B.C. Museum features 20 disputed Pollock paintings

BOSTON – When Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art got the offer to show a stash of never-before-seen Jackson Pollock paintings, who could blame it for jumping at the chance? It didn’t hurt that they were “recently discovered,” in 2002, by the son of Swiss photographer Herbert Matter, whose father was a close friend of the famous “Action Artist.” It also didn’t hurt that questions about the authenticity of the art have set off fierce debate among Pollock experts across the nation.

The art had been found in a rented storage locker on Long Island, N.Y., where Pollock and his wife, painter Lee Krasner, owned a home not too far from Matter and his wife, Mercedes. The provenance of such an amazing trove was hardly questioned given the well-known relationship between the families. Factor in the big coverage across all media, and an art world where a big Pollock canvas sells for more than $100 million, such a collection could potentially have meant some serious bucks for a lucky few.

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Herbert Matter, Mercedes Matter, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Alex Matter in woods, 1948. Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Between the hail of dissenting opinions, and disputed science, however, no consensus emerged that the canvases were real. The art world backed off, and the mystery surrounding the paintings caused both the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., and the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, N.Y. – Pollock’s hometown – to cancel exhibitions. Only the McMullen decided to go ahead.

“The only definitive answer I have,” said Nancy Netzer, director of the museum and art history professor at BC, “is that it’s a mystery.”

The disputed paintings are being shown as precisely one-seventh of an exhibition titled “Pollock Matters,” on view through Dec. 9. It explores for the first time the personal and artistic relationship between Pollock and Matter, revealing the connections between the two, and the important role Matter’s innovations played in stimulating Pollock’s radical style.

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Untitled No. 2, poured media on board, 10 inches by 15 inches. Private Collection.

It is the more than 20 supposed Pollocks, however, that are getting the attention. There is dispute about the copyrights on paint color being registered long after the artist’s death, as well as questions about the conformity of the splatter lines of the paintings. Some see it as a ploy to get rich or rip off a famous name, while others question why a scammer would put the effort into such small pieces – some are merely lines on a piece of cardboard – when Pollock’s really big canvases sell for really exorbitant sums.

“We didn’t do this for publicity,” Netzer said. “We did this because we believe in the scholarship, and because we thought we had faculty here with important things to say about these works. Given their provenance and number, and the important roll they could play in our understanding of an artist like Pollock, they merited detailed scrutiny from a number of different disciplines.”

The move to even show the paintings, regardless of the controversy around them, has brought McMullen praise in some circles. In an interview with the Providence (R.I.) Journal, Rhode Island School of Design museum director Hope Alswang said, “Under the circumstances, I think it’s a very brave thing to do, and if they can get people thinking and talking about Jackson Pollock, a towering figure in American art but someone whose work many people still dismiss or misunderstand, then all the controversy will be worth it.”

While the wide media coverage and heated debate over the paintings have raised awareness worldwide around the artist, the coverage did not necessarily translate into overflow crowds at the seven galleries the McMullen has dedicated to the exhibit. Netzer, however, reported that there was a steady flow of people over the opening Labor Day weekend.

For the most part, too, the people coming to see the exhibition are not coming to comment on the controversy, but simply to see the paintings and get some information on them. The paintings themselves are not exhibited with anything but a title. On a wall in the room where they are hung, the museum has posted a text with a summary of the discovery of the paintings by Matter’s son, and the subsequent debate.

“If I had to generalize,” Netzer said, “what I’d say people are walking away from the exhibition with is an understanding of the complexity of this problem. Most people have written in the comment book something to the effect of, ‘Great exhibition. It reads like a mystery story.’”

While Netzer and the McMullen are hopeful that scholars from across the nation will come to take a look, and add something to the ongoing “discussion” about the paintings Netzer is quick to point out that the audience so far has mostly been regular art lovers wanting a peek, which is exactly what the museum wants.

“We’re pleased that people are interested in the project,” she said. “I want the public to really feel welcome at this exhibition, anybody can come. We’re opening this exhibition ourselves, free. We’re not making any money on it.”

It’s hoped by Netzer, and many of her colleagues, that scholarship on the paintings continues after “Pollock Matters” closes in December. The conundrum of the paintings is not likely to be solved any time soon, even as some of the questions surrounding the paintings are answered. The public will just have to decide for itself. If you find yourself in Boston’s Chestnut Hill this fall, pop in and add your two cents.

The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College is located on the first floor of Devlin Hall, 140 Commonwealth Ave. Museum hours are Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

For more information, call (617) 552-8100, or go online to www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/artmuseum.

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