Among the reasons that people continue to be fascinated by Jackson Pollock’s paintings is their Rorschach quality. Viewers have perceived many things in them, from scenes out of classical mythology to Jungian symbols. In Tom and Jack, an upcoming book about the relationship between Pollock and his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, art historian Henry Adams finds a very surprising image hidden in Pollock’s 1943–44 Mural: the artist’s own signature.
That Pollock would insert his signature into the painting makes sense in terms of Mural’s meaning for Pollock, argues Adams, a professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The whole point of Mural was to declare that Jackson Pollock was a great painter,” he writes in Tom and Jack, which is being published in December by Bloomsbury Press. “The painting is essentially a big billboard for Jackson Pollock.”
Several scholars praise aspects of Adams’s book, but they express skepticism about the idea that Mural contains a hidden signature. Pollock biographer Steven Naifeh, who read the chapter on Mural at the request of ARTnews, notes in an e-mail: “A hundred people might find 50 different words—and hundreds of different images—in this or any of Pollock’s later work.”
Adams says it was actually his wife who first noticed the letters spelling out “Jackson Pollock” among the dark lines in Mural.
“I was just looking at it with my wife—I think it was over breakfast on a Saturday morning,” he recalls. “I was convinced that there was some kind of imagery in the painting, and no one had written about that very clearly. And then at some point she started to see letters in it. Oddly, she was looking at it upside down” at the time, he adds.
Mural, almost 13 feet long and 8 feet high, was painted for the entry hall of Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. It is generally considered to have been a turning point in Pollock’s career. The critic Clement Greenberg would later claim that he took one look at it and knew that Pollock was “the greatest painter this country had produced.” In 1951 Guggenheim donated the painting to the University of Iowa, where it was at the center of a minor firestorm last year, when a member of the Iowa Board of Regents proposed selling the painting to pay for flood-damage repairs at the university. The painting’s value at the time was estimated to be $140 million.
Adams concedes that the buried signature doesn’t have much importance to the larger argument of his book, which disputes the long-held assumption that Pollock rejected all of Benton’s teachings before making his major works. But Adams says he thought the idea was “provocative,” and he was surprised no one had suggested it before.
“I seem to have a gift for coming up with things that are controversial,” he says, referring to his 2005 book on Thomas Eakins, Eakins Revealed, which explores rumors that the painter molested his niece.
“I’ve been sort of blacklisted in some quarters of the American field” because of that book, Adams says.
The idea that Pollock rejected all of Benton’s teachings came from the Abstract Expressionist himself. In 1951, in his narration for Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg’s documentary, Pollock described Benton, with whom he studied at the Art Students League of New York in the late ’20s, as “a strong personality to react against.”
But Adams, who has also written a biography of Benton, says that, in fact, Pollock remained in close touch with his former teacher until the end of his life, and that he was strongly influenced by Benton’s ideas about composition.
Adams partly relies on the work of Stephen Polcari, who noticed 30 years ago that the compositions of Pollock’s major drip paintings correspond with the recommendations Benton laid out in a series of articles in Arts magazine in 1927. But Adams adds a new angle, stressing Benton’s modernist bona fides: he was influenced, Adams writes, by a group of American modernists called the Synchromists, who combined the formal language of Cubism with the vivid colors of Matisse, arranged according to an arcane theory of color harmonization.
“Benton has always been sort of the bogeyman, the person who was the evil reactionary figure,” Adams says, but in fact “much of his art and his strategies of self-promotion were based on European modernists.” Benton’s influence on Pollock was multilayered, having to do “not only with how you make art but with how you promote yourself as an artist: this willingness to stand out as different and to sort of say outrageous things—basically this whole modernist strategy.”
Mural has long been a subject of great interest to art historians. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, maintained that he painted it in one night, around January 1, 1944, after several months of procrastination. The Pollock scholar Francis O’Connor, however, has adduced photographs and correspondence to dispute that claim, and Adams adopts his view.
Pepe Karmel, a professor of art history at New York University who, with the late Kirk Varnedoe, curated the Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, also read the chapter on Mural at the request of ARTnews. In an e-mail, he calls Adams “a delightful writer,” but adds that he is “way off-base” in his analysis of Mural.
“It’s a Rorschach-blob situation,” Karmel writes. “There are a lot of loops, curves, and lines in Mural. Evidently, by picking and choosing among them, you can spell out the words ‘Jackson Pollock,’ but that doesn’t mean the words are there.”
Karmel adds that Adams’s reading of Mural “seems as if it were inspired by” a 2001 painting by the artist Sean Landers, in which Landers inscribed his signature in a field of wavy colored lines.
“Landers’ painting equates the interlacing lines of all-over painting with wavering lines of script, which is funny because it connects the heroic self-expression of Pollock with the shameless self-promotion of Andy Warhol,” Karmel observes. “To imagine Pollock himself doing this in 1943 makes him into an American equivalent of Francis Picabia, with his Dada assaults on the pompous self-righteousness of the avant-garde.
“That would be an interesting interpretation,” he continues, “but not very convincing.”
Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in the Hamptons, says that Adams “has done a remarkable job of making connections that nobody had really bothered to trace before.” But, as to the purported letters in Mural, she says, “I never saw them until they were pointed out to me.”
Adams notes that he considers the signature a “unique discovery, in that I don’t think you can go around to Jackson Pollock paintings and try to find writing in all of them. I think this is the one time he did that.”
Kate Taylor is a freelance journalist living in New York.