Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943) is a monumental eight-by-twenty foot work that marks a turning point in the artist’s career and the course of American art. In 2012, Mural traveled to the Getty for conservation, cleaning, and study, which revealed groundbreaking information about the work and its creator. In the first half of a two-part conversation, Laura Rivers and Yvonne Szafran, conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Alan Phenix and Tom Learner, scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Andrew Perchuk, deputy director at the Getty Research Institute, tell the story of this important work.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
YVONNE SZAFRAN: He said, “Well, there’s this painting by Jackson Pollock, belonging to the University of Iowa.” And I said, “Well, how big is it?” And when he told me that it’s eight feet by twenty feet, I said, “I don’t think so.”
CUNO: In this episode I speak with the Getty’s Laura Rivers, Yvonne Szafran, Alan Phenix, Tom Learner, and Andrew Perchuk in the first half of a two-part conversation about Jackson Pollock’s monumental painting, Mural.
In 1943, collector Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Jackson Pollock to paint a large mural for the entrance to her Manhattan townhouse. At the time, Pollock was relatively unknown, working as a guard at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which would later become the Guggenheim Museum. To receive a commission and contract for a work on this scale was an extraordinary opportunity, and his resulting painting, titled Mural, marked a turning point not only in Pollock’s career but also in the course of American art.
The eight-by-twenty foot painting is monumental in size, composition, and technique. Pollock brushed, splattered, smeared, and dabbed paint in a range of colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and pink—across the canvas. The areas in between are filled with opaque and translucent washes of white, and the entire composition is anchored with broad dark brown strokes. The painting is mesmerizing, chaotic, even discomforting; one can’t help but feel consumed by it.
In 2009, Pamela White, then interim director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, which owns the painting, asked if the Getty would consider analyzing and treating Mural, and my colleagues agreed. Conservators, curators, and scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and the J. Paul Getty Museum embarked on an extensive research and conservation project that culminated in an exhibition of the painting at the Getty in the spring of 2014. A book titled Jackson Pollock’s Mural: The Transitional Moment documents the research and discoveries.
I recently gathered a few colleagues who worked on the project to recall their experience and to tell the story of this important work. Laura Rivers and Yvonne Szafran are conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Alan Phenix and Tom Learner are scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute. And Andrew Perchuk is deputy director at the Getty Research Institute. We met in the paintings conservation studio at the Getty Museum, the very room where my colleagues worked on Mural.
CUNO: So Tom, why don’t you tell us how the painting came to the Getty for conservation, analysis, and treatment. (3:02)
TOM LERNER: Sure. It feels so long ago, actually, I have to wrack my brains thinking about this.
CUNO: When was it?
LERNER: I believe it was in 2007, when Pamela White, who was the then interim director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the owner of this spectacular painting—she came to the Getty Leadership Institute course one summer. And we met through one of the tours around the GCI at the time. Things ran very quiet for a couple of years. I heard stories about the Mississippi bursting its banks in Iowa City, and the catastrophic floods there. But shortly after, she got back in touch—this must’ve been 2009—and proposed this extraordinary project.
And it was extremely impressive to me, because she pitched the project based on a long-term research project that the GCI had been undertaking, looking at how to analyze modern paints, and what that means for conservation issues and sort of art historical interpretation.
I immediately went to see Andrew Perchuck and Yvonne Szafran. Andrew, I think, immediately said yes. It was a very perhaps straightforward decision for him to agree to be part of a research project, should this extraordinary painting come up to the Getty for a certain amount of time. Trying to convince Yvonne and the museum itself, of course, to house and look after this extraordinarily expensive and important work of art was a very different matter. And Yvonne, perhaps you could just continue this story, because we tell this together, and I always like hearing your version, actually.
