Although Jackson Pollock’s iconic Mural (1943) may appear to have been swiftly executed, close examination of the paint and archival photographs reveals otherwise. In the second 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, focus on how conservation and scientific analysis enhance our art historical understanding of Pollock and his work.
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Art + Ideas: Jackson Pollock’s Mural, Part 1
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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.
ALAN PHENIX: There are bright yellows, there are pinks, there are reds, there are warm yellows, there are lots of shades of different blue-greens and blues. And I just looked at this enormous painting with so much paint and thought, oh my God, how am I going to make sense of this?
CUNO: In this episode I speak with the Getty’s Laura Rivers, Yvonne Szafran, Alan Phenix, Tom Learner, and Andrew Perchuk in the second half of a two-part conversation about Jackson Pollock’s monumental work, Mural.
In the last episode, Laura, Yvonne, Alan, Tom, Andrew, and I discussed the background of Mural, Jackson Pollock’s colossal eight-by-twenty-foot work that was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for the entrance to her New York townhouse in 1943. In 2012 Mural traveled from its home at the University of Iowa Museum of Art to the Getty for technical study, conservation, and cleaning, which revealed new information about the painting and its maker.
Today, we focus on the painting itself, looking closely at how the drips, layers, and blending of paint, as well as the overall composition, enhance our understanding of how the work was made, discrediting a common myth that it was painted in one feverish night.
I continued our conversation by asking Alan to describe Mural.
PHENIX: I think the best way I can start is by conveying my reaction to seeing it for the first time in Iowa in late 2012 when we visited it for the first time. I remember standing in front of this enormous painting, knowing that my job was to try and work out what Pollock used to paint this enormous piece and how he went about doing it, and to find out what I could about the condition of the painting. And I remember looking at this painting, a very complex painting with lots of different colors. There are bright yellows, there are pinks, there are reds, there are warm yellows, there are lots of shades of different blue-greens and blues. And all set against the strong dark brown, all semi-figurative framework, the so-called Bentonian architecture—the Bentonian figures—as if they march across the composition from right to left. Again, set against this sort of whitish background, giving the sense of a sort of figurative aspect to this essentially abstract composition. And I just looked at this enormous painting with so much paint and thought, oh my God, how am I going to make sense of this?
And gradually, as we worked through the project, we gradually worked out what materials Pollock used to paint it. And as I said earlier, it’s virtually all in artist oil paints. And we worked out the paints, the particular colors that he used to mix the different colors that appear on the painting. And in fact, there’re a total of thirteen different shades of artists oil color, used either pure or mixed together to make these brilliant colors. And we worked out, essentially, the sequence of painting.
And we’ve been able to break the creation of the painting into sort of three main stages. So the first stage, which is a sort of very vigorous laying in, a sketching, a breaking the ice on the white priming, possibly is the kernel of truth behind the myth of it being painted in twenty-four hours. The first phase consists of just four colors of paint. A bright cadmium lemon; a teal, a bluey-green paint; a dark cadmium red; and a dark umber brown. And all of these paints were put on very diluted, probably with turpentine or mineral spirits, in broad, sweeping, curvilinear strokes in random patterns, but giving some basic structure to the composition.
CUNO: Do I remember correctly that at this point, you were able to determine, at least to your satisfaction, the direction in which the painting was painted?
PHENIX: Yes. I think at that point, our sense is that the energy in the composition is very much from right to left. And in situ in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, that would have been as the viewer, coming in through the main door, encountered it. It’s almost got this processional quality that goes with the positioning in the entry hallway.
And I think the thing that’s so interesting about this first four set of paints, which are very fluid, they’re clearly wet-in-wet. Pollock put on the teal while the yellow was still wet, and they blend together. So this is very vigorous alla prima working. And the thing that I think surprised us most is that the color that Pollock broke the ice on that bare white canvas was not the strong dark brown Bentonian figures, but the bright lemon yellow. That was the thing that went, as far as I can tell, went on first.
