Jackson Pollock’s Mural at the J. Paul Getty Museum

CONSERVING MURAL

JACKSON POLLOCK’ S MURAL AT THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSUEM

Through June 1, 2014

Art lovers in Los Angeles and, indeed, in California, have a rare opportunity to see one of the most significant works in post-war contemporary American art: Jackson Pollock’s Mural at the Getty Museum. Painted over a period of months at the end of 1943, Mural was a commission from Peggy Guggenheim to a marginal painter on the New York scene, an unstable and alcoholic Pollock, who was instructed to produce a mural for the hallway of her apartment. After the Second World War ended, Guggenheim returned to her preferred home, Europe, and donated the huge painting to the University of Iowa. After years of delay, the work arrived at the University in 1951. The work was so shocking and so alien to the Midwestern artists that the art department was split between those who were willing to consider something different from New Deal realism and those who stayed firmly dedicated to the past.

Undoubtedly, the schism was played out between the generations across the nation, while this work was hung high in the painting studio of the University’s art department, looking down on the aesthetic quarrels. Eventually the painting was moved to a slightly safer site, the Library, and, lined with a supporting linen backing, finally found a home in the Museum. However, in an act of what seems like hostile vandalism or at least extraordinary ignorance, in the early seventies, Mural was varnished. For decades, the famous painting was marooned in exile, sagging against a framework too weak to support its weight, dimmed in color and dulled in resonance.

Meanwhile, the painting acquired an erroneous legend of how Pollock painted Mural, in a frantic night of frenetic activity, a myth concocted by art historians who apparently never bothered to travel to Iowa to see the actual work. When the much-abused work of art arrived at the Getty to be rescued by the conservators, many of the wild tales, such as the story that Pollock had hidden his name among the brushwork, were discredited, the varnish was wiped away and the irreparable sag was disguised by a new frame. What has been restored is the true story of a remarkably productive year for an artist who, if he had not been willing to rethink painting, would have remained marginal to the New York School. But Pollock took the leap and redefined the visual language of painting, and Mural was a end point of a journey that had run its course and was also a promise of a new beginning.

Color restored and surface marks evident in the myriad layers, Mural is a complex, layered and dazzling work of art—a transition away from its precursors, She Wolf of the same year, and Guardians of the Secret, now at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Like Guardians, Mural is slashed with a bright yellow that pops assertively off the canvas. Vivid Reds and deep and strong blues guide the eye up and down and across the vast expanse, with strong black slashes anchoring the foundation. The scale of the painting  (dictated by the size of Guggenheim’s hallway) posed a problem to Pollock: how to combine spontaneous gesture with a large-scale abstract presentation; a problem that he could not solve in 1943, for the “gestures” that cover the surface are anything but spontaneous.

Each mark was obviously carefully thought out, precisely placed and thoughtfully calibrated within the overall composition. One tries to imagine Pollock’s labors as he built up the layers of strokes and slabs of color—climbing up ladders and step stools, climbing down and stepping back to gage the structure. Obviously the process was a physically difficult one and clearly took a long time over what must have been a process of constant readjustment of compositional elements. Interestingly it was not until the painting reached Iowa and was properly hung in the museum—decades after its completion—was it possible for anyone to see Mural at a proper distance and appreciate the tour-de force of structure. Sadly, visitors to the Getty will have a perspective denied to the artist in his lifetime and it is likely that Pollock, painting in a cramped studio and standing in a narrow hallway to view Mural, never realized what he had accomplished.

Years later, in 1947, Pollock would find the solution to his self-imposed problem—laying the canvas on the floor of his studio at the Springs and flinging paint, allowing gravity to determine the landing destination. The “drip” process solved the problem of spontaneity on a large scale for an abstract work of art. Throwing and tossing liquid pigment through the air would combine line and color and shape into one kinetic gesture, allowing Pollock to “drip” his way to fame if not fortune and a centerfold spread in Life Magazine. But between Autumn Rhythm and Guardians of the Secret (1943), there is Mural and the art is now on display at the Getty until this summer. Come early and go often for soon this marvelous work of labor and aspiration will be on its way back to Iowa, a place, where, with all due apologies to Iowans, this writer will never visit.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

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