YVONNE SZAFRAN: Well, when Tom first came to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if our two departments did a project together?,” I said, “Yeah, that actually sounds interesting. We don’t normally work on twentieth century works of art. But it might be a fun challenge. What do you have in mind?” And he said, “Well, there’s this painting by Jackson Pollock belonging to the University of Iowa.” And I said, “Well, how big is it?” [they chuckle] And when he told me that it’s eight feet by twenty feet, I said, “I don’t think so.” Because we had just finished, actually, a collaborative project with the museum in Schwerin on two very large paintings by Oudry. And I think all of us in the studio were looking forward to working on smaller things for a change. And so that was my first answer.
And then the directorship at the University of Iowa changed and Sean O’Harrow came on the scene. And he very cleverly wrote directly, not just to me, but also to our curator of paintings, Scott Schaefer. And Scott Schaefer came to me and said, “We have to do this. This is incredible.” And I think I said something like, “Why?” And he said, “If the Getty doesn’t take this on, what is going to happen to the painting?” And that’s when it really made sense to me that this was the perfect project to come to the Getty, with all the resources here.
It fit very nicely into our practice of collaborations with other institutions where we bring great works of art here to be conserved and studied, both from an art historical perspective and from a scientific perspective, with our colleagues at GCI, who do the majority of our analysis. And so this project fit very nicely into that program. Sometimes we’ll bring visiting conservators to help us with those projects, but in this case, University of Iowa does not have a conservation department. They didn’t have, really, anybody to send to help us. So it was that kind of a project where we did the work in consultation with staff at the University of Iowa, but the work itself was done here at the Getty by the Getty.
CUNO: Tom, maybe I could ask you this question. You know, for a long time, conservators have been working on paintings. But more recently, they’ve been working together with conservation scientists and with art historians to develop an integrated approach with the conservator, a scientist, and an art historian. Sometimes this is called technical art history. So maybe you and then maybe Andrew can tell us about the advent of conservation science and its application to the art historical analysis of works of art.
LERNER: I’ll give it my best shot, Jim, that’s a—probably a podcast unto itself, the history of conservation science. And it’s really hard, actually, to define when conservation science or technical history really begins. But probably, actually going back to the early nineteenth century, maybe even further back, people were looking at works of art, archeological finds, with scientific tools. Most of the sort of larger established science departments in museums like the Fogg Art Museum in Harvard and the Louvre and the National Gallery in London—these developed in the sort of mid-twentieth century, and were often set up, actually, to answer very sort of important questions about conservation. So quite the— one of the great examples was looking at some of the cleaning controversies going on throughout the century where it was recognized that science could play a really important role in understanding what was happening to works of art when they were being cleaned. But that is quite distinct from this area that we’re talking about now, which is often called technical art history.
Something’s changed recently, and I’m exactly sure what it is, actually, because I think conservators in particular have been working with scientists for quite a long time. And maybe it’s become much more integrated now. Maybe something has happened where perhaps more on the art historical side—and Andrew, I know you can speak to this much better than I can—where the place of scientific analysis has become much more central. And it feels more than just a few individual art historians or curators who understand that understanding materiality and how things are made is interesting. I mean, Andrew, do you feel something’s changed dramatically? Or has this been a sort of gradual increase in interest?
ANDREW PERCHUK: Well, I think certainly, when I was young there was a much more theoretical bent to art history. And to a certain degree object-based study was somewhat less at the forefront of art history. And I think that that has really changed in the last twenty, twenty-five years. And now what you can learn from the object, and especially the kinds of processes, techniques, others, that both the museum and the GCI—I think are becoming really central to art history. And I mean, I can give an example from the Pollock.
