Suspect drips already flipped

The controversy over newly discovered works claiming to be by the world’s most expensive paint splatterer has gotten even more interesting. We reported a few months ago about the fallout from paint tests showing that a miraculous find of unknown Pollocks were fresher than his crash-test corpse. Now the IHT reports that Alex Matter, the owner of the trove of 32 small works found in his father’s storage locker might have already sold some of them (which should surprise nobody).
Alex Matter with some possible Pollocks that he may or may not own anymore

Why this should be no surprise is simply because the long-haul of authenticating and selling these works takes considerable financial resources. Matter found a willing partner in NY dealer Ronald Feldman who also engaged a leading Pollock expert, Ellen Landau, to provide scholarly heavy-hitting. The carefully crafted game plan involved a triple assault through scientific authentification, art historical exhibition in a museum setting, and finally (we must assume) entry on to the market. The wheels started falling off, though, when the Pollock/Krassner Foundation refused to cooperate with the plan. Already back in January of 2006, Feldman revealed to Foundation chair, Charles Bergman, that he wasn’t just assisting Matter in promoting the works, but had acquired an unspecified number (presumably in compensation for the enormous expense of project). Feldman failed, however, to persuade Bergman to play along, and Bergman has refused to allow any reproductions or images of any Pollock’s to be shown when these works are to presented to the public at Pollock/Matters Exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College in September 2007.

Now the Foundation’s role in the affair reminds us that in the very pluralistic world of modern connoiseurship, finding out who is The Decider is as much an act of authentification as the attribution of the paintings themselves. The Pollock/Krassner Foundation’s activities in recent years had much more be devoted to giving grants to contemporary artists, and less known as the guardian of the oeuvre’s of Jackson and his wife Lee Krassner. The most controversial character in the dispute is surely Ellen Landau, the Case Western Reserve art history professor, who, as a former board member of the Foundation and the author of Krassner’s catalogue raisonné, as well as a major work on Pollock, brought what should seem like unassailable credentials to the project. Both of these books were published by top flight art book publisher Harry N. Abrams, and in many ways, it’s publishers like Abrams who, in deciding to print books by certain art historians, make the first steps towards anointing The Decider. What Landau, despite all her art historical expertise, cannot seem to fight, though, is the gathering evidence from scientists who have been undermining the works with computers and chemical analysis. It’s a fascinating replay of the two diverging trends in attribution technique that was first highlighted in the struggles of the Rembrandt Research Project (here’s a tedious paper I wrote in grad school on the subject rembrandt-project.doc) where traditional connoisseurship with its emphasis on an expert’s intangible ability to sense if a painting is correct, is pitted against new fangled methods like canvas thread counting, dye analysis, and carbon and atomic dating.

This collection of 32 works has already been subjected to a bewildering array of testing, most prominently when researchers at Harvard concluded that the 3 works they studied included paints not patented at the time of Pollock’s death. But Landau and Matter have countered with press releases that dispute the Harvard study, by providing a plausible explanation for the un-patented paints:

We still don’t know exactly what Herbert Matter meant when he identified the works as having been done with “Robi paints.” Presumably this refers to his brother-in-law Robi Rebetez who owned a famous art supply store in Basel and supplied materials to the Matters. (Although his daughters told Harvard that Robi didn’t ship to the US, they were too young to know. I have interviewed an older family member–also an artist– who has confirmed that the Matters did regularly obtain art supplies from Robi.) We are planning to do further research in Switzerland on patent dates for pigments there. Just because a pigment wasn’t patented in the USA, doesn’t mean that it was not available in Switzerland or Germany. We don’t know the answer to that yet.

They then follow up with a counter argument based in old school art history UNDENIABLE influence theory.

Stylistically, these works relate very closely to techniques Pollock learned from working at Atelier 17 with Stanley William Hayter and, more importantly, they reflect as well the impact of Herbert Matter’s technical experimentation which no one else could have experienced.
Based on Alex Matter’s finding this package, I have done extensive research in Herbert Matter’s Archives at Stanford which has clearly uncovered the fact that Matter’s action photography influenced Pollock’s development of the concept of action painting. This is the topic of the exhibition I am curating for the McMullen Museum. This is the first new information on Pollock’s sources in two generations of scholarship.

