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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

THE GUGGENHEIM RE-OPENS: POLLOCK'S "MURAL"

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. Oil and casein on canvas, 242.9 x 603.9 cm. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959.6 © 2020 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
 

…..And so the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan has re-opened, though you need to be virus-free, reserve a ticket in advance,  wear a mask, and observe social distancing.  I did all this (or at least I think I did) for the media preview on October 3.  Principally, I came to see "Mural" (1943), the first painting by Jackson Pollock that convinced Clement Greenberg that the artist was truly great.  On the way in and out, however, I got brief glimpses of three other shows, so I will mention them in passing before zeroing in on my visit's real raison d'être.

 

TO BEGIN WITH, A NICE HOLDOVER...

 

I'll give you part of the good news, first. "The Fullness of Color," the modest exhibition of modernist abstraction from the later 50s through the early 70s that I reviewed in my post of April 4, is still on view. Though in April it was only scheduled to remain up until August 2, its run has been extended through March 14, 2021—and it makes for most pleasant viewing. Its spacious gallery is high-ceilinged and was almost deserted when I was there. Being fond of a sort of art that isn't everybody's cup of tea lends confidence when – for hygienic reasons – you don't want to be part of a crowd.

 

AND THEN, A P.C. EXTRAVAGANZA

 

On the way there from the elevator, I had to pass through the marquee exhibition on the ramp (excuse me, I meant "in the rotunda").  This show is entitled "Countryside, The Future" (through February 14, 2021). According to its announcement at the Guggenheim website, it examines "urgent environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues" affecting the 98 percent of the world's surface not occupied by cities – all "through the lens" of Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas, together with Samir Bantal, director of a think tank for an architectural firm co-founded a few years ago by Koolhaas.

 

To be sure, Koolhaas is one very well-known dude (even I have heard his name) and Bantal I am sure has many constructive thoughts to offer but I just couldn't face a lot of environmental, political and socioeconomic issues in a museum context, no matter how worthwhile and constructive.  I get too much of that sort of thing in my daily paper.

 

Besides, as I progressed toward the nearest door to the Thannhauser Tower (meaning the stack of smaller off-ramp galleries), I could hear recorded noise of some sort wafting across the center of the ramp from its far side, and realized – with relief, I have to say – that this show must be beyond my competence. 

 

That is because I limit myself to the fine arts and occasionally include the applied arts but I only consider myself anything of an expert on work in two or three dimensions.  The minute you add sound and/or movement to an artwork I feel we are dealing with the performing arts, and although I love a lot of movies and a lot of theater, they are hobbies for me, not my profession.

 

Therefore, I scuttled  toward the Thannhauser Tower, noting only in passing that part of "Countryside: The Future"  involved completely covering at least one of Frank Lloyd Wright's gracefully stocky cream-colored columns that support the next level of  his ramp with garish posters of pop musicians. Is this what the entire countryside of tomorrow is supposed to look like?  Or is it supposed to be an Awful Warning?   All I could think of was doggerel I learned as a child, parodying Joyce Kilmer:

 

I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree/Indeed unless the billboards fall/I'll never see a tree at all…..

 

ALSO A DADA HOMAGE TO POLLOCK....

 

To visit the Pollock, I had turned the wrong way off the elevator.  If I had turned to the right, I could have entered the show directly from the ramp, but because I had turned to the left, I had to enter the space devoted to Pollock through another much larger and airier gallery in the Thannhauser Tower.  In it was installed "Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture after Abstract Expressionism" (through September 19, 2021).

 

This show combines work of the later 1960s and early 1970s from the Guggenheim's permanent collection by six artists: Lynda Benglis, Maren Hassinger, Robert Morris, Senga Nengudi, Richard Serra & Tony Smith. According to the museum's online statement, these six artists saw Pollock's art as "an impetus to experiment with new creative techniques in three dimensional space." 

 

But, to judge from the overall impression that this show gives, this impetus was so overwhelming that the resulting works were blown over flat.  One gets an impression of soft or malleable materials, such as felt, rubber, or plastic – combined with harder materials that lie horizontally instead of standing vertically. Overall, one is given a vision of art mostly if not entirely drooping from the ceiling, hanging from the walls of the gallery, or snaking across the floor.

 

At first, I thought I was being irreverent as I fought off the impulse to use body metaphors to describe this art. I was initially tempted to observe of this show that the work on it "couldn't get it up." Then I decided that was a little coarse and chose somewhat less graphic phraseology. Finally, though, I realized that it wasn't me. It was dada humor, embedded in the work just as surely as it's embedded in "Fountain," that seminal urinal defined as art by the grand-dada of them all, Marcel Duchamp  

 

Even though at least two of these artists (Smith & Serra) are very well known for more upstanding sculpture, everything in this show looks limp, wilted, or simply cowed into submission.  This has nothing to do with Pollock to me – regardless of the quote in the museum's online statement from Serra, arguing that "Belts," his "seminal" installation of industrial rubber coils and neon is "structurally related to Pollock's 'Mural.'"

