Using art history, chemistry, and detective work, conservators uncover intriguing details in three classic paintings
Jackson Pollock made Number 1A, 1948, at a transformative moment in his career. He had abandoned the easel for the floor. He had started using enamel house paints, which he alternated with artists’ oils. He was on a quest for pure painting, and he began by marking his territory.
So he applied paint to his palms and pressed them on the surface.
Pollock also used his hands to lightly smear color across the painting. He worked some sections with a brush. He dragged pigment directly from a tube to create ribbons of impasto. In between, he dripped and poured paint on the canvas.
All of which would have been challenge enough for future conservators, even without the 1958 fire in a MoMA gallery. Number 1A, 1948, which was hanging in a nearby stairwell at the time, suffered damage from heat and soot.
By the time of the museum’s 1998 Pollock retrospective, the majestic canvas the museum had bought half a century before was looking dull and aged.
Plans to restore Number 1A, 1948 began then. But the pace picked up considerably when the painting—along with Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, and the black-and-white Echo: Number 25, 1951—was chosen for the Bank of America Art Conservation Project, which provides grants to museums around the world to restore cultural treasures.
With the funds from the bank, MoMA added the additional staff and equipment it needed to launch the Jackson Pollock Conservation Project, an 18-month campaign to clean each painting thoroughly for the first time since it entered the collection. The goal was to restore them, as closely as possible, to their original conditions.
Last week, the project came to an end, and MoMA marked the occasion by hanging the three paintings together (temporarily) in one of the postwar galleries.
For the staff, even those who know the Pollocks intimately, there was a sense of seeing them anew. That was the case for Ann Temkin, chief curator of MoMA’s department of painting and sculpture, who was deeply involved in the conservation project. She was already thinking about how she was going to update her tour of the AbEx galleries to reflect the new findings.
For Jim Coddington, the museum’s chief conservator, and Jennifer Hickey, the project assistant conservator, the Pollock Conservation Project was not only a process of removal—of dirt, discoloration, evidence of earlier restorations—but of discovery. They had to peel back Pollock’s many layers to determine what to keep and what to gently wash away.
“Each of these pictures revealed something interesting to us about Pollock and his materials and techniques,” Coddington says. The results “don’t fundamentally rewrite art history. They just add to that story.”
An example is the handprints in Number 1A, 1948. They were always visible in the top right portion of the canvas and various other points throughout. With the soot and grime gone, they take a more dominant role, showing how the artist used his own body as a tool to mark his newly horizontal canvases.
“He’s declaring his identity free of language in the most elemental way,” Temkin says. “He wanted to bring modern art to that same level of essentialism. He’s harking back to a period when humankind was not far past the ape stage.”
In a series of riveting posts on the museum’s blog, Coddington and Hickey provide a step-by-step account of the mixture of science, scholarship, and sleuthing that went into the Jackson Pollock Conservation Project. Wielding tools such as a handheld X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, the team analyzed surfaces and paint samples.
Their close inspection offered some surprises. For example, in the case of One: Number 31, 1950, a classic drip painting, they saw how Pollock paid careful attention to small sections of the canvas, with deliberate application of paint, resin, and turpentine.
The small marks were clearly calculated—subtle movements at odds with the typical image of the action painter engaged in a rhythmic ritual dance, like the one depicted in Robert Goodnough’s text, and Hans Namuth’s photos, in the famous ARTnews article “Pollock Paints a Picture.”
“Those small brown drips are the kind of thing the artist would do after looking at the canvas a very long time,” says Coddington. “He’s judging the need for subtle but important edits.”
The surface of One: Number 31, 1950 was puzzling. Unlike Full Fathom Five, the 1947 painting in which Pollock had embedded nails, buttons, and keys, and other objects, the inclusions in One: Number 31, 1950 (like the fly that apparently settled in the black paint and got stuck there) seem the result of chance. More curious were the areas inconsistent with Pollock’s style—fussily applied, in tiny brushstrokes. This “spurious overpainting,” as Coddington puts it, was evidently added by an enigmatic restorer whose identity remains unknown. Judging by photographs, conservators date the additions to some time between 1962 and ’68.
After the team removed what they could, they went on to restore. They matched colors, filled cracks, and in the case of Number 1A, 1948, reconstructed some impasto skeins that had broken off the canvas.
“We essentially cast a synthetic resin into many different shapes that were like those of the squeezed paint, and then painted those to match the color of the lost paint, and simply laid them down in the lost area of the squeeze and completed that ribbon of paint,” Coddington explains.
Pollock became more deliberate about his paint application as he moved into his black-and-white works of 1951. In Echo: Number 25, 1951, content has returned, in the form of its evocative title and intimations of the figure (think Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror).
The conservators found clues about Pollock’s process when they spotted distinct spines of paint on the back of the canvas, inside the broader marks of black. They knew from recollections of Lee Krasner, Pollock’s widow, that he had squeezed the bulb of a turkey baster to spread enamel paint on the picture. But now they understood better how he used this kitchen tool. The lines represent the points where the baster touched the surface of the picture—suggesting a process more akin to drawing, and even less like a ritual dance.
Over time, the exposed canvas had degraded to an uneven, straw-yellow color, like an heirloom tablecloth. The color was different at the top of the picture, which had been exposed to more light and heat over the years. In a laborious process involving moisture, blotting, and TLC, the conservators reduced the discoloration considerably.
The results, as they had with the other two Pollocks, removed years from the painting’s appearance.
“They have youth and a kind of charisma,” Temkin observed in the galleries.
“It’s wonderful what a cleaning and restoration can do,” Coddington added. “The life of the pictures is in the details.”