Jackson Pollock’s seminal work Mural (1943) speaks to a critical early moment in his career. Thanks to a two-year collaborative project undertaken by the Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, the painting’s aesthetic impact and physical structure have been improved, and we now better understand the materials and techniques Pollock used.
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TOM LEARNER: In 1943, Jackson Pollock painted this extraordinary painting behind me, Mural. The painting was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her apartment in New York at the time. It was supposed to be an actual mural on the wall, but Pollock was persuaded instead to paint a conventional canvas painting and install it up against the wall. When Peggy Guggenheim moved back to Venice after the Second World War, the painting was donated to the University of Iowa.
In 2009, the University of Iowa Museum of Art approached us. They knew about the GCI’s modern painting projects, and knew about the Getty Museum sometimes taking on conservation projects. And we jointly developed a project by which this extraordinary painting could be examined, researched, and restored.
I find I have to keep reminding myself that this work was painted over 70 years ago and yet it still has this incredible power. The colors are vivid, they’re bold, brushstrokes are energetic, it’s quite an extraordinary painting. It’s also enormous. One of the very famous myths about this painting is that it was completed in one night, right before the deadline for its installation. But the paint is largely oil, which usually takes days, if not weeks, to dry. And once you look closely at the painting and see all the layers applied wet or dry, it becomes pretty clear that this couldn’t be true.
One of the discoveries we did make was that there were four colors used very dilute. We think these first four colors were applied directly to the prime canvas.
ALAN PHENIX: One thing I would like to note, particularly at the very early stages, is how the first sort of gestures were created and with what?
The starting point for the paint analysis is preparing cross-sections. Taking this particular sample we have a zinc white ground, followed by lead white ground. So this is a double priming that was part of the initial commercial preparation of the canvas. On top of that is a lemon-yellow paint that is intermingled with a thick brown paint layer. The way the brown paint swirls into the lemon-yellow indicates the brown was applied while the underlying lemon-yellow was still wet. So this is wet and wet working. And these three paints, the lemon-yellow, the blue-green or teal, and the brown, are part of the very early laying in of the composition by Pollock, done, we think, in a very vigorous, rapid, broad execution.
LEARNER: We were able to work with colleagues using a number of scanning techniques. One of those called hyperspectral imaging was able to look over the entire surface of mural and detect certain pigments. The other scanning technique we used was X-ray fluorescence. This instrument picks up many more pigments as it scans for individual elements. And we were able, in a small area of the painting, to get into very high detail about where each element was present in each brush stroke.
PHENIX: So in the map for mercury, we see this broad splatter that corresponds to the red pigment, vermilion mercuric sulfide. And here, Pollock is using this red paint based on the vermilion, thinned down probably with salt, to flick and splatter the red paint across the surface.
One of the surprising findings was that one particular paint was not bound in oil, but bound in casein. This casein paint would have originally have been water based. And we think this is an economy house paint of the type that would have been available for painting walls around the mid-century.
LEARNER: As part of our research into looking at the materials and techniques of paints on Mural, we were very intrigued by this pink paint that has an appearance of a house paint, a sort of glossy enamel paint, and perhaps had been applied horizontally, which we know Pollock was doing later on in his career. So what we’re doing at the moment is just seeing if we can use the materials that we think Pollock had access to in 1943, and keeping the canvas vertically, whether we can achieve some the same effects that we’re seeing on the painting.
We’ve found certain mixes of oil paints mixed in with mediums such as stand oil and a certain amount of turpentine that give the paint fluidity that can then be applied in this way and the paint is landing in a very similar way, actually to the paint we’re seeing on the mural, not only the sort of gloss and the texture and sort of fine beading of this paint, but also those squiggles, which I would never have guessed you could apply with a vertical splash.
The weight of the canvas and all the paint on it really would have caused a considerable sag to the overall structure very early on in its history.
YVONNE SZAFRAN: We know that the painting started to sag as soon as the canvas was stretched. We can see in the early photographs, both of Pollock in front of the unpainted canvas as well as Pollock in front of the finished painting, that you can see that sag very clearly.
There were two main challenges in the conservation treatment that directly related to the treatment of the picture in 1973. First of all, the painting was varnished at that time and Pollock didn’t varnish Mural, so we knew we needed to take that varnish off, as well as the grime that had accumulated on the surface over the years.
The second challenge related to a structural treatment that had been done at that time. When the painting arrived, parts of the tacking edges were now visible on the front of the painting.
LEARNER: In the early 1970s the painting was lined where a secondary canvas was adhered to the back of the original canvas. That lining was successful in addressing the structural issues, but the distortion in the original canvas became effectively locked into place. And that meant that when the painting was restretched, there were areas of exposed, unpainted prime canvas visible at the front, most noticeable long the top edge and at the two lower corners. So we felt that there were three main choices that we could have considered.
SZAFRAN: So the first choice would be to replace the 1973 crack stretcher with a new stretcher, still rectangular, and perhaps framing them out. That was one choice. But the painting, of course, was not framed originally. This was something we learned over the course of the treatment. So then we were left with two options, putting the painting back on a rectangular stretcher and accepting those bits that were never meant to be seen on the face of the painting, or building a stretcher that echoed the contours of the original paint surface.
LEARNER: To test how this might look on the actual painting, we produced a full-scale photographic mockup of Mural, putting it up on the wall and cutting the photograph to the shape of the painted edge.
The idea is to try and get back the original painted edge. The worry is it looked like a smiling face on the wall. But we’re hoping the scale of this and your eye looking in the center, it won’t pick up on that non-horizontal top edge and maybe even the bottom edge too.
And ultimately, that was the option that we chose. Although I have to say, when you do something like this with an actual painting, it’s a very different process from working on a photograph.
SZAFRAN: We always work really closely with the GCI. We wanted Tom and Alan to comment and have input on the conservation treatments. And we wanted to have input on to the interpretation of the analytical findings. And so we worked very closely together, back and forth, on all of the aspects of the project, and I think that is what made it such a successful collaboration.
PHENIX: One of the pieces of satisfaction that’s come from the project is being able to unravel this very complex interplay of different paints and to link that scientific finding to the observational evidence we get from simply examining the paint surface closely and comparing those insights to build a picture of how he went about making this huge, spectacular piece of art.
We have asked many questions about this painting still. We’ve been studying it for almost two years now and there are actually many things that we don’t know and probably if we had 10 more years, we still wouldn’t know them. And I like that. I like the fact that this painting holds on to some mystery, some of its magical qualities, and I’m perfectly happy to let go and just leave it on the wall.
[instrumental music plays throughout]
TOM LEARNER: In 1943, Jackson Pollock painted this extraordinary painting behind me, Mural. The painting was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her apartment in New York at the time. It was supposed to be an actual mural on the wall, but Pollo...
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