed reactions to the study, though in general they found that it supported the argument that the works were not by Pollock.

"The bottom line is they've got paints in them, pigments, and medium that are later than the reported dates of composition," said Pepe Karmel, a New York University professor who co-curated a Pollock show at the Museum of Modern Art. "That's not a good sign. I feel bad for the people involved who felt very committed to these, and are maybe finding themselves on the wrong side of the question."

That includes Ellen Landau, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, who sided with Matter. Landau didn't respond to interview requests yesterday. She issued a statement through publicist Robin Zucker, who also represents Matter and his art dealer, Mark Borghi.

"Harvard's scientific report covers a very small sample of these works -- one of which is too damaged to be representative -- and it leaves other research results unexplained," Landau said in her statement. "As such, it is not yet conclusive either way."

Landau will curate the BC exhibition, Netzer said.

According to another statement issued by Zucker, a larger group of the Matter paintings is being analyzed.

Harvard art museum officials and conservators were not available to discuss the study's contents, which were released on the Internet at 5 p.m. The report explained that Harvard's researchers first asked for works that had not been restored since they had been recovered by Matter. Told that conservation work had been done on almost all of the 32 works, Harvard then asked for a "diverse sampling."

All three works were painted on blue-coated cardboard. Harvard researchers used a variety of tools, including scanning electron microscopes, to study the pigments, the powdery substance that gives paint its color. The study also examined the liquid that bonds the pigments.

Many of the pigments were traditional materials that could have been used by Pollock. But the research team found that other materials were not around until at least 1950.

Helen A. Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, N.Y., said yesterday she didn't know whether the study would settle the disagreement.

"I guess, from the technical point of view, it certainly does not make [the Matter works] look more authentic," she said. "Whether or not the scholars will agree to accept that result remains to be seen."

The disputed paintings have kicked up another controversy as well -- about which museum will be first to show them to the public.

For months, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., has publicized "Pollock Matters," which is set to open in June. On Friday, director Sandra Trop said "Pollock Matters" would open there no matter what the results of the Harvard study.

"We're this little museum that's being put on the map because we're the only museum that's brave enough or stupid enough to put on this show," said Trop.

But Netzer said yesterday that Borghi assured her last week that he had pulled out of the Everson show. Borghi did not return calls Friday or yesterday. But a press release on the website pollockexhibit.com announced that the BC museum will "debut to the public 25 recently discovered experimental works found" by Matter.

Trop, reached yesterday, said that the Everson has worked on the exhibition for two years, booked speakers, and recruited sponsors. If Borghi pulls out -- and she hasn't received word that he has -- the Everson will probably sue, she said.

"There'd be a lot of damage for the museum," she said. "And they're not even authentic Pollocks."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's Living/Arts section about a Harvard University Art Museums study on whether three paintings at the heart of a dispute were painted by Jackson Pollock incorrectly stated that a Pollock painting was sold at auction for $140 million. The piece of art was sold privately.)

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES