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Jackson Pollock's 'Mural' arrives at Getty's conservation lab

July 26, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Jackson Pollock's 1943 "Mural" has arrived at the Getty Museum's conservation lab, where it will undergo extensive treatment.
Jackson Pollock's 1943 "Mural" has arrived at the Getty… (University of Iowa Museum…)

"Mural," the critically important painting in Jackson Pollock's development as a major American artist, has arrived in the conservation lab at the J. Paul Getty Museum. A visit Wednesday to see the monumental 1943 canvas, which is in the collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, shows why conservation work is imperative.

What the artist called "a stampede" of shapes, lines of force and rhythmic colors across the canvas had a profound effect on American art, sweeping away the nativist ethos of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton.

But a pronounced sag can now be seen in the center of the painting at the top. Unframed, "Mural" is roughly 8 feet tall and 20 feet wide. The downward weight in the middle is pulling up the bottom edges of the canvas at the right and left. Rather than a wide rectangle, "Mural" is showing modest but clear signs of a broad, downward curve.

What caused the sagging? At some point, a new lining on the back was added to reinforce the canvas. Re-lining, a common procedure, employed a wax adhesive. Given the picture's size, considerable weight was added to the painting.

Museum conservators will work with scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute to determine how to rectify the problem. They also plan to remove a layer of varnish from the painting's surface, apparently added in the 1970s, which creates a slight sheen.

Tests will also be done to catalog the paints Pollock employed. It might even be possible to figure out whether the legend that says Pollock painted "Mural" in a single day is valid. Drying times for paint layers, many of which are visibly crisp and clean and plainly were not painted wet-on-wet, might yield clues.

When work is completed in early 2014, "Mural" will go on view at the Getty Museum for three months. Which brings me to a fantasy. Why not a small show drawn from Los Angeles collections with the "Mural" restoration as the anchor?

Pollock grew up in L.A. He drew much inspiration from the South Pacific holdings at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, not far from the family's bungalow court on West 50th Street, as well as the great Native American collections of the Southwest Museum, near the house in Montecito Heights where the Pollocks later lived.

And his work is unthinkable without José Clemente Orozco, whose 1930 "Prometheus" fresco at Pomona College was the first Mexican mural in the United States, and especially David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom Pollock first met in L.A. "América Tropical," Siqueiros' cruelly whitewashed 1932 mural, finally returns to public view downtown at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in the fall.

The Museum of Contemporary Art owns Pollock's "Number 3, 1948," a small but dramatic experiment using liquid enamels, and "Number 1, 1949," an exquisitely refined example of his mature drip-paintings. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art owns two relatively modest paintings, dated 1950 and 1951, plus two early drawings (1938-40 and 1945). MOCA also has two works on paper, from 1943 and 1951. In a local private collection, there's even a marvelous abstraction by Lee Krasner, the artist's wife, collaged with fragments of a torn-up Pollock.

As long as we're dreaming, why not toss Northern California into the mix? "Guardians of the Secret," the fierce totemic work painted the same year as "Mural," is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, together with a 1939-40 pencil drawing. The great drip-painting "Lucifer" (1947) is in the famed Anderson Collection, destined for a new museum at Stanford.

Seven paintings and five drawings could make an incisive context for "Mural." But even if such an installation doesn't come to pass, the Getty's conservation project, which will yield a publication, ought to provide a trove of information. Expect to learn a lot about Pollock's working method and the pivotal place occupied by the legendary painting.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

KnightLAT@twitter.com

Related:

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