Which is that when we first had the Pollock in the lab and you could really see it up close, one of the things that was really pronounced about it, one of the things that really struck you at first, was that there was a white paint on the surface of the painting that was very transparent. And so in the first few weeks that we had it, I remember thinking, what an amazing thing that Pollock had done by creating this transparent layer that allowed the entire archeology of the painting to be visible so that you could really see the painting develop over the course of his different painting processes. And of course, that thought I had turned out to be completely wrong—100%. In talking to Alan and Tom and Laura and Yvonne, it turns out that that was the one house paint that was found that Pollock used; with all of these very high-quality oils, the one house paint. And that house paint, being a cheap commercial paint from the 1940s, had separated, and the binder and the medium had completely come apart, making it really transparent. But in actuality, as you guys explained to me, the painting— the paint originally would’ve been like a latex house paint today. So none of that archeology would’ve been visible. It’s not uninteresting that it is now, but it certainly shows how working together among conservators and art historians can really change your interpretation.
CUNO: Yeah, Tom.
LERNER: Just to add one more thing. Hearing you talk, Andrew, I think what’s really happened in the last five or ten years has been the sort of sophistication, the sort of level of the conversation, has been raised up so much higher. And I think part of that is an understanding of not just where the role of science [is] in some of these questions, but actually to critique that science, too. I mean, often, you know, people will use the term proven by science or something. But most scientists know that you—you know, you find one thing and then it gets disproved further down the line.
And I think we’re getting much better at having, you know, sort of a more equal conversation with art historians, conservators, scientists; whereas before, perhaps it was looking to science to answer certain questions. And I—In fact, at this year’s CAA [College Art Association] symposium, the keynote speaker there, Mary Miller, from Yale University, made exactly this point; that she felt that art history has moved on from kind of people writing single-author articles with a little thank-you to some scientists in a footnote. It really has become more about embracing the science, the technology, the imaging, and then actually not just taking results, but asking questions. And I think probably in this conversation, you’re going to see exactly that happening, where this sort of equal conversation was so fascinating.
CUNO: Yeah, good. Well, let’s get to the painting. And Laura, you were responsible for getting started on the picture when it arrived. Tell us how you proceeded in the examination of the picture and also in the treatment of the painting
LAURA RIVERS: We began with a great deal of looking at the painting. And we were able to acquire a new microscope, which was particularly useful, because it allowed us to look vertically. But we also—
CUNO: [over Rivers] Describe how that happens. How can you put a microscope in that situation?
RIVERS: Actually, there’re a number of microscopes that are developed specifically for that purpose, and we ended up buying a surgical ear, nose, and throat microscope. [Cuno chuckles] And it very easily moves between a table surface and a vertical surface. And so we knew that we would have a great deal of use for it, and could also lend it to our colleagues working on sculpture.
CUNO: And I think our listeners will also be puzzled by your looking at this eight-by-twenty-foot painting through a microscope.
RIVERS: [she chuckles] That’s really one of the incredible things about looking at paintings, is that there’s much to be learned from the larger scale. But the true hidden world of a painting is actually to be discovered on a micro scale. And over the course of working on a painting and working on a surface, you come to know every single piece of that painting—every passage, every swirl of paint. And that’s a process that really begins in looking and with the microscope.
We were also able to do an x-ray of this painting. And that was actually a very difficult process. We have three x-ray rooms onsite at the Getty Center and at the Villa, total, and we ended up having to hire an outside contractor because the painting simply didn’t quite fit properly in any of our x-ray rooms.
CUNO: What would an x-ray tell you?
RIVERS: Essentially, it allows us to see areas of damage. It can give you an indication of how a painting was constructed, if there were changes were made. It can give you some rough indication of whether a paint contains a heavy metal and is particularly radiopaque. Can give you an indication of where damages are, losses, small fragmentary losses. It’s really an incredibly valuable tool. It can also, in this case, give you an indication of thread count. And that ended up very interesting later on.
CUNO: [over Rivers] Explain thread count. That’s important.
LERNER: Because paintings are executed on canvases, they actually are woven, and there’re a number of different weave patterns. In this case, Mural is on a plain woven canvas. And so by counting the threads, vertical and horizontal, you’re able to understand exactly the qualities of that canvas. And we were able to discover that that canvas is still in production, and it’s made by a company called Claessens in Belgium, and had a pre-primed layer. And much the same canvas is still made today.