 

Not that this Guggenheim show features art entirely strange to me. By mid-1968 it was coming into style in Manhattan, being known primarily as "process art" (though not unrelated to "conceptual art"). At that moment, I was writing the Art page on Time and still gung ho to cover all the latest novelties of artists who had evolved from the pop artists of the early '60s (pomo or dada-descended art, I'd say today).

 

Therefore we did a huge story in Time on all these latest novelties, with 8 pages of color photography (color was still rare for newsmagazines in those days).  The centerpiece was a double-page spread with a handful of these earnest, idealistic young artists posing together.  Each was seen with a sample of his conceptualist and/or process art. The title to the whole article (dreamed up by my editor, Cranston Jones) was "The Avant-Garde: Subtle, Cerebral, Elusive."

 

Nobody on Time, however, was naïve enough to think that this process art was directly descended from Pollock.  Rather, we saw it as a direct outgrowth of – and also a reaction against – the last nouvelle vague that had swept across the New York art world in the '60s, and was best known (to me, anyway, at that moment) as minimal  sculpture.

 

Minimal had marked its progress from the studios to the galleries with a show at the Jewish Museum in 1966 entitled "Primary Structures."  This exhibition showcased about 30 younger sculptors. Most if not all of them were responsible for often simple but upstanding sculptures made from industrial materials (not always assembled by their own hands).

 

The largest number were Americans, most then or since identified as "minimalists," including Smith, Morris, Donald Judd, Ronald Bladen, Robert Grosvenor, Carl André & Forrest Myers.  But also out in force (I have since learned) were a British contingent led by Anthony Caro & including many of his admirers and/or former students, including David Annesley, William Tucker, Philip King, Tim Scott, & Isaac Witkin.    It must have been quite a show.

 

I never saw "Primary Structures," not yet having arrived in Time's Art section in '66, but even after I -- and process art-- did arrive, I could see that the process art -- much ike that in the current Guggenheim show --- had more to do with minimal sculpture  than with anything Pollock ever made.

 

Even more did it have to do with the jokey soft pop sculpture of the early 60s that had preceded it – funny people like Claes Oldenburg, George Segal & Edward Kienholz.  And I'd rather look at work by any of these three artists than any of the process art at the Guggenheim….But I digress.

 

FINALLY – POLLOCK'S "MURAL"AND ITS TRAVELS

 

Hidden away, in the next thing to a low-ceilinged stairwell, is the painting that had lured me out into the pandemic. It is "Mural," painted in 1943 by Jackson Pollock, and his largest painting: nearly 8 feet high and nearly 20 feet wide. It is the centerpiece of a slightly larger show called "Away from the Easel: Jackson Pollock's Mural" (through September 19, 2021). And it has quite a tale of its own to tell.

 

The permanent home of "Mural" is the University of Iowa's Stanley Museum of Art. It was given to the University of Iowa in 1947 by Peggy Guggenheim, its original owner, who was relocating from New York back to Europe after World War II.   "Mural" has not been seen in New York since the Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998-1999 -- but it hasn't been spending all of the last 20 years in Iowa. Far from it.

 

Starting in 2012, it went through an extensive re-examination and restoration process with the Getty Conservation Institute & the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 

 

Since that was finished, it has gone on an almost equally extensive musem tour, starting at the Getty Center in 2014 and progressing through the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin, the Museo Picasso in Málaga, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the National Gallery in Washington, the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina, and most recently, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

According to an online ARTnews article by Tessa Solomon posted May 5, 2020. "Mural" has now been seen by more than 2 million visitors worldwide – all before it got to its current venue.

 

Did somebody say New York is the art capital of the world? Give me a break. In the context of this show, my home town looks more like the backwater of the art world—obsessing as it does with the stalest pomonian novelties—only provided that they promulgate political verities.

 

God forbid any of the movers and shakers in the Big Apple's art world should be more interested in artistic innovation than they are in the latest slogans from Page One.

 

(Please don't misunderstand me: I am all in favor of the progressive ideals that the art world by and large espouses.  It's just that I think there are better ways of furthering them than employing them to cosmeticize esthetic clichés.)

 

At some point on its travels (I am not sure when), "Mural" became part of a much larger show of first-generation abstract expressionism, organized by the Stanley Museum of Art and curated by David Anfam.