CUNO: Yeah. Let’s go back to this Bentonian architecture. Describe what that is, that also it’s named after a painter. But it’s also presumed, and reasonably presumed, because of his instructional methods, that one would lay down a kind of architectural structure by virtue of these big black forms, or brownish forms, that would provide a kind of framework against which you could put the color.
ANDREW PERCHUK: Thomas Hart Benton was one of Pollock’s early teachers. In 1926 and 1927, Benton publishes a series of influential articles on how painters should pursue different compositional problems. And the one that seems most pertinent to Mural is his diagram of how one goes about painting a very large horizontal surface. And what he diagrams is that one has to begin the canvas with large vertical poles, imaginary vertical poles, that function kind of like the bones. And Benton’s references are very figurative, so that the poles as a skeletal understructure are very much the case.
CUNO: And in the case of Benton, would it be presumed that these poles would, over the course of the painting of the picture, begin to disappear ’cause they’d be integrated into the picture? As opposed to Pollocks, where the poles—so-called poles, these brown forms—are so prominent. They never disappear.
PERCHUK: That’s correct. Or even that the poles are a way of thinking about the composition as much as a way of actually painting it. That you imagine these vertical poles as a structuring principle. And one of the things that people always imagined was that Pollock took this literally. That faced with this enormous canvas, he actually drew out the Bentonian imaginary poles, as the way to structure the twenty-foot horizontal surface, so it’s always been assumed that that went on first. And all of the things that Alan was talking about, in terms of vigorous brushstrokes and colors, were done around the architecture of the poles.
CUNO: Yeah. One of your authors, Pepe Karmel, says that that’s the single most important thing you discovered in this project.
TOM LERNER: Yes, I think it’s a good example of how the sort of technical analysis prompts a rethinking about art historical and critical consideration of an artist. And it was a real surprise to us, I think, finding that leading with that bright lemon yellow is, superficially, quite an unconventional approach. It makes good sense, in a way, if you think about Pollock having this sort of block in front of the white canvas, of not knowing how to break the ice; that that lemon yellow is bright and it’s strong in color, but it’s recoverable; that it doesn’t commit him to an overly dark start to the painting that might be difficult to step back from. And that, I sense, is part of the big bang effect that that the bright lemon yellow has allowed him to sort of make his first bold gestures and to break up this enormous expanse of canvas, without limiting his options for a future additions—
CUNO: [over Lerner] Not committing himself to a certain sequence.
LERNER: Exactly. And that he’s starting to introduce the rhythm and structure of the composition that he consolidates and makes more concrete with the later additions of paint.
CUNO: So this is the first phase of the painting that you kind of document and so on. Now, while you’re doing that work, you and Tom and others in the Conservation Institute and the scientific laboratories, and while Andrew is working away trying to sort out some of the art historical chronology of the painting, shall we say, then we have Laura and Yvonne, who are working on the painting. And by working the painting, what are you doing?
LAURA RIVERS: When the painting first came to the studio, there were two significant issues, and really, those were the impetus for bringing it to the Getty. Essentially, the painting had been varnished in 1973, and that was a decision that was intended to protect the painting. But Pollock actually never varnished the painting. And the varnish dramatically altered the undulation of matte and gloss, the variation of matte and gloss paints, which were so crucial to the composition. Additionally, the second issue was that the canvas, over time, had begun to sag. And we later discovered, through Angelica Rudenstine’s work, that it actually had sagged as early as 1947. In part, that was probably due to the strength, or lack of strength, of the original structure.
CUNO: So that’s four years after he started painting it.
CUNO: Do we presume that was the case because he was new to making stretchers of that size? Did someone come in and help him stretch it, or how did that happen?