We were also, in collaboration with colleagues, able to determine that the canvas had a particular thread count, and was part of a larger role; and ultimately, to determine that Pasiphaë, the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—
CUNO: By Pollock, also.
RIVERS: Also by Pollock. That Pasiphaë was actually a remnant from the larger roll of canvas.
CUNO: So after cutting off some bit of canvas, what was left over became then the canvas support for another painting by Pollock.
CUNO: Yeah. So the first thing you had to do was to document the picture. You had to look at it carefully, you had to describe it accurately, you had to submit it to different kinds of technical analyses, as you’re doing. And as that was happening, you were also interested in the original circumstances of its installation. That is, the lobby of Peggy Guggenheim’s townhouse in New York City. And that turned out to be an interesting story, not only helping us understand the picture and how the picture was seen when it was first installed, but because of the particular location of it. So as I understand it, in the 1970s, a research curator at the Guggenheim Museum named Angelica Rudenstine, who’s a notable art historian, at the time, she was a research curator at the Guggenheim Museum, in the seventies, working on the collection. But in 2002, she was at the Mellon Foundation, as program officer. And the foundation had acquired, at that time, brownstones on East 61st Street in New York City. And in one of those brownstones or townhouses, Peggy Guggenheim had lived. And it’s for that townhouse that she commissioned the painting Mural from Pollock. So she, knowing all of that, had documented—before the renovation to the townhouses by the Mellon Foundation—she documented the circumstances of the architecture. Because there were these confusing photographs that didn’t really make sense. So if you could accurately document those architectural circumstances, you might solve some of the confusing problems of the picture. So tell us about that.
RIVERS: Exactly. In one of the historical photographs, you are able to see Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock, in a portrait done in front of the painting. And at the base and at the top, there are small portions of what some people have at various times assumed was a frame. But in reality, what Angelica was able to prove is that that’s actually molding that belonged in the house and carried throughout the upper levels of the house.
CUNO: Yeah. I remember when it first came in and we were looking at these photographs, and there were three or four of us looking at them, we all had different interpretations of what it was we were seeing.
CUNO: That molding looked exactly like a frame. And the frame didn’t make any sense because after all, it was called Mural, and mural would seem to be something integrated into the wall and so it was all kind of confusing. But Angelica was able to document that. That also helped you understand the conditions in which the painting was seen because now you knew where the wall was relative to a raking light from a window by the front door.
RIVERS: Exactly. Exactly. And it really gave us a great sense of what the experience of seeing the painting would’ve been. Because it would’ve been in relatively low light. Although there was electric lighting in the space it wasn’t very often used. And you would’ve walked past Mural as you walked to the elevator at the back of the building.
PERCHUK: The story of the commissioning of Mural is one of the great stories of art history because at the time that Peggy Guggenheim commissioned it, she had broken up with and was subsequently to divorce Max Ernst, who was her husband, the great Surrealist artist, and was in a relationship with an Englishman named Kenneth MacPherson. And they took the top two floors of this East 61st Street townhouse. The lease was in Kenneth’s name but they shared the place.
One of the features of the building was, there was this long entry hall, which is where Mural was designed for—
CUNO: And it was a narrow entry hall.
PERCHUK: A narrow, long entry hall.
CUNO: About how many feet from the wall to wall?
PERCHUK: It was thirteen feet from wall to wall.
CUNO: Yeah. So you could stand ten or so feet back from the picture. Could you take in the entire expanse of the picture by standing in front of it? Or was it too narrow a space in which to do that?
RIVERS: I think it would’ve entirely filled your visual field. And one of the things we did when the painting first arrived in order to understand what it would’ve been like to see it in that space was essentially to mark out in the studio. Aa certain point, the width of the studio is essentially what you would’ve experienced. And it really would have filled your visible field.
CUNO: [over Rivers] And by studio, you’re saying the conservation studio.
RIVERS: Yes, the conservation studio.