 

To judge from scattered references online, this larger show was already in place for the appearances of "Mural" in Berlin and Málaga. "Mural" was seen at the Royal Academy of Arts by David Evison, when he reviewed the larger show for FMD on October 15, 2016-- though perhaps because Evison is a sculptor himself, he was more aware of the impact on "Mural" of a David Smith sculpture than he was of "Mural" itself.

 

Then again, the painting looks conservative by comparison with Pollock's work of just a few years later – so perhaps it suffered by the context in which Anfam placed it.  Taken by itself, it has a lot to say – as I shall endeavor to show in due time.

 

When "Mural" got to Washington, it was shown only in conjunction with a few other Pollocks from the National Gallery's permanent collection, including the peerless Lavender Mist" (1950).

 

Boston -- alas -- felt obliged to juxtapose "Mural" with a large, droopy piece of pomonian canvas painted by a German artist named Katharina Grosse. (b.1961). This work was very amusingly described by Franklin Einspruch in deliciousline.org, his online magazine: his one-word summary of it was "idiotic."

 

In addition to "Mural," the Manhattan show includes three much smaller Pollocks, from three periods of his career.  The earliest is "The She-Wolf" (1943), on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, and extremely interesting to compare with "Mural," since the two date from the same year. The other two paintings  are both from the Guggenheim's  permanent collection.

 

One is a very nice "Untitled (Green Silver)" piece --  dated ca. 1949, or the height of Pollock's "heroic" or most abstract period.  It was a gift to the museum from Sylvia & Joseph Slifka in 2004, and is the kind of Pollock anybody who can appreciate fine abstraction might want to own.

 

However, it took the Guggenheim more than half-a-century after its creation to add it to their collection.  That may be how long it takes for some people to respond to Pollock's peak-period work. 

 

The third painting, "Ocean Greyness" (1953), looks (to quote one observer) like "disembodied eyes." One could also say fried eggs or the craters of volcanoes.  Though obviously multireferential, it belongs to those later years when as I see it Pollock had lost his way and was stumbling blindly back into representation. 

 

The museum acquired this painting in 1954, presumably as a purchase.  To me, it is typical of work being acquired at that moment by curators who thought they ought to like abstract expressionism, but weren't quite ready or able to appreciate the best of it yet.

 

THE CLAIMS MADE FOR "MURAL"

 

But what of "Mural," you must be wondering – the real subject of this review? 

 

Okay. Throughout its travels, this painting has been heralded and celebrated as a "transitional" work, pointing away from the smaller and more figurative works of Pollock's earlier years and toward the larger and more extremely abstract works of the heroic or "pour" period (I prefer MoMA's term of "pour" to "drip" even though I know most people have only heard of "drip").

 

The other big point that gets made, over and over, is that – contrary to legend – "Mural" was NOT painted overnight in one drunken campaign but rather over a period of maybe many days – all as revealed by the scientific findings of Getty's wizard  conservators..

 

I'm not quarreling with either claim.  I'm just saying that by focusing exclusively on these two points, visitors may all too easily forget to look at the painting for itself, and to  enjoy it for what it is.

 

What is it, really?

 

HOW "MURAL" GOT STARTED

 

To begin at the beginning, "Mural" was painted originally to fit into and decorate the entry hall leading to the duplex apartment of Peggy Guggenheim in the five-story renovated townhouse at 155 East 61st Street where she had come to rest after returning to America on the eve of World War II.

 

Rich as she was, she was also Jewish.  On top of that, she was well-known as a collector of what Adolf Hitler (himself a failed painter) considered "degenerate" art.  Paris, her prewar home, had been wonderful but it was high time to get out.

 

She had opened a gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan, Art of This Century, to show work of the many Parisian artist-friends who like her had fled to America. But she began to want to discover younger artists, especially Americans, and the most promising of several was Pollock. 

 

Thanks mainly to the insistence of her secretary, Howard Putzel, she had included Pollock's work in two group shows.  It had attracted favorable responses – most notably, from Mondrian – not an easy observer to impress. So – upon further urging from Putzel, and others who admired Pollock's work -- she decided to give Pollock a show – and to commission a big painting for her lobby.

 

Pollock at that time was working as a "custodian" at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, forerunner of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and already funded by Peggy Guggenheim's uncle Solomon).

 

This job seems to have been taking so much time that he wasn't doing as much painting as he wanted to do, so Ms. Guggenheim in July 1943 offered him a one-year contract.

 

It gave him a payment of $150 a month (with purchasing power equivalent to about $2,254 a month in 2020), and a settlement at the end of the year if more than $2,700 worth of paintings were sold.

 

This included a one-third commission to the gallery.  If less than $2,700 worth of paintings were sold, the gallery was to get paintings to make up the difference.