RIVERS: Unfortunately, we no longer have the original stretcher. There is one photograph that was taken probably after it left Peggy Guggenheim’s studio before it arrived at MoMA. In that photograph, the painting appears to be framed. But when you examine the corners in the photograph, it’s quite clear that there are mortise and tenon joints, suggestive of a stretcher. So the stretcher bars were actually used to give the painting a framed appearance in this very formal portrait of Pollock before the painting.
YVONNE SZAFRAN: If we look at the famous photograph of Pollock standing in front of the blank canvas, we can see even then that the stretcher has a certain weakness at the bottom. You can actually see a slight sag there. So our assumption is that the stretcher was never strong enough for a canvas of this size. And we have to remember that Pollock at that point had not painted a work of this scale, and probably somehow got the strength of the stretcher wrong.
CUNO: And any understanding of why it was that someone didn’t fix it then, quickly after it was painted, restretch it and pull it nice and taut?
SZAFRAN: Well, to get the painting out of his studio over to Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, he no-doubtedly took the canvas off the stretcher, rolled it up, walked it over, and then had to restretch it in her apartment. So even at that phase, there was already this push and pull, if you will, between the canvas and the stretcher. And then the story is that he got it to her apartment and the painting was too big to fit in its intended space. Hence, we have the very famous story of Duchamp possibly cutting the canvas, although we know that that couldn’t have happened, because we have all of the original tacking edges on the painting. So after discussing this quite a bit, we came to the conclusion that possibly, the stretcher was cut, and then the canvas restretched onto this slightly reduced stretcher, to fit into the space. So that’s an early sort of problem with the stretcher, that the painting was too big for its intended space.
CUNO: And so when it’s varnished in 1973, it’s also relined. Tell us what relining means and what effect that has on this sagging element to the painting.
SZAFRAN: Well, lining a canvas means that you’re adhering another piece of fabric to the back of the original to give the painting more strength. But in this case, it also had to do with the fact that the original stretcher had cracked. It needed a new stretcher. The painting had sagged. And they made the decision, at that moment, to line the painting. Which essentially locked that sag into the canvas, so that when they went to put it back onto a stretcher, onto a purely rectangular stretcher, they ended up with bits of the original tacking edges exposed on the front, both in the lower and right-hand corners and in the upper center.
CUNO: Yeah. So what I’m trying to sketch out here chronologically is that while you, Yvonne and Laura, are dealing with the painting itself and wrestling with the condition that it had arrived in—varnished, with sagging elements—trying to make some decisions as to remove the varnish, to maybe remove the lining or how to address that sagging element. And while you’re dealing with the physical aspects of it, Alan’s still working out the painting phases, Andrew’s working out sort of art historical contradictions and the textual evidence that remains about the painting. But you’re now, Alan, on to phase two. Does it unfold as easily as that? I’ve done phase one; now there’s phase two?
LERNER: No. Certainly not. And it is an iterative process of trying to analyze the sequence and structure of the paint and the composition of the different paints. And three is coming up a lot, but my analysis, effectively, evolved in three stages. I had three phases of taking samples, each sequence, answering some questions that had come up earlier.
And so after having taken a first batch of samples in Iowa in late 2012, I’d got a few questions and we were beginning to get an idea of the paints that were involved. I then did a fuller sampling campaign trying to get representative samples for all the main colors in the composition, of which there are a lot. We think ultimately, there are about twenty-five, twenty-six different mixes of paint on Mural.
And then gradually, considering and reappraising the interpretations that we’d made about sequence and process, armed by comparing our findings on the samples to analytical results that we got from some new, innovative whole object imaging techniques—hyperspectral imaging and macro x-ray fluorescence imaging—all of which allowed us to extrapolate the findings of our tiny samples that are a, you know, fraction of a millimeter across and a microgram in weight, up to understanding the composition of the whole painting. And I think we reached the point, at the end of it, where you could—Laura, Andrew, and I could point to a particular passage of paint and say pretty much what that paint is made of. We used lots of different kinds of analytical scientific instrumentation to achieve those results. But I think it’s important for me, and for people listening, to understand that probably the most important analytical tool in our process was the informed and calibrated human eye, particularly the human eye of the curator, the conservator, and the scientist all together trying to work out what we’re seeing and what contributes to the visual sensation that we’re getting of the paint surface. And we spent many hours looking at the painting, trying to work out what was going on and comparing notes, comparing our observations against the results in our pigment identification and so on.
