Jackson Pollock’s Largest Painting Is Touring the World, and Its Mysteries Are Coming to Light

The legend goes like this: In 1943, Jackson Pollock—then far from a household name—was commissioned by art dealer Peggy Guggenheim to create a mural for her townhouse foyer. For over a month, Pollock stared at the blank canvas, wondering how he would fill something so colossal, he and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, had been forced to dismantle one of their apartment walls just to fit it inside. Not until the night before Guggenheim’s deadline did Pollock, in a mad burst of inspiration, start and finish the entire piece, transforming the 160-square-foot-long canvas into a frenzy of teal, yellow, and black brushstrokes which he later described as “a stampede of every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.”

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In the morning, Pollock and Krasner rolled up Mural and delivered it to Guggenheim’s apartment. Or, at least, that was the story long maintained by Krasner and perpetuated in Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, the 1989 Pulitzer Prize–winning biography written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

But that all turned out not entirely to be true—more recent research suggests that the painting wasn’t completed in a day. A historian even unearthed a letter Pollock wrote to his brother in 1944: “I painted quite a large painting for Miss Guggenheim during the summer—8 feet x 20 feet. It was grand fun.” Mural’s mysteries hardly end there, however. The painting has been traveling the world for nearly a decade, and it’s continued to pique the interest of many.

One thing is for sure, however: Mural was an instant hit. Critic Clement Greenberg wrote, “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.” Guggenheim, in a letter to friend, wrote, “Everyone likes it nearly except Kenneth [another tenant]. Rather bad luck on him as he has to see it every time he goes in and out…” Guggenheim’s first attempt to hang the work at East Sixty-first Street was reportedly a failure. It was rumored that artist Marcel Duchamp was enlisted to help install it and that he cut about eight inches off the sides. Now, many experts claim otherwise: any viewer could see that the canvas was never cut down.

Mural is the largest work Pollock ever created, and today, it is considered a breakthrough for the Abstract Expressionist, marking Pollock’s definitive shift from Surrealism to his signature “action painting” technique that involved furious splashes, splatters, and drips made while the artist was in motion. Yet despite its cachet, it’s housed not in one of America’s biggest institutions, but a relatively small one in the middle of the country.

Guggenheim wound up donating the work to the University of Iowa in Stanley in 1951, after being rebuffed by Yale University. At the University of Iowa, it hung in an art studio, then in the Main Library, and was finally installed in the university’s newly-opened Stanley Museum of Art in 1969. Tragedy struck in 2008, when a flood destroyed the university’s art museum and nearly washed away its art collection, which also includes prime works by Max Beckmann and Grant Wood. It’s now insured for $140 million—not that the school would part with its jewel. A bill proposed in 2011 to force the UI to sell Mural died amid public outcry; the museum’s director at the time called such a proposal “ludicrous.”

While the museum refurbishes its storied institution, Mural has been on the move. After being shown at the Des Moines Art Center, it was sent to the Getty in Los Angeles for an 18-month conservation. In the process, some myths about the work were debunked. Its stretcher was replaced to accommodate the sagging canvas, and the varnish was removed, revealing multiple layers of dried paint and proving Mural took weeks, if not months, to create. Intriguingly, the analysis revealed a single, formative layer of brushstrokes. The initial composition could, theoretically, have been made in a single session.

In 2015 Mural had its first showing ever in Europe, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, where it was paired with Pollock’s restored Alchemy, as well as pieces by Krasner, David Smith, and Robert Motherwell. From there, the exhibition traveled to the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin, and then to the Museo Picasso in Málaga, Spain. So far, as part of its tour, the painting has traveled 20,000 miles and visited 13 museums, including the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Given its size, transporting Mural is no small feat, said Katherine Wilson, the manager of collections and exhibitions for Stanley. Mural was ferried by truck, ship, and cargo plane in a 10-foot-tall, shock-resistant steel-frame crate. Every door, ceiling, and corner in every museum was tested in advance with a scale model of Mural; some, like the Sioux City Art Center in Iowa, were required to tear down and rebuild gallery walls to accommodate its monumental dimensions. At the Bilbao, Mural arrived by barge before being craned into the gallery. To say, the safety of its handlers is a greater worry than theft; at 345 pounds, were it to fall on a worker, the painting could easily prove fatal.

Iowa’s $50 million new art museum is slated to open in 2022, when Mural will make its homecoming. To date, it has been viewed by more than 2 million visitors worldwide. Most recently the painting was exhibited at MFA Boston.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, its itinerary is, for the time being, uncertain. It was scheduled for exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim March 28 through February 28, 2021, and new dates are contingent on the reopening of museums in the city.

Mural was last in New York for a 1998 exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, but then Pollock’s vibrant colors were dulled by a varnish applied during the 1970s. Wilson, speaking by phone from Iowa, found it fitting that Mural should visit New York, freshly restored, as the last major stop on its homestretch. “It all started there with Peggy,” she said.