 

Ms. Guggenheim also provided the Belgian linen/canvas that was to form the ground for "Mural" (her friend Duchamp --of all people--had wisely suggested that although the painting might be called "Mural" it shouldn't become a mural in actual fact, i.e. painted directly onto the wall).  

 

Pollock took receipt of the canvas, and mounted it on a stretcher – though first, he and Lee Krasner, his future wife, had to take down a wall between two rooms in their Greenwich Village apartment, to make space big enough for the stretched canvas.

 

So much is generally agreed-upon fact. But now the conflict between legend and science/scholarship begins.

 

BIRTH & GROWTH OF A LEGEND

 

Starting with the first edition of Peggy Guggenheim's memoir, published in 1946, the original story of how "Mural" got made is that Pollock just couldn't get started on it until December 31, 1943-- New Year's Eve. 

 

Then he suddenly started work, and completed the entire painting by the following morning – all in one campaign.

 

Guggenheim's source for this story seems to have been Krasner (it's been so long since I read this book that I can't remember what it says, and can't get out to a library to consult it due to time constraints and the pandemic).

 

Certainly Krasner repeated it over the years, to Francis O'Connor among others (and with the testimony of John Little, an artist friend of the couple's, to back her up).

 

O'Connor published it in his catalogue for the 1967 MoMA retrospective exhibition of Pollock, and it's repeated in the 4-volume Pollock catalogue raisonné that O'Connor published in 1978 with Eugene Victor Thaw. 

 

The essence of this story also appears in "Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible," by Pollock's first biographer, B. H. Friedman, originally published in 1972, and in the Harry Abrams monograph on Pollock by Ellen G. Landau published in 1989.

 

Also in 1989, Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith used the story in their prize-winning biography "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga."

 

In this book, a 15-hour campaign to paint "Mural" in its entirety becomes the grand climax to the chapter on how Pollock, starting in August 1943, prepared for his first solo exhibition that November, the progress and reception to that show and the political context of World War II – all leading up to Pollock's creation of a painting characterized as full of "furious energy, panoramic chaos and primal alarm."

 

By way of a coda, Naifeh & Smith tack on Pollock's rolling up the canvas, taking it to Guggenheim's town house, getting drunk on her liquor, installing "Mural" with the aid of Duchamp and the sculptor David Hare (Duchamp having cut off a slice of the painting to make it fit); and finally, walking into a New Year's Day party in Guggenheim's apartment to pee in the fireplace.

 

This is the stuff of which showbiz is made.  So hardly to anybody's surprise, the book was translated with full scatological detail into "Pollock," the biopic based on this book conceived by and starring Ed Harris as Pollock and Marcia Gay Harden as Krasner. The movie was released to the public on September 6, 2000—and won Harden an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress the following spring.  

 

A more scholarly source repeats the same essential version of how "Mural" was created -- in one last-minute campaign around New Year's Day 1944 – and it cites Naifeh and Smith as its primary source. This is the essay by Kirk Varnedoe that appears in the catalogue to the 1998-1999 Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art..

 

To be sure, Varnedoe conceded that there was "some reworking afterward" – and provided photographic evidence showing this. 

 

Also in a footnote, he published a postcard from the artist to his brother and sister-in-law Frank & Marie Pollock.  Dated 1-15-44, the postcard says, "I painted quite a large painting for Miss Guggenheim's house during the summer. 8 feet x 20 feet.  It was grand fun."   Of this postcard, Varnedoe added that "this statement is an anomaly, in need of further analysis and explanation."

 

Nevertheless, in the body of his text, Varnedoe stoutly – if perhaps a bit defensively—upheld this now-standard story of "Mural's" creation. "The story may provoke a reflex of skepticism," he wrote   "it smacks too much of legend, and seems astonishing in light of the complex organization of the painting – but it squares with the known facts, was corroborated by all those closest to the matter, and has never been refuted."

 

The refutation was not long in coming.

 

REPORT BY TWO MOMA CONSERVATORS

 

In conjunction with its Pollock retrospective, MoMA staged a symposium on January 23-24, 1999. The papers read at that symposium appeared in book form later that year as "Jackson Pollock: New Approaches."  Two of these essays are of particular interest, both by museum conservators.  They are "No Chaos Damn It" by James Coddington and "Jackson Pollock: Response as Dialogue," by Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro.

 

The former essay is less directly relevant to "Mural," as it deals primarily with the pour paintings of the "heroic" period in the later 40s, including "Lavender Mist," "Autumn Rhythm," and MoMA's big painting from the same moment, "One: Number 31, 1950."