SZAFRAN: We should also mention that we were fortunate enough to receive a Mellon Foundation grant during the course of the time that the painting was here. And so we were able to invite, for several meetings, a group of experts, both in Pollock and in large paintings. Which provided us with additional eyes and brains to sort through this somewhat challenging and confusing painting.
CUNO: Yeah. And I remember one meeting of this group of specialists coming to talk about the painting. And at this particular meeting, there was a question that had to do with the sagging of the canvas on the stretcher and so forth. In fact, that it was revealing unpainted aspects of the canvas. And to come to some agreement about that was not easy, because there were, as I like to say—let’s say there were twenty specialists in the room, and there were twenty-five opinions in the room.
SZAFRAN: We had very dynamic discussions about it, I would say. [chuckles]
CUNO: [over Szafran] Yes, I remember. Tell us how it was that you came to deal with that unpainted part of the canvas.
SZAFRAN: We had different options as to how to approach this sagging and these bits of tacking edge that were now visible on the front of the painting that shouldn’t be. We could’ve accepted them and made a new stretcher and repeated what the prior conservators had done. We could’ve possibly unlined the painting and attempted to pull it more square; but that seemed unlikely and dangerous for the painting. The lining, even though it was done with a wax resin, which is not something we would not necessarily do today, still was actually functioning and protecting the painting in a way, making it more robust for travel and for its life. The best solution, after all of these meetings seemed to us to be to put the painting on a shaped stretcher. So not a purely rectangular stretcher, but a stretcher that echoed the now sagging shape of the original canvas. What we were very concerned about was that if we did that, and if we hung the painting low, the way that it was hung in its original installation in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, that that bow, if you will, of the canvas would become immediately apparent to anybody viewing the painting.
But we decided that that was really the best approach if we wanted not to see those bits of exposed tacking edge.
CUNO: Yeah. Tom.
LERNER: I remember this part of the story very well, actually. We were all engaged in the discussion and involving all these experts. And one of the things that we did was have a full-scale photograph made of Mural, and then we had it hung up in the exhibition design space. And we cut the photograph along the line of the shape of the painted surface, and it was just immediately obvious—this was the photograph. You know, we obviously have to then take the big leap of faith to do it on the actual painting. But the impact of getting the edges back was so striking. And the shape that Yvonne was talking about was absolutely a concern. But there was something about the scale of this painting. The eye just didn’t seem to pick up on these curved top and bottom edges at all. And I have to say, I mean, we’ve, probably between all of us, seen the painting in its various locations as its been having left the Getty, including spaces where it’s hung very low, very low ceilings, very low to kind of very horizontal skirting boards, and I’ve never once felt it was the wrong decision. The advantages you get from getting the edges back to where they should be when they fold over completely outweigh any disadvantage from the non-rectangular shape.
SZAFRAN: We have to remember that the painting was not framed originally, and so that the edges of the painting are actually extremely important in the entire composition. So that when you’re looking at these energetic brushstrokes, they go up to the edge and then turn around at the edge and come back in. And this is what was so disturbing about the painting when it first arrived, was seeing these bits of canvas that interrupted that kind of energy.
CUNO: So now you’ve spent three years looking at this picture. You’d spent three years taking the varnish off this picture; you’ve thought about taking the lining off this picture and decided not to take the lining off the picture. You’ve cleaned the picture. You’ve come to some determination as to how you might want to show it, ultimately, by stretching it on the shaped stretcher. You’ve thought about the art historical context for the painting. You’ve come up with some documents with regard to its original location. You proposed a sequence of campaigns by the artist in painting the picture and so forth. You produce the catalog and you put the painting on view in an exhibition. But that was years ago. And since then and now, you’ve still been working on the painting—not physically working on the painting but on what it is that you gathered that you couldn’t come to terms with in the first exhibition. What have you have learned in the last three years that you couldn’t have learned in the first three years?
