Specialists on Jackson Pollock are divided over the authenticity of 32 newly discovered works said to be by the artist.
A dispute over the authenticity of 32 recently discovered works purported to be by Jackson Pollock has pitted two renowned Pollock experts against one another and prompted the Pollock-Krasner Foundation to once again become involved in authentication matters after disbanding its authentication board a decade ago.
Pollock expert Ellen G. Landau, a former member of the authentication board, has authenticated the artworks, which include 22 small drip paintings on board (the largest measure 16 by 18 inches), as well as several drawings and unfinished works. However, Eugene Victor Thaw, co-author of the Pollock catalogue raisonné and another former member of the foundation’s authentication board, contests the attribution.
“All I am willing to say is if another supplement to the catalogue raisonné is published, which I have anything to do with, these pictures will not be included,” Thaw told ARTnews. Asked if there were plans to issue a second supplement to the original four-volume catalogue raisonné published in 1978, Thaw replied, “If more works are discovered—and I have two or three works on my desk that are right—there will have to be at some point. If so, I won’t publish these pictures.”
Alex Matter, the son of the abstract painter Mercedes Matter and the photographer and filmmaker Herbert Matter, discovered the works while cleaning out a storage facility that belonged to his father in East Hampton, New York, about three years ago, following his mother’s death in 2001. Matter brought the find to New York dealer Mark Borghi, who represents his mother’s estate. After arranging to clean and stabilize the works, many of which were covered in soot, Borghi consulted Landau last year about their authenticity. “I was blown away when I saw them,” says Landau, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the author of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné. “It was a thrill of a lifetime for an art historian.”
Says foundation chairman Charles Bergman, “Ellen Landau is a very respected Pollock scholar, but I think that for something of this magnitude, one would want a consensus of Pollock experts to decide if they are by Pollock, and if they are, the experts and the market will respond accordingly.”
Foundation attorney Ronald Spencer told ARTnews that the foundation is consulting both Thaw and Francis V. O’Connor, who co-authored the catalogue raisonné with Thaw and is also a former member of the authentication board, before making further statements. “Now we—the foundation, O’Connor, and Thaw—will go about the work of looking into these Pollocks,” says Spencer, “and will not be making any statements until the process is over.”
The only other member of the foundation’s defunct authentication board, former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator William Lieberman, died in May. O’Connor did not return phone calls from ARTnews seeking comment.
“Ellen Landau knows as much about Pollock as anybody. Her opinion carries a lot of weight,” says a Pollock scholar who is not involved in the authentication of the works and who requested anonymity. “It’s interesting that Thaw, who has seen more Pollocks than anybody, has gone on record to contest the attribution. His opinion carries even more weight. But I would like to hear an explanation with some specifics in it as to why he doesn’t think they’re right.”
Thaw would not specify his reasons for doubting the attribution, explaining that if he did, “It will land me in court.” But he did say that none of Pollock’s other works is painted on the type of boards on which the newly discovered works are painted. Even if the boards prove to be Herbert Matter’s—Landau says they are and that similar artist’s boards can be found in Pollock’s former studio on Long Island—the works still don’t resemble “what Pollocks are known to look like,” says Thaw. “At least none that I know of.” Landau, meanwhile, stands by her opinion. “I remain confident that their provenance is impeccable,” Landau told ARTnews, “and that they are stylistically and technically consistent with Pollocks.”
Borghi, who announced the discovery of the works in May, says that he and Landau are also consulting other experts to confirm the authenticity of the works. Borghi told ARTnews that “a prestigious institution whose conservator has done work on Pollock has taken some of the works for analysis to see if they are consistent with known works of Pollock.” Borghi declined to identify the institution, stating that the museum did not want its involvement to be made public at press time.
According to Borghi, he flew to Thaw’s Santa Fe, New Mexico, home earlier this year to show him several of the works. “He never said anything about their authenticity,” says Borghi. Thaw’s public disagreement with the attribution after the discovery had been announced, he says, came “out of left field.”