 

Still, as this essay's title makes clear, Coddington argues that – contrary to the prevailing notion that Pollock's paintings are about "chaos"— all of them were the product of a very careful and increasingly sophisticated technique.

 

Moreover, as the preface to both articles makes clear, the two conservators worked together, and employed a range of conservator's tools to examine all of the paintings under discussion – though "Mural" is discussed only in Mancusi-Ungaro's  essay, which deals with earlier and later work (on either side of the pours).

 

According to this joint preface, the artworks under discussion were examined first "in natural light in various locations. Then, when the works came to New York, we intensified the examination with viewing by means of ultraviolet light, infrared reflectography, x-radiography, and microscopy….

 

"Meanwhile, we combed the Archives of American Art, among other sources, and studied archival photographs for technical information often overlooked by other scholars. We also interviewed purveyors of materials and services involved in the production of Pollock's art…."

 

In her essay, Mancusi-Ungaro begins by yanking Pollock's postcard to Brother Frank out of the footnote to which Varnedoe had consigned it, and using it as the lead to her re-interpretation of "Mural."  Having first conceded that eyewitnesses claimed the painting had been created in a single 15-hour session in January 1944, she points out that the postcard "clearly contradicts" this account.

 

"Furthermore," she continues, "the topography of the surface, with its swathes of flat color applied over previously hardened brushstrokes and dried drips, suggests that there were several campaigns of painting in oil.  Although isolated instances of drying crackle in the darks affirm that fresh paint was applied before the underlayers were completely dry, enough drying time elapsed between campaigns of painting – certainly more than several hours – to prevent the multilayers from becoming smeared."

 

"Another legend," she adds, "states that 'Mural' was too big for the wall and had to be trimmed by eight inches in order to fit, but the presence of all four unpainted tacking edges confirm that the fabric was precisely stretched  and never trimmed."

 

TWO SCHOLARS WEIGH IN

 

As nearly as I can tell, about the only way that later authorities have differed radically from the broad outlines of Mangusi-Ungaro's findings is in the dating of when the painting was completed and installed.  Reproducing various photographs showing that "Mural" was further reworked, she assigns a date of 1943-44 to it.

 

However, a biography of Peggy Guggenheim by Mary V. Dearborn published in 2004 includes a letter written by Guggenheim to a friend of hers, Emily (Mimi) Coleman Scarborough, and postmarked November 12, 1943. In it, Guggenheim wrote:

 

"We are having a party for the new genius, Jackson Pollock, who is having a show here now.  He painted a 20 foot mural in my house in the entrance.  Everyone likes it nearly except Kenneth [Macpherson—a writer who seems to have been another tenant in the building]. Rather bad luck on him as he has to see it every time he goes in and out."

 

Pollock's first solo exhibition, at Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery, was held Nov. 9 to 27 – so the painting was finished – at any rate finished enough to install -- while the show was still up. 

 

Ms. Guggenheim's letter also seems to have been cited in a 21-page essay on "Mural" by Francis O'Connor.  This essay appeared in "Peggy Guggenheim and Frederick Kiesler: The Story of Art of This Century," a  massive exhibition catalogue also published in New York in 2004 for a show that ran from October 10, 2003 to January 9, 2005, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. 

 

I would really like to have seen the other evidence regarding the creation of this painting that O'Connor assembled, but again I am up against the constraints of time & the pandemic.

 

O'Connor has been quoted saying that he considered "Mural" to be "twentieth century America's first influential large-scale easel painting." This claim was based not only upon his experience as the leading Pollock scholar, but also upon his almost equally impressive career as a student of American mural painting in general.

 

It must have taken a certain amount of courage for him to refute his earlier statements about how "Mural" was painted, but I am sure he faced up to the occasion with his usual thoroughness  and perspicacity.

 

I only know about O'Connor's essay from two references to it.   One is the first footnote in a paper on "Mural" by Ellen Landau delivered in 2014 at a symposium sponsored by Authenticationinart.org, a Dutch organization, and posted online.  The other is the first footnote in the central essay by four conservators in "Jackson Pollock's Mural: The Transitional Moment," published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2014.

 

FINDINGS OF THE GETTY: CORROBORATION...AND ADDITIONS

 

The Getty book I do seem to have on my two-foot-shelf of Pollock books. It appears to be a summation of what was accomplished during the painting's stay at the Getty. And it may well have functioned  as the catalogue to – or been sold in conjunction with -- the first post-restoration exhibition of  "Mural," held from March 11 to June 1, 2014 at the Getty (where the show broke attendance records).

 

The four conservators responsible for this book's central essay are all from the Getty's various conservation operations: Yvonne Szafran, Laura Rivers, Alan Phenix & Tom Learner. The essay itself is an ambitious attempt to deal with any questions that may have been left over by O'Connor, but I am not going to take my readers through all the ins and outs of their argument. 