RIVERS: Cleaning the painting was an extraordinary process, because one expects dramatic change when you remove a natural resin varnish from an old master painting; when you take away the golden glow and reestablish color balance and space. One is not accustomed to seeing as dramatic a change in an abstract painting. And yet one of the truly astonishing things about cleaning Mural was that the space began to open up. The varnish that was on Mural is n-butyl methacrylate, a varnish known as Soluvar. It was used in the 1970s. And there were a number of unfortunate batches of it, which became increasingly insoluble over time. And that was part of the impetus to go ahead and go forward. We didn’t know if this was one of those batches that might become particularly insoluble. And at the time we were testing the varnish, it was possible to safely remove it.
Removing the varnish from Mural was extraordinary, because it restored the space. It changed the colors very subtly. Soluvar becomes increasingly gray over time, both because it’s relatively soft, and so it attracts a great deal of dust from the atmosphere, and it just, over time, tends to dull the color. In particular, we saw dramatic change in the blues and the yellows, and in the restoration of the slight sparkle of the ground, because the undulation of the canvas threads was no longer clogged with varnish.
CUNO: Mm-hm. So you’ve been able to come to terms with that new information over the course of the last three years, subsequent to the initial exhibition of the painting after your cleaning of it.
RIVERS: I think that the cleaning of the painting is something that actually, the field will be coming to terms with over the long term. It was a painting that many art historians had seen in the 1998 exhibition. It is a painting that others had not yet made the pilgrimage to Iowa. But it is a painting that was hindered fairly dramatically by the presence of this varnish that really prevented the composition from working in the way the artist intended.
LERNER: One of the things I’ve learned since the painting left was actually something much broader, which is the clear audience for this sort of work. The exhibition, I think, was always gonna be a success, to have Mural here at the Getty, where the collection is very non-twentieth century and extraordinary paintings look fantastic up here. We always knew perhaps that it would bring up a large audience, and a diverse audience, too. But I think all of would agree—I certainly did—that whenever I went up there, there were just as many people in the room next to Mural to see all the didactic information.
You know, we had large-scale photographs of where an artist had taken place. We had the beautiful cross-sections that Alan had taken, blown up into images. You could see the layers of the paint. We had the archival photos of Pollock in front of the piece. We had some videos, some of which, you know, showed how some of the paint was applied, and we had paint flung through the air, and all this kinda stuff. And we put a huge amount of effort, obviously, and thought into how to make the didactic information really accessible.
I think we’ve all seen didactic corners and parts of exhibitions that are always fascinating, but they’re never quite kind of the main focus. And I came away thinking, there’s absolutely no audience, for this sort of, you know, behind-the-scenes type of work—we needed Mural. We needed a magnet to bring people up here. It isn’t just the technical study, as fascinating as [it] is itself. But it certainly has changed some of the discussions I’ve had up here, talking about exhibitions where—now this exhibition’s happened and—I think I’m right in saying—still the best attended Getty exhibition on record.
PHENIX: Yeah. Reflecting on what we’ve achieved after the exhibition and the conservation treatment, for me, it boils down to the sort of prompts we’ve received, mainly from Andrew on the art historical side, to try to push the limits of our evidence and our interpretation of the evidence further; to be a bit more bold in trying to unravel Pollock’s intention and process. Under the pressure of time to get everything done for the exhibition and the catalog, we had to draw a line under the detailed discussion of how he went about the painting process. And defining these three phases of the initial laying in, the solidification phase, and then a final retouching phase, was really about as far as we’d got.