Borghi says he, Matter, and Landau are proceeding with the organization of a museum exhibition for next year that will feature the works and explore the relationship between Pollock, Krasner, and the Matters. “We have interest from institutions that wish to proceed with the planned exhibition,” says Borghi, who declined to specify which museums had expressed interest in the show, explaining that it was too early in the process. Landau plans to write a catalogue to accompany the exhibition, as well as a separate publication delineating the importance of the works.
Before the discovery was announced, Borghi also notified the foundation, providing a set of transparencies and requesting permission to reproduce the images through the Artists Rights Society, the foundation’s copyright agency. Spencer says the society mistakenly granted permission to reproduce the works without consulting the foundation. After the images appeared with the Pollock-Krasner Foundation credit line on Borghi’s Web site (www.pollockexhibit.com), the foundation issued a press release announcing that it was “presently reserving judgment” on the works and had withdrawn copyright permission “pending resolution of authenticity.”
The foundation’s authentication board was dissolved after the 1995 publication of a supplement to the Pollock catalogue raisonné. Since then, the foundation has not authenticated works, and Bergman says it has no current plans to publish another supplement. Instead, the foundation recommends that owners of purported Pollocks consult the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), a not-for-profit organization that offers information on ownership, theft, and other matters concerning art objects, and also issues opinions on authenticity by consulting a panel of confidential experts.
Borghi says he did not submit the works to IFAR. “What’s the point of submitting works to a place where you don’t know who is looking at the pictures?” Borghi asks.
Spencer says the foundation is becoming involved in the authentication of these works because it has “an interest in maintaining Pollock’s legacy. If any splashes on paper were allowed to be sold as a Pollock, his legacy would become much distorted and made false.”
Landau says she is convinced of the works’ authorship in part because of their provenance, stating that she has “direct knowledge of the closeness of the relationship” between the Matters and Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, through interviews she conducted with Krasner and Mercedes Matter, as well as through various publications that document their friendship. Landau says that Krasner, who became friends with Mercedes Matter in 1936, introduced Pollock to Herbert Matter in early 1942 and that their friendship lasted until Pollock’s death in 1956.
“They were the best of friends,” says Landau,
who notes that the Matters owned other Pollock works, which appear in the catalogue raisonné. Landau says she does not know why the newly discovered works were not included in the catalogue but speculates that Herbert, who died in 1984, “packed them away and didn’t tell anyone about them.”
Borghi says that Alex Matter found the works wrapped in brown paper that was marked with information, believed to be in Herbert Matter’s handwriting, that states in part: “Pollock (1946–49), Tudor City (1940–49), 32 Jackson Pollock experimental works (gift + purchase).” Landau believes that most of the works were painted around 1948 and 1949 in the Tudor City, Manhattan, studio Matter kept between 1940 and 1949, which he also lent to Fernand Léger.
Based on other notations on the wrapping, Landau believes that the works were packaged in 1958, two years after Pollock’s death, when Matter had a studio in Greenwich Village, and that some of the paints Pollock used to create the works were invented by Matter’s cousin Robi Rebetez, a Swiss chemist and art-store owner. Pollock’s initials appear on the backs of three of the paintings, says Landau. In the storage facility, Alex Matter also found letters from Krasner and Pollock, hand-drawn cards Pollock made for Alex’s parents, and previously unknown photographs of Pollock by Matter.
Borghi, who says none of the works is presently for sale, would not comment on their value, but last year a small drip painting on paper, formerly owned by the Museum of Modern Art and dated 1949, fetched a record $11.65 million at Christie’s. Landau says that the oil-and-enamel works on board fill a gap in Pollock’s catalogue raisonné, which documents only one mixed-media work between 1948 and 1951.
The Pollock scholar who requested anonymity says there are some discrepancies between the works found in the storage facility and other known Pollocks—“the way the paint behaves,” for example, and that “the colors are odd”—but suggests that the “technical problems can be explained by the story” that accompanies their discovery.
“If it ends up that they are not Pollocks,” says the scholar, “they are very, very good non-Pollocks.”