 

I am merely going to hint at a) some of their findings with regard to how "Mural" was painted and b) what they have done in the way of restoration.

 

As far as the findings themslves are concerned, they abundantly confirm the conclusions of the MoMA team and document the fact that the painting was indeed executed over many different campaigns. They also assign different types and colors of paints to each campaign,

 

The Getty authors are concerned to document what they (and others) suggest is the basic constructional element of "Mural."  This is the series of tall, blackish-brown vertical stripes or bands of paint that march from right to left across the canvas, sometimes belling slightly toward the left, so as to create a sense of forward motion.

 

This series, they say, may be based on oft-quoted advice by Thomas Hart Benton, with whom Pollock had studied as a young man, on how to organize a painting and provide the basic structure for it.

 

On the other hand, they also say that this wasn't the first paint that Pollock laid down, and point to a series of paints in four other colors that were evidently laid down earlier: a cadmium lemon yellow, a cerulean-blue-rich dark teal, a cadmium red and an umber.

 

All four of these paints were "very diluted with solvent and applied vigorously in broad, sweeping, dynamic gestures."  Moreover, interactions between these four paints "suggest they were applied close together in time, possibly in a short, vigorous burst of creative activity."   

 

This burst of energy, they suggest, may be the origin of the myth about the painting having been completed in one campaign.

 

Beyond that, the Getty curators list a dazzling series of oil paint colors that they found in varying degrees and different layers and parts of the painting, from titanium white to alizarin crimson lake to phthalo blue and viridian (blue green).

 

Their list reminded me of the tubes of oil paint that I had in my little paint-box as an adolescent of 13 or 14. This would have been in the later 1940s, the same decade that "Mural" was created (though I soon decided, with precocious cynicisim, that I didn't have what it took to become a truly great artist, and that the world had more use for second-rate writers than it did for second-rate artists).

 

Pollock's paints, as listed by the Getty team, seem very traditional -- by comparison, for example, with the vaster range of acrylic colors with simpler and less chemically-oriented titles that one finds listed for sale at the Golden Artist Colors website.

 

There is much more in this absorbing essay that I can't go into, including a discussion of all the other, later layers of paint applied, and how they show that the picture couldn't conceivably have been completed in one campaign.

 

The conservators establish, by the way that some of the paint has dripped downward, that the picture was painted while the canvas was vertical – as opposed to the way that the pour paintings were made, with the canvas on the floor.

 

They also find that Pollock was experimenting with flinging paint at the canvas, a harbinger of his later pouring practice, although in far smaller amounts.  

 

One more thing in particular deserves mention. In addition to this sizeable repertoire of artist's oil paints, Pollock also used a white water-based casein paint to bind all the elements of his finished image together, yet at the same time to separate them.

 

The casein seems to have been an ordinary inexpensive house paint, of a type more often used for interiors rather than exteriors. Pollock would have valued it, these authors reason, for its capacity to flow easily – and it's a harbinger of his broader use of commercial house paints in the pour paintings.

 

The Getty book also discusses at length the process of restoration. Apparently already by the 1970s, "Mural" was beginning to sag off its stretcher, so the good people in Iowa gave it a new stretcher and covered the painting itself with a coat of varnish.

 

Pollock never varnished any of his paintings, and this varnish had discolored by the time it got to the Getty, so the team there removed it.  They also provided a new stretcher, one carefully contoured so that the slightly irregular canvas of "Mural" fits perfectly onto it.

 

"MURAL" ITSELF

 

So, what after all of that does "Mural" actually look like?  To begin with, I could have asked for more space to view it in.  At the media preview, I stationed myself as far back from it as I could get, in order to take my notes, but that didn't really make it possible to view it in its entirety at one glance.

 

Still, I understand that Peggy Guggenheim's foyer was only 13 feet wide, so the painting's original viewers wouldn't have that much more space from which to view it.

 

Small as is the space "Mural" occupies, it is a delightfully quiet and peaceful one, creating optimal conditions for viewing fine art. 

 

The only problem at the media preview was the fact that the show's curator, Megan Fontanella, was often posing in front of the painting to give statements to reviewers/reporters with still and/or motion-picture cameras.  She looked very chic in basic black (or was it navy blue?) with white accents and a stunning pair of bright red spike-heeled pumps.

 

As for the painting itself, it's perfectly lovely.  It gives off a kind of golden glow despite or more truly because of all the gentle, elegant colors in parades of many large and small curlicued shapes that course across its surface.