CUNO: [over Rivers] Yeah. Really? So you had effectively had a kind of model for looking at the picture as it would’ve been exhibited initially in the lobby.
Let’s get back to the commission for the painting because it’s a kind of extraordinary history that involves an extraordinary array of extremely important people. Andrew’s already mentioned, of course, Peggy Guggenheim. (20:00) We’ve all mentioned her name, I guess. But— or— and Max Ernst, as well. But there was in May of 1943 an exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery called A Salon for Young Artists. And it was at the gallery that she called Art of This Century.
And the jury for the gallery included Mondrian, Hartley, Duchamp, Guggenheim herself, and a few others. And reportedly, it was Mondrian who convinced Peggy Guggenheim of the importance of Pollock’s painting in that exhibition, called Stenographic Figure of 1942. What moment [was that] in the career of Pollock? He was working at the time as a guard at the museum of the abstract object?
PERCHUK: The Museum of Non-Objective Art [read: Painting], which later to become the Guggenheim. [Cuno: Yeah] And he was living very poorly, down in the Village. He had shown his work around a little bit but was absolutely not the artist that we think of today. I mean, he was truly a struggling artist. He had just come off of working on the WPA, where he was not in the mural section; he was one of the artists paid on the easel section of the WPA. And he really didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. And he, as you said, was working as a guard. And it was the most improbable thing imaginable for him to be given, by Peggy Guggenheim, an annual stipend, which was really—
CUNO: It was $150 a month.
PERCHUK: Which was—
CUNO: And that was a lot of money at that point.
PERCHUK: Was quite a bit of money at that point.
CUNO: And allowed him to leave his job, as you say, and to begin painting as you say. Because shortly thereafter, he got a contract in July of 1943. So just two months later, he got this commission to paint Mural for her townhouse. That was astonishing.
PERCHUK: That was also astonishing. And the story behind that is, just to continue with it, she’s living in this townhouse. The entryway is very important ’cause it’s the only way to the elevator that takes you up to the apartment. There’s no stairs. There’s no other way but this elevator, to get upstairs. So her and Kenneth McPherson are going back and forth and she says that she is shocked by Kenneth’s ostentatious ideas for how he wanted to decorate this entryway. And so she finally convinces him to commission Pollock to paint Mural for the entryway. And seven years later, it’s kind of amazing that commissioning an artist to paint an eight-by-twenty-foot mural for the entryway of your rented flat is not ostentatious.
CUNO: Right. [they laugh] Well, Duchamp is credited with convincing Peggy Guggenheim that she should let Pollock paint it on a canvas, the canvas that Laura described, so that it could be taken down, stretched, and removed from it, should she leave this residence, right? Rather than what our listeners might think of initially, when hearing the term mural, that it was painted on the wall. But it was painted on canvas and stretched and filled the entire wall, as if it were painted on the wall.
LERNER: That’s right. In fact, it was stretched and primed and painted mostly, if not exclusively, in Pollock’s studio. By that time, he and Krasner have gotten together. And in order to stretch Mural, they have to take the wall down in in Pollock’s apartment, between the living room and the bedroom. And they do this in the middle of the night, because of course, they don’t wanna get evicted for tearing down a wall in their rental apartment. There’s one amazing photograph of Pollock standing, with his shadow on the stretched canvas, which fills the apartment pretty much from floor to ceiling.
And it is both important in a logistical sense, that Peggy Guggenheim was only in New York because of the war, having left her beloved Europe for the United States because World War II broke out. Duchamp knew that she was gonna move back to Europe as soon as the war ended, and convinced her to have the painting on canvas. But I think that Duchamp was also perhaps thinking about a type of art that was something in the size of a mural but portable like an easel. Which to a degree, is what the New York School painters, the Abstract Expressionists, Pollock and company, ended up creating in the forties and fifties.