But prompted by Andrew, he has pushed me and Laura to really look at the evidence a bit more deeply, to try to work out how the composition evolved from that early skeleton of the four paint colors, through to the final stage. And I’ve been playing around with kind of unconventional scientific tools, to try and work out that process a bit more carefully. And I think one of the main conclusions from that was that in that solidification phase—and even earlier—that there are these pairings of colors that Pollock is using to progress through each stage. So after the first four colors of yellow, teal, cadmium red, and the Bentonian architecture, comes first of all, a pink, the bright pink that’s a very strong color character on the painting.
Followed by this—well, we’ve called it gray-green. It’s this very dull, flat, opaque gray-green, almost the complementary color of the pink. And those kind of opponent pairings do seem to be a feature of that solidification phase. After the pink and the gray-green come vermillion red and again, cadmium yellow. And that’s where Pollock comes in with the splattering, the sort of almost rhythmic, dance-like splattering of paint, very, very thinned-down paint, that he comes in from, we think, the right again, working his way, dancing across the composition, doing these vigorous flicks of the paint off the brush, and then working back the opposite way.
And again, further working through opponent pairings of blue-green and yellow. And I think that prompting to be a bit more speculative, rather than just saying what we found, has been an important part of the process. And particularly to do, also, with this very unconventional aspect of his painting technique in Mural, which we’ve only just glossed over. That in a way, what Yvonne said at the beginning was right. This is, at one level, very, very conventional oil on canvas, very traditional. And I think Pollock starts with the intention of it being a very traditional, almost courtly commission—high-end artist oils on an expensive canvas.
But in the middle of it, he suddenly reverts to this cheap, water-based house paint, which is so odd in combination with these high-grade artist oils. There’s clearly a reason for that. This is something that he probably nicked downstairs to the local hardware store that was below his studio and purchased his readymade or powdered cassein-based paint that would’ve been used for walls. And we’ve worked out that he’s used this for a very particular purpose throughout the composition at several stages, possibly two, three, or even four times to block in the light reserves between all the colored linear shapes during the composition, which may have become sort of less well-defined with his vigorous working. And he’s going back in and making these lights, reposes, reserves between the colored shapes more solid, more concrete, at several intervals through that solidification phase.
CUNO: Well, thank you all for this dissection of this extraordinary painting and this account of all the work you’ve done. I want to close with Andrew with a question, if I could. And want to know if you could, on behalf of all of your colleagues around the table, tell us how the exhibition changed your regard for Pollock as a painter, and perhaps your regard for this painting in his oeuvre.
PERCHUK: We all know the Pollock of the vigorous gestural painter, which does play a part, especially early in the composition of this painting. But what we learned was that he was able to paint in many different modes. So there’re parts of this painting where he’s painting almost like a figurative painter; that he’s going in and shadowing and highlighting already painted forms. There’re parts of the painting where he’s letting the process direct what he does next. That he paints very vigorously with the red and the yellow, as Alan was talking about, and it’s vigorous enough that they start to drip. And that suggests to him splatters. And he goes back, splattering in the opposite direction. And the variety of the modes that Pollock is able to do in this one painting, and the qualities that he seems to be looking for at times—things like balance, harmony—are really against what has traditionally thought of as Pollock: this attacking, this violent effacing of the figural. And so that was really a new appreciation that this painting gave me for Pollock. I think what’s fascinating to think of, in terms of the exhibition and Pollock’s career as a whole, is does this painting, painted in 1943, does it lead to the great drip paintings of Pollock’s later career? Or is it an avenue that stops? Is it the first of the really large canvases and the limits to what one could do with a brush and a vertical surface? And I think it’s a question that we’d all like to explore more, which we have talked about, things that we didn’t answer, but could continue to be interesting questions for future Pollock scholarship.
CUNO: I think that’s a perfect way to end it, to try to figure out whether this painting’s the beginning of something or the end of something. So thank you all for your time.
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.
ALAN PHENIX: There are bright yellows, there are pinks, there are reds, there are warm yellows, ...
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