Even as Exhibit Opens, Pollock Controversy Simmers
Saturday, September 01, 2007
By: Steven Litt, Plain Dealer Art Critic
Real or not? That's the question about a trove of hitherto-unknown works attributed to Jackson Pollock by Case Western Reserve University art historian Ellen Landau two years ago.
An exhibition opening today at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College will be the first public opportunity to view the controversial works. The show will include about 20 paintings in Pollock's characteristic drip-and-splatter style, which are smaller than usual for the artist, who liked to work big. If authentic, they would be worth millions of dollars to their owner, Alex Matter, a New York filmmaker whose father, artist and graphic designer Herbert Matter, was a close friend of Pollock's.
If not, the paintings raise fascinating questions about who made them and how they ended up in a Long Island, N.Y., storage unit belonging to Herbert Matter, which is where Alex Matter said he discovered them in late 2002. A note in Herbert Matter's handwriting on a brown paper bundle said the 32 paintings and studies inside were experimental works by Pollock.
Landau said she still believes the evidence points to authenticity. But her attribution came under serious fire last January, when a Harvard University study showed that three of the paintings contained pigments and binding agents that were not available during Pollock's lifetime. Landau said she didn't consider the study conclusive. But she changed the focus of her exhibition at the McMullen to emphasize her research on the relationship between Herbert Matter and Pollock -- not the newly discovered works. The exhibition itself will raise new concerns about authenticity. A scientist who contributed an essay to the exhibition's catalog -- which won't be released until today -- has serious doubts about the paintings.
Richard Newman, head of scientific research at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, said in an interview published in Boston College Magazine this month that, based on the nine works he examined, "It's pretty certain that a fair number of them couldn't have been done by Pollock." Nevertheless, he wouldn't dismiss all of the paintings. (The article is available at http://bcm.bc.edu. Landau declined to comment.) The question of attribution has been complicated by the fact that New York art dealer Ronald Feldman bought some of the paintings from Matter, giving Feldman a financial interest in their authenticity. The Boston College show, meanwhile, also raises questions about whether the owners of artworks can stifle academic debate.
A press release from the McMullen quotes director Nancy Netzer as saying that the exhibition will "present to the public the known evidence concerning the attribution of the newly discovered artworks." But the show's catalog will not include an essay by James Martin of Williamstown, Mass., a widely respected forensic scientist specializing in cultural property, who has performed the most extensive analyses of the Pollock-Matter artworks.
Martin, who first revealed the existence of his research in February to The Plain Dealer, said that Mark Borghi, Matter's art dealer, hired him in 2005 and that he performed more than 350 analyses on 23 paintings. Martin said that even though his contract gives him the right to go public with his findings, he hasn't done so because he's afraid Alex Matter will sue him. Matter's lawyer, Jeremy Epstein, has denied threatening Martin. But in an interview last February, Matter called the issue of a lawsuit "very negotiable," suggesting the threat is real.
The McMullen invited Martin this spring to contribute an essay to the exhibition catalog. Museum director Netzer said in an e-mail that because Martin performed his work for Borghi and Matter, he had to get their permission to publish. Martin's lawyer, Stanley Parese, said Epstein proposed an agreement that would have prohibited Martin from speaking about his work both before and after publication. The college asked other contributors only to remain silent before publication. Parese also said Martin would have had to give up rights in his original contract with Borghi. "As a scientist and a scholar, Martin was not willing to have the owners of the paintings dictate the terms under which he would participate in a scholarly publication," Parese said. "He refused to agree that his analysis would be limited solely to the printed pages of the catalog -- not only up to the time of publication -- but forever." Mark Gottsegen, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who collaborated with Martin but who hasn't seen Martin's results, said it was "absolutely unconscionable" that Boston College would allow a scientist to be silenced after publishing an article. Netzer and Landau declined to comment. Epstein did not return calls to his office. While Martin doesn't feel free to speak, Newman said in the magazine article that his catalog essay would refer to Martin's work. Other scholars may want to check that reference, leading them back to Martin. When asked how he would respond, Martin declined to comment.
The exhibition is likely to shed new light on the relationship between Herbert Matter and Pollock, and expand the debate over the mysterious paintings brought forward by Alex Matter. It may also illuminate the pressures on a scientist whose research is still under wraps.