CUNO: This photograph that you mention about, let’s call it his studio, his apartment, in which he were painting the picture. And it’s—as I recall, unpainted. It’s a plain canvas. Stretched, but unpainted. There was a lot of conversation when first we gathered together to talk about this painting years ago, as to whether it was painted on the floor or on the wall. We all kind of were thinking of Pollock as a
guy who paints on the floor, not on a stretched canvas on the wall. Maybe Alan could tell us how it was you determined that it was painted on the wall.
PHENIX: Yes. I think there are two things that point to it being painted upright in the vertical position. One is just the simple geography of the studio. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to lay the painting on the floor and for him to have to move around it.
CUNO: [over Phenix] Because you knew the floorplan of the studio? You knew the size of the studio? You could make that determination?
PHENIX: Well, roughly, yes. And with an eight-foot by twenty-foot painting laid flat horizontally on the floor, there simply wouldn’t have been the space around it for him to get access to it. And particularly to the center of the painting. And the physical evidence in the painting itself mainly comes from drips. He thinned the paint down considerably, with turpentine, presumably. And all the drips in the paint are vertical. There’s a very clear downwards flow of the paint across the surface. Even to the point, on the bottom edge where the fluid paint drips slightly onto the tacking margin as if it was leaving ever so slightly at an angle against the wall.
CUNO: Which tacking margin, we mean around the edge of the painting, yeah.
PHENIX: [over Cuno] Around from the front of the painting around to the side of the stretcher, which would’ve been on a very slight downwards angle.
CUNO: Is there a reason why he would’ve painted it on a stretcher as opposed to tacking it to the wall? Laura?
RIVERS: I think it was done on a stretcher because that allowed Pollock to have the feeling of the canvas moving. And if you have the canvas tacked to the wall, it’s a very different experience in terms of how the canvas takes the paint from the brush. Without the movement of the canvas, you end up with a very different kind of stroke—if you’re using a brush to paint on a hard surface—a canvas against the wall, versus a stretched canvas, which tends to move even as you talk by it.
CUNO: Yeah. Did he stretch the canvas himself?
PHENIX: Yes. I mean, it’s already primed, so he didn’t actually put the ground on it himself; it came ready, prepared—
CUNO: [over Phenix] He bought the canvas that way.
PHENIX: Or Peggy Guggenheim bought—we have no records of the acquisition of the canvas. I’m sure it would’ve come to him rolled, and that he, and perhaps with the assistance of Lee Krasner, stretched it himself. But to go back to the point Laura was mentioning about the sort of responsiveness of the canvas, I think with his very vigorous, dynamic painting process, the tactile quality of the brush against a sort of forgiving canvas would’ve been quite an important property in a stretched canvas as opposed to it being rigidly mounted on a wall by tacking.
SZAFRAN: I also think that he was firmly entrenched in the traditional methods, in a way. And that is the way you paint an oil painting.
CUNO: [over Szafran] You mean he was trained that way?
SZAFRAN: He was trained that way. I don’t think it would’ve felt right to him to be painting this great important commission with the canvas just tacked on the wall; that stretching the canvas falls very firmly into the tradition of oil painting on canvas.
CUNO: Yeah. We’ll get to the question of the stretcher itself because that plays a big role in the work that you guys had to do with the picture. But Laura described the canvas as plain cloth or plain weave canvas, which might give our listeners the impression that it was an inexpensive piece of cloth.
CUNO: When it turns out not to have been inexpensive. And the paint he used turns out not have been inexpensive, as well. So it was an expensive risk that he was taking.
RIVERS: Very much so. It was an exquisite piece of pre-primed Belgian artist’s linen. And it is a beautiful piece of canvas that seventy years on is still incredibly flexible. It’s in beautiful condition. And it’s a stunning piece of canvas.