 

The facture is very soft and gentle, too: photographs of it make it look much harder and sharper than it is.  And "Mural" has dignity, a kind a gracious serenity that may be the dominant quality of all truly great painting. (I also noticed it the last time I saw "Les Demoiselles d 'Avignon," gravely reigning over the vastly inferior recent work that MoMA had seen fit to install with it.)

 

What does "Mural" mean?  I consider it multireferential as all get-out, and a true abstraction in that sense.   Its various commentators have admitted as much -- if only by explicating it upon the basis of the many different influences of his prior career that Pollock incorporated into it.

 

I have already mentioned the supposed influence of Benton, pointed to in the Getty book.  But Ellen Landau, in her 2014 online paper, sweeps that aside to find "bird, insect and animal imagery" instead, as well as references to the "action photography" of Herbert Matter and maybe even the surrealist influence that Pollock might have known through his acquaintance with Stanley William Hayter.

 

Sundry authors have pointed to a statement by Pollock himself, saying that the painting was "about" a Western-style stampede, with "Cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes.  Everything is charging across that goddamn surface….."

 

You know me, and my theories about abstraction—I'm willing to admit the presence of any and all of these influences/images, and even add a few of my own – only stipulating that neither my suggestions nor any of these others are the only associations possible – and that this therefore makes "Mural" a true abstraction, with none of the perceived images consciously intended on the part of the artist.

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Looking at it myself, I noticed a  horse's head, and also a little curlicue  further down,  a combination suggesting to me a tiny seahorse rather than a full-size land-based equine. Only seahorses have such curly  tails – though I was 99 percent sure that such an allusion would have been foreign to Pollock.

 

On second thought, though, my attention was drawn to the sprightly march of those tall dark stripes, striding across the canvas like a row of human figures and more than anything else, unifying it and giving it a single sense of purpose.

 

That sight reminded me of Pollock's indebtedness to the Mexican muralists, and his famous technical lessons in the 1930s with David Alfaro Siqueiros.  More specifically, it seemed to me like a cheery parade of Mexican peasants, marching from right to left with all flags flying on some left-wing holiday.

 

Later – on October 9, to be exact – I visited "Vida Americana," a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art about the Mexican muralists and their impact on American art in the 1930s.  I will be reviewing this show in its entirety on another occasion.

 

Here I merely want to mention that it dwells at length upon the admiration that Pollock had for José Clemente Orozco, and includes a  painting by Orozco that I must have seen sometime before and unconsciously been reminded of by "Mural." 

 

Entitled "Zapatistas," this picture was painted in 1931 and acquired by MoMA in 1937.  Throughout the 1930s, MoMA was very high on the Mexican muralists, so the chances are good that this painting remained on view and Pollock could have seen it, too.

 

It depicts a line of Mexican peasants marching from right to left, offering definite visual similarities to "Mural." But its subject adds a tragic dimension that I didn't remember and that may well have enhanced its resonance for Pollock. Instead of a festive holiday parade, "Zapatistas" depicts peasant supporters of the ill-fated revolutionary Emiliano Zapata being marched off to execution.

 

TRANSITIONAL?

 

As I remarked at the beginning of this screed, all manner of observers have called "Mural" a "transitional" work.  By this they presumably mean that it marks a midway point in Pollock's progress away from figuration and toward abstraction. 

 

However, this claim would appear to be based upon the assumption that "Mural" was painted AFTER  "The She-Wolf" and "Guardians of the Secret," as well as the other figurative or semi-figurative works in his exhibition of November 1943.

 

In other words, that his development was linear, a straight line away from figuration and toward abstraction. 

 

This assumption would be entirely plausible if "Mural" had been painted after the November show – in other words, if the scholarship on the subject were as advanced as it was for the MoMA retrospective.

 

But it becomes questionable now that we know – from Peggy Guggenheim's letter to her friend Mimi Scarborough—that "Mural" was finished by November 1943. This lends additional authority to the postcard from Pollock to his brother Frank, saying that "Mural" was painted in the summer.

 

The assumption becomes even more questionable since both "The She-Wolf" and "Guardians of the Secret" are dated "8.43," in other words, completed in August.

 

Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, in her 1999 paper dealing with "Mural," emphasizes all the similarities between it and paintings like "The She-Wolf" that were in the November show.  I prefer to focus on their differences, which extend beyond the mere facts of figuration v. abstraction.

 

For one thing, all of the action in "The She-Wolf" and "Guardians of the Secret" is concentrated in the center of the canvas, with a central object around which everything else interacts.  In "Mural," the action is spread evenly throughout almost all of the canvas – a forerunner of the "all-overness" for which Pollock would later become famed.