Furthermore Harvard hasn’t been the only institution looking at the collection. In fact, these pictures seem to be undergoing more testing than a NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND 5th grader. The IHT story tells us:

Recently the foundation learned that Matter had commissioned a forensic scientist, James Martin, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to conduct an extensive chemical analysis of many more of the paintings. But Martin has yet to release the results of the study, completed last fall.

Apparently, Martin had been threatened with legal action by Matter’s lawyer if he released his results. He wrote a long email to the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Martin wrote in his e-mails that he performed more than 350 analyses on 23 of the works. His analysis was far more extensive than the Harvard study, which examined only three paintings.

Martin’s e-mail said that the Harvard analysis, launched by mutual agreement between Harvard, Matter and Borghi, focused on three of the same paintings he also studied and was concurrent with his. He also said it seemed “reasonable and prudent” to wait for its completion before releasing his results.

“Now that their results are in, one has to question why all the results are not being released,” he said by phone Thursday.

Martin’s e-mails didn’t say specifically whether his results agreed with the Harvard analysis, but they suggested that both the Harvard study and an upcoming analysis of four paintings, to be conducted by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, would support his conclusions.

“I am delighted that colleagues at Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston are confirming Orion’s findings,” he wrote.

Oh yeah, and to plop more confusion on to this canvas, you may notice the CPD refers to Matter’s art dealer as Mark Borghi (not Ronald Feldman???).

Finally, in what must be one of the more entertaining examples of scientific over-reaching, the study of fractals has now latched on to Pollock’s oeuvre, and now the geeks have trained their computers on these suspect works in order to determine their authenticity. Oregon physicist, Richard Taylor, who’s made a career out this obtuse field claimed that he could de-authenticate these works because of their faulty fractals. Case Western Reserve physicists (remember its mostly known as an engineering college) came to the rescue of their beleaguered art historian, and published a counter attack on Taylor in the journal Nature. One of the scientists:

quickly and crudely sketched a field of stars in the manner of a 3-year-old’s scribble. She subjected the drawing, which she called “Untitled 5,” to the kind of analysis Taylor used. The screening indicated that “Untitled 5” contained a complex fractal, one that Taylor contends only the highly skilled Pollock was consistently able to produce.

Which can only lead us to conclude that the scientist must have been as drunk as Jack usually was.

Possible Pollocks are quietly being sold [IHT]

4 Responses to Suspect drips already flipped

  1. […] would usually have final word on the authenticity of a painter’s works. Witness the current Pollack locker painting dispute. And Schoenberg is rightly anticipating Weidinger’s opinion on provenance will equally hold […]

  2. c. shaw says:

    Clearly art authentication is in a state of flux, especially with the increasing use of scientific analysis. Traditionally, the catalogue raisonne authors, in this case, Thaw and O’Connor, would have final word on the authenticity of a painter’s works. Since they are rejecting the Matter paintings and scientific analysis concurs, doesn’t this lay the matter to rest, at least legally?
    Or, given that Landau has put her own expertise on the line, combined with the Pollack/Matter show and accompanying book published by Abrams (albeit with disclaimers) carry enough weight to give these paintings viability?
    Some writers assert that the Pollack/Matters show gives credence to the authenticity of the paintings. For instance, Greg Cook, of the The Phoenix notes that “ in the chronology at the back of the catalogue, meanwhile, the “Pollocks” have been magically authenticated: “1958: Herbert wraps Jackson’s experimental works made at Tudor City and packs them away at [his space at] MacDougal Alley” (
    In the fray (the realm of “concentration,” – to borrow from your Rembrandt project paper), when scientific analysis undercuts the connoisseurship of an art historian, as in this situation, do the paintings remain forever in art-market purgatory?

  3. dzseff says:

    Exactly, C.Shaw. Normally a catalogue raisonne would lay the matter to rest, and would, legally speaking, be the final authority. But Landau has published an awfully authoritative monograph on Pollock, and in truth few libraries stock the catalogue raisonne, and many more, like the one I use in Budapest, will have Landau’s book. And so, in reality, her version of the oeuvre is going to reach a lot more people. About paintings remaining in purgatory…yes, I think they will. Pollocks can only achieve their current Super Prices if they are absolutely unquestioned. What will most likely happen to these paintings is that the market will act with trepidation and the works will sell at dramatically lower value to speculators willing to gamble that their bargain purchase is hopefully not worthless, and possibly worth a lot more.

  4. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Villainousness!!

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