CUNO: Yeah. So we’ll get to the question of the myth of its being painted over a certain period of time. We know that he writes to his brother shortly after being given the commission. And he says to his brother that he’s been given it, it’s going to be a certain size of painting. And there’s no strings attached to what he paint. She just let him paint this picture. And then we know that he’s exhibited the following November in an exhibition, and that he was well received, that Clement Greenberg recognized him as an important painter, and Clement Greenberg being the great tastemaker at the time. And then Peggy Guggenheim writes to friend and notes Pollock’s exhibition in that November, and says that he’s “painted a twenty-foot mural in my house in the entrance,” suggesting, because of the word she used, “painted,” that it’s finished in November. You’re now assembling all the documents and the photographs and so forth, trying to track down how it proceeded over time, how he painted the picture. What do you make of what seems to be, you assume, an accurate literary account of the painting that it was completed by November, when we know that it wasn’t.
PERCHUK: It’s really a fascinating story. I mean, that postcard is the only evidence that exists of anyone seeing the painting completed before the holidays of 1943–1944. And in fact, there’s no record of anyone—which is the great research that Angelica Rudenstine has done—there’s no record of anyone seeing the painting or saying that they saw the painting in situ in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment until 1945. So we really have tried the best we can to construct what happened between 1943 in the summer, where he begins the commission, and 1945, which people are invited to Peggy Guggenheim’s house after an opening at Art of This Century Gallery to see Mural. And there is widespread recognition that it’s available to be seen at that time.
CUNO: And why is that important? I mean, it’s important just as you want to document the production of the painting. But it’s also important because of a certain myth associated with how quickly it was painted.
PERCHUK: The myth was that this painting was painted in one twenty-four hour burst. That Pollock was overwhelmed by the ambition, by the size of this eight-by-twenty-foot blank canvas, and really didn’t know how to start, how to do it. And after months of really being blocked, he finally painted it in one twenty-four hour burst.
CUNO: So this myth about it being painted in twenty-four hours, you can suspend that for a minute, because we’ll get into the technical analysis that tells you a different story. But I guess I had forgotten, or never quite understood, that one could still accept this myth and have it first photographed in 1946. You know, that he could’ve been blocked for a long, long, long time, and painted it still in twenty-four hours. Do we have photographs or accounts of the painting in the process of being painted over a long period of time? Or is there actual visual evidence that one can counter the myth of a twenty-four hour account of the making of the picture?
PERCHUK: Yes. There’s one extremely important tripartite photograph, or a photograph that is actually three photographs because the painting was too large to capture in one single photograph.
CUNO: And are those three photographs taken at a different time, different date? Or how do we know what that represents in terms of time?
PERCHUK: They represent all three parts of the painting. They’ve broken the eight-by-twenty-foot canvas into three photographs, which we think are all taken at the same moment, probably in Pollock’s studio.
CUNO: So how does that tell us that it wasn’t painted in twenty-four hours?
PERCHUK: Well, here, I’m going to turn things over to Alan, because there are quite a few changes to the painting from the moment of the photograph to the painting that we see today.
PHENIX: Yes, the three photographs, which are in black-and-white, unfortunately, I think show the painting at the first stage of completion, at the end of what we’ve called the main solidification phase of the—
CUNO: It’s a little confusing, because you’re identifying three phases, and we’re talking about three photographs. [Lerner: Yes, yeah] The photographs are not of each one a different phase.
LERNER: No. As Andrew said, these are three separate shots of the painting in the same condition, just photographed in three pieces because the painting is so large. But after these black-and-white photographs were taken, the mural received a further retouching campaign at some point to bring it to a final state of absolute finish. But I think to go back to the sort of myth of it being painted in one drunken evening, the first thing that goes against that as a plausible explanation for the painting reaching that fairly complete stage of finish is that it’s painted in oil.
Pollock claimed right at the very beginning that he was going to paint it in oil. And for the most part, that’s what he did. Virtually all the paints that we analyzed on Mural were oil paints, traditional artists oil, probably bought in tubes from an artist colorman. And oil, one of its key characteristics is it takes a long time to dry. Depending on the pigment that’s present, it can take a day, several days, possibly even a week or more.