 

For another thing, the paint application echoes this contrast. In "The She-Wolf," there is a lot more variation between thickly-applied and thinly-applied layers of paint, and more vigorous light-and-dark contrasts.  In "Mural," the paint is applied a lot more evenly, and the contrasts between light and dark are somewhat more subdued.

 

But does this necessarily mean that "Mural" came after "The She-Wolf," being begun only later in August, after "The She-Wolf" and "Guardians of the Secret" had been finished? 

 

Does it mean that these two paintings were deliberately misdated by the artist, perhaps in order to make it look as though they had been made since he had signed his contract with Miss Guggenheim?

 

Or does it mean that "Mural" was painted before "The She-Wolf" and "Guardians of the Secret," and that Pollock stepped back from the radicalism of "Mural" out of a feeling that the gallery-going public would really want to see more representational work?

 

Or merely that he was experimenting all over the lot, and these two kinds of paintings represented two different avenues he was exploring?

 

Somebody who is exceptionally knowledgeable about Pollock pointed out to me that there are several other paintings from 1943 that also vary widely in style and technique – so varied that it seems unlikely that anybody will ever be able to tell in what exact order everything was painted……

 

…..yet somehow, Pollock would be able, in  the next four years, to pull all these various experiments together, and create the works he is best known for….so how did he ever decide which route would be the best to follow?  Why should the abstraction which is "Mural" become the one precedent that he would most determinedly follow?

 

ENTER LATER INPUT: THE CRITIC(S)

 

At the risk of once more introducing a factor that I can easily be considered partisan about, I would like to suggest that the critical response to "Mural" was a key factor – and maybe even the prime factor -- in pointing Pollock toward his subsequent direction.

 

Here I mean mostly the responses of Clement Greenberg in The Nation but also that of Manny Farber in The New Republic – particularly since Greenberg only recalled his initial response to "Mural" in retrospect whereas Farber wrote about "Mural" within two years of the time it was painted.

 

According to B. H. Friedman, Greenberg saw "Mural" for the first time in January, 1944, and it instantly convinced him, more than any other of Pollock's earlier paintings, of Pollock's greatness.  Smith & Naifeh quote Greenberg as follows: "I took one look at it, and I thought, 'Now that's great art,' and I knew Jackson was the greatest artist this country had produced."

 

Although Peggy Guggenheim's friends of course saw "Mural" in situ from the time it was installed, the general public wasn't invited in until a viewing which accompanied the opening of Pollock's second solo exhibition at AOTC, from March 19 to April 14, 1945.

 

In the June 25, 1945 issue of The New Republic, Farber published what may have been his only art piece of the decade in that journal (at any rate, I didn't  find any other writings on art by Farber in The New Republic throughout the '40s while researching my dissertation).

 

Farber's article was on Pollock, and hailed "Mural" as "an almost incredible success.  It is violent in its expression, endlessly fascinating in detail, without superficiality, and so well ordered that it composes the wall in a quiet, contained, buoyant way…."

 

Greenberg stayed with Pollock throughout the 1940s, reviewing every show he had and praising him also in other articles -- even to an international audience in "The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture" (1947).  But the change in the tone of his reviews – before and after "Mural" – is what in this context is most striking.  

 

In his review of Pollock's first show, in 1943, he had admired the artist's "surprise and fulfilment," but qualified his admiration by suggesting that at the age of thirty-one, Pollock was still only "painting mostly with his own brush….." 

 

In his review of that second show, though – published in The Nation for April 7, 1945, two months before Farber's piece – he described Pollock as "the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miró."

 

Although I don't know how well Pollock and Greenberg knew each other personally at that particular moment, I find it difficult to believe that the artist didn't know how much the critic admired "Mural."

 

And I suggest that this critical response (as well as that of Farber) may well have been key factors in persuading the artist to follow up on the path that "Mural" had laid out for him – as opposed to exploring the other possibilities equally available to him through his experiments of the previous year.

 

In this way, I would argue, did "Mural" become not a dead end but "transitional."

 

What, then, did Greenberg see in "Mural" that most impressed him?   For one thing, it seems to be more abstract than any major picture that Pollock had made up to that moment, and we already know that the critic admired abstraction.

 

In the very first review that he'd published in The Nation, back in 1941, he had discussed the work of Miró, Léger & Kandinsky,  three of the most abstract artists then practicing, because "It is my opinion that the fate of our particular tradition of art depends upon that into which abstract art develops."

 

At the same time, a painting had to be more than just an abstract to satisfy Greenberg.  It had to be a good, even a great abstract. And it is in its wonderful golden glow, its many small but harmonious particulars – its serenity, its dignity, and above all, its extraordinary unity — where everything hangs together, and nothing obtrudes outside of its wide but chosen orbit – that "Mural" is truly great.

 

 

 

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