Did Pollock paint them? It's the public's turn to decide
After months of debate by art historians and scientists over their authenticity, two dozen controversial drip paintings went on display for the first time yesterday, allowing the public to confront the mystery of whether they were painted by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
"It's hard to tell," said Caitlin Coyle, 16, who arrived with her parents and younger brother just after the noon opening at "Pollock Matters" at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art. "But they look pretty Pollock to me."
For the Coyles, BC alumni from Connecticut, the day offered a compelling double-header. They came to the McMullen early in the afternoon, then headed to Alumni Stadium to watch the Eagles take on Wake Forest. The football game presented a challenge for art lovers hoping to get a glimpse of the paintings, which were discovered in a storage locker five years ago.
"You can't find parking," said Lynda Madera, 24, noting the game day restrictions in Chestnut Hill. "We literally circled for about an hour and had to park over a mile away."
Her boyfriend, Daniel Vaillant, a 26-year-old BC graduate, said he was surprised the McMullen was hosting such a high-profile show.
"This is fantastic," he said of the chance to be among the first to see the paintings.
It has been months since the McMullen announced it would show the controversial pictures as part of a larger show detailing the relationship between Pollock and the late photographer Herbert Matter. Organizers had hoped to state a definitive opinion on the authenticity of the works, which were found by Matter's son, Alex.
Earlier, a Harvard University Art Museums study had cast serious doubts, stating that paints and materials used in some of the pictures were not available until decades after Pollock's death in 1956. Adding to the intrigue was a dispute between Alex Matter and James Martin, a Williamstown-based forensic scientist and conservator. Matter hired Martin in 2005 to study 23 of the paintings, but the report has never been issued; the two argued over Martin's findings and whether he could publish them.
As part of its fact-finding effort, the McMullen commissioned additional studies from, among others, Museum of Fine Arts conservator Richard Newman and Peter Paul Biro, the Montreal-based conservator who is known for his role in trying to authenticate through fingerprint analysis a splatter painting purchased by Teri Horton, a California truck driver (seen in the film "Who the $#%& Is Jackson Pollock?").
In the end, organizers of the "Pollock Matters" exhibit could offer no conclusion.
"There obviously remains a mystery here," said Claude Cernuschi, a BC art history professor and one of the show's curators.
Still, the 178-page catalog, also released yesterday, did contain some revelations. For example, although Martin's report remains unpublished, Newman was able to coax some information out of the conservator. Sixteen of the 23 works Martin studied contained pigments not believed available during Pollock's lifetime, the McMullen catalog's introductory essay stated.
Visitors were not particularly interested in the history of paint pigments. They said they came to the McMullen out of appreciation for Pollock and the thrill of being the first to look at the recently discovered works.
The Matter pictures were only a part of the exhibition, which features more than 170 works over two floors. "Pollock Matters" explores the relationship between the two couples, Herbert Matter and his artist wife, Mercedes, and Pollock and abstract painter Lee Krasner. To that end, the galleries feature photographs and paintings by the Matters, Krasner's canvases, copies of journals, letters, and a handful of undisputed Pollocks, including the MFA's "Number 10."
Downstairs, the Matter pictures were displayed in a separate room and not credited to a particular artist. The room was a prime destination.
Painter Susan Wilson, heading to Suffolk Downs from her home in Rhode Island, quickly scooted through the McMullen as her ride waited outside. She was yet another Pollock fan who said the controversial works looked genuine. She did say she did not like many of them much.
"They're kind of forced and experimental," said Wilson.
Ellen Landau, the exhibition curator, could not make the trip from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But Cernuschi and another BC professor, Andrzej Herczynski - both catalog contributors - were there, along with the MFA's Newman and Nancy Netzer, the director of the McMullen.
"The pictures haven't all been together before," Netzer said, motioning to the Matter pictures on the surrounding walls.
At one point, Newman, the conservator, asked Cernuschi, the art historian, whether "these look stylistically like Pollocks."
"This, much less so," said Cernuschi, pointing to Untitled No. 6r, a swirling mass of purples, greens, blues, and yellows.
"How about that?" Newman said, pointing to "Untitled No. 17," a picture that he found contained a red pigment patented in 1983.
"There are other Pollocks that do look similar," Cernuschi said.
Stafford and Patricia Ezzard, did not need to be persuaded. The Florida residents, on campus this weekend to deliver their son John to school for the start of his senior year, said they felt a personal connection to Pollock. For years, they lived just a quarter of a mile from the home Pollock and Krasner shared in East Hampton.
The Ezzards said that, despite evidence to the contrary, they could not imagine that the Matter pictures were phony.
"Who would make this many copies and leave them where they were going to be discovered?" said Stafford Ezzard.
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.