So there’s a lot of paint on Mural and a lot of layers on Mural. And just in terms of the speed of drying, it wouldn’t have been conceivable to put all those separate multiple layers on in such a short period of time without there being much more intermingling of one layer, with the ones that have already been put on.
CUNO: How long might it have taken for a paint to dry?
LERNER: As I say, it can be anywhere from a day, two days, through to a week. Sometimes there are some very slow-drying pigments that can take several weeks to reach full dryness.
CUNO: Yeah. The reason I ask is we know that the painting was on the wall of her of her townhouse for a rather brief period of time before it was then taken off the stretcher, rolled, and taken to her gallery. And then ultimately, in another instance, to the Museum of Modern Art. So in the first couple of years after it was installed, it was taken down, I think twice, and shipped of to other exhibitions. Would that have inherently weakened the canvas?
LERNER: It’s a good question…
CUNO: [over Lerner] With a big canvas like that.
LERNER: ….how much that sort of physical activity in its early years contributed to the ultimate condition of it in the 1970s and more recently. I think the paint itself would probably have been still quite flexible and compliant in those early years, and would’ve been—accommodate repeated rolling and unrolling. I think the more difficult aspect of the structure for repeated rolling and unrolling would’ve been the ground. It’s actually a double ground—a lower layer of zinc white with a thin layer of lead white over the top.
CUNO: Describe that. So this is before he puts color on the painting.
LERNER: Yes, so this is—
CUNO: It just finishes off the canvas itself twice, two layers of it.
LERNER: No, this is the priming that was put on by Claessens, the canvas maker in Belgium, and that he would’ve received the canvas in that condition. Both the lead white and the zinc white priming would’ve been potentially quite brittle and stiff over time.
Zinc white is actually known to form quite a stiff paint film in oil. So I can imagine that in the repeating rollings in, say, the first ten, fifteen years of its life, that the cracking and possibly flaking would develop during that time. But the paint itself, I think, would’ve been reasonably flexible and able to accommodate that.
CUNO: Okay. I wanted to get to a description of the painted surface itself so our listeners can see what this thing looks like. (36:50) But there’s another story to this before we get to that. And that has to do with the life after Peggy Guggenheim returns to Venice, and the painting then leaves her lobby of her townhouse and goes elsewhere. Tell us that story.
PERCHUK: Well, I think she knows she’s going to be leaving New York, which is one of the reasons the painting is taken down from the townhouse and shipped to the Museum of Modern Art, where it’s shown in this important exhibition of large-scale painting. She then, soon after that, moves to Venice and offers the painting to Yale University, which was the most prominent art school in the United States at that time. And Yale agrees to take it but seems extremely unenthusiastic about it. They keep it mostly rolled up in a storeroom, and not on view, for nearly two years, which angers Peggy tremendously. And she finally ends up meeting an art professor from the University of Iowa, who essentially says to her, I can’t believe Yale is keeping this masterpiece rolled up and out of view, and we would be extremely happy to have it. So Peggy writes to Yale and says, “If you’re not going to show this painting, treat it respectfully, then I’m gonna give it to the University of Iowa.” She ends up giving it to the University of Iowa. And then I believe for nearly a year, Iowa and Yale argue over who’s gonna pay the shipping, which was something ridiculous, like fifty dollars.
Finally, they have that sorted out and the painting ends up at the University of Iowa, where it’s hung very high on the wall, in the painting studio where painting instruction is taught. And you can see some fabulous photographs of students with very small easels, working on small figurative paintings, with the giant abstract Mural sort of looming over them.
CUNO: Since 1951, Mural has lived at the University of Iowa, first in its painting studio, then in the main library, and finally in the collection of the university’s museum of art. In the next episode, we’ll talk about the painting itself, focusing on how conservation and scientific analysis enhance our art historical understanding of Pollock’s work.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
YVONNE SZAFRAN: He said, “Well, there’s this painting by Jackson Pollock, belonging to the U...
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