Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Pollock mess, version 1.2 . . .

Well, it seems there's more than one way to skin a cat. A recent Harvard study demonstrated that three of the 32 "possible Pollocks" (one is posted above; photo by Bill Greene of the Globe) recently discovered by Alex Matter are almost certainly inauthentic; pigments in the paintings weren't available during the artist's lifetime. A major setback, you'd think, for Matter's attempts to parlay his find into millions, and sure enough, the touring show of the paintings that was slated to appear at BC's McMullen Museum collapsed as a result. But the McMullen is soldiering on with a new version, this one cannily designed, it would seem, to slip the pseudo-Pollocks into the mainstream of art history.

To be blunt, there are only two interpretations possible of the 32 Matter paintings: the first is that they're outright forgeries, perhaps by Matter's father, Herbert Matter, a Pollock friend (or possibly by Matter fils, or someone else). The Harvard findings make this the unassailable conclusion about at least three. Of the remainder, one can say that either they're fakes, too (and similarities to the definite forgeries in size and quality make that the likely scenario), or, possibly, that they're weaker works by the master himself that he didn't want to see the light of day.

It's on this last possibility that the McMullen seems to have set its sights, or at least so one might assume from a close reading of the recent story in the Boston Globe. I was expecting something like this to be the next tack taken by Matter and his allies, but I was a little surprised to see that it had already been plotted, essentially, prior to the unveiling of the Harvard study.

For indeed, McMullen director Nancy "not looking for publicity" Netzer has been a busy little publicity-shirking bee. Netzer no doubt senses that as the "controversy" about the Pollocks grows, so will the crowds a McMullen show could attract (prior to the Harvard study, the show was hardly on the Boston cultural radar screen). Netzer's also clever enough to have decided to include the work of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, in the revamped exhibit, as well as the paintings of Herb Matter's wife (more women artists = more Globe coverage). And in a brilliant twist, she's repurposing two essays commissioned for the original Matter show by Boston College art history professor Claude Cernuschi and physics professor Andrzej Herczynski.

These essays, I'd argue, will be the crux of the effort to slide the Matter canvases into the Pollock canon via the back door. According to the Globe story, art history professor Cernuschi believes "Pollock's work is distinguished from paintings of, say, the Old Masters because it has no center of attention . . . And many people have assumed that as a result, the size doesn't matter." Herczynski chimes in: "We made an argument that to maintain a Pollockian way of painting, you've got to have at least a minimum of size."

One can limn from these statements the beginning of a new "story" to deal with the Matter paintings' artistic weakness: they're experiments that Pollock abandoned as he realized he needed to scale up to achieve the effects he was after. Thus, while clearly not nearly in the league of the Pollocks we're familiar with, they still "count" as sketchbooks, as it were (albeit sketchbooks the painter himself seems to have hidden away).

As for the clear forgeries, I guess we're expected to believe that they were done as imitations of the abandoned "sketchbooks." (And I suppose we'll just have to see what Lee Krasner and Herb Matter, et. al., have to do with all this.) As a scenario, this doesn't really hang together - but I bet somebody will buy it. Just as I bet that someday, thanks in no small part to the McMullen, somebody will buy those Matter paintings as "genuine" Pollocks. And that's really the point, isn't it?

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