Saturday, September 08, 2007

Harvard report contradicts Alex Matter’s account of “Pollock” damage

Painting not scratched by cat, scientist says

A Harvard examination of one of the disputed Alex Matter “Pollocks” found that a painting that Matter had reported was damaged by a cat appeared to have actually been “scored with a sharp tool.”

“It was a tool, it wasn’t, as far as we were concerned, a cat nail,” Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation, tells The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. “A cat’s claw goes in and then rips out … It pokes in and then it pulls out.” In the damage to the Matter painting, Khandekar says, “You can see a raised burr on either side of the incision, and they’re straight lines.”

The finding was described on page 2 of Harvard’s Jan. 29 report on the Alex Matter paintings, but has been little noticed. It seems to contradict Alex Matter’s description of how the painting (pictured above) was damaged.

“One finished composition from the package [was] destroyed by the clawing of a cat after its restoration. … Restorer Franco Lissi attempted unsuccessfully to paste its pieces back together,” Pollock scholar Ellen Landau wrote of the work in footnote 85 on page 52 of the catalogue to “Pollock Matters,” the current exhibition at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.

An unsigned essay on page 160 of the catalogue says “it was damaged by a cat while propped on a bookcase in Alex Matter’s apartment.” Khandekar says Alex Matter told him that he left a cat alone in his apartment for four days and when he returned the cat had cut up the painting (identified as MBJP29 in the Harvard report and as figure 2 on page 160 of catalogue).

Landau, McMullen director Nancy Netzer and Robin Zucker of Zucker Public Relations, a New York-based publicist for Landau and Matter, did not respond to emails requesting comment. The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research is also trying to contact the art conservator. An email was sent to art conservator Franco Lisi (note just one “s” in Lisi, not two as reported in the catalogue, though this seems to be the right guy), but no response has yet been received.

Landau criticized Harvard’s materials analysis in a Jan. 29 online essay: “Harvard's analysis of the destroyed painting is highly problematic since the work was basically reconstructed from bits and pieces after an animal attacked it … See below for comparative images of what the painting actually looked like subsequent to [Lissi’s] initial conservation and then after damage repair – the colors are not even the same.” Here, the before picture is at left, and at top is the after picture, which is how the painting looked when the Harvard team studied it, as is apparent from a photo on page 13 of their report.

Asked whether a conservator could have accidentally done the scoring with a sharp tool, Khandekar says scalpels are used to take samples, but the cuts made to MBJP29 were as severe as if it had been used as a cutting board, “and you’d have to do that accidentally.”

Update: Mark Borghi of Mark Borghi Fine Art, which has represented the estate of Mercedes Matter and been involved with the Alex Matter “Pollocks,” responded Sunday night, saying he made the cuts to the "Pollock":
After the work was destroyed by the cat, Franco "reconstructed" the painting. He was ONLY supposed to stabilize the works. He was never told to reconstruct paint loses. When I received the work in the reconstructed state I was very upset and was able to partially remove Franco's restoration with an exacto knife. This is the "scalpel" effect that Narayan is talking about. This was told to Harry Copper and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro from the Fogg in 2005 when they came to see the paintings. I also told Narayn to ignore this work as it had been completely damaged/restored.
Borghi also forwarded a message that he says he emailed to Khandekar:
After the cat destroyed the work in question, it was given to Franco Lissi to see if he could put any of the work back together. When the painting was returned to Alex, it had been completely repainted by Lissi. I removed some of the repaint with an exacto knife to give an idea of the original condition.

This information was provided to Harry Cooper and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro when they came to NY to see the works in 2005. Based on what Cook reports you said to him, I'm guessing that they did not share this information with you. Both Harry and Carol were told that this work was totally repainted and that testing its paint would be of little value. Of course Mr. Lissi can also confirm the damage done to the painting as he cleaned it in its original state and did the “restoration” as well.

Friday, September 07, 2007

“Pollock Matters” at Boston College

Here’s the opening from my review of “Pollock Matters” at Boston College, which presents more than 20 disputed "Jackson Pollocks," and also assembles more than 170 artworks and ephemera to make the groundbreaking argument that the photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter was a key inspiration for Pollock’s signature poured paintings.
In 2002, the year after his mother died, as Alex Matter tells it, he found a brown paper package in his father’s storage locker on Long Island. Inside was a pile of small paintings that resembled the work of Jackson Pollock. A note on the outside said that’s just what they were.

Matter’s account is plausible. His parents hung out frequently with Pollock and Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, at their homes and studios on Manhattan and Long Island. Alex’s father, Herbert, who died in 1984, was said to be making small purchases of Pollocks by 1944. Alex Matter reported that though some paintings had disintegrated inside the package, 28 had survived. He added that he’d found six more Pollock-style paintings among his dad’s effects.

The note, said to be in Herbert’s hand, identified the hoard as “Pollock (1946-49)/Tudor City (1940-1949)/32 Jackson experimental/works (gift + purchase)/ Bad condition./ 4 both sides. All/drawing boards./Robi paints./MacDougal Alley 1958.” If they really are Pollocks from 1946 to 1949, they represent Pollock very early in the development of his drip technique, when he was experimenting in the run-up to his breakthrough poured paintings of 1947. It was an astonishing find, one that could be worth millions. So people began asking questions.

Read the rest here.

“Pollock Matters,” McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Sept. 1 to Dec. 9, 2007.

I’ve already written extensively on the debate surrounding the authenticity of these paintings. If you're curious, try starting here.

Pictured from top to bottom: Herbert Matter’s 1948 photo of Alex and Mercedes Matter, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock hanging out on Long Island; and a painting dubbed “Untitled No. 2” that Alex Matter says he found in a group of Pollock-style paintings in his father’s effects in 2002.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Check it out: Jim Drain

Fort Thunder alum Jim Drain’s second New York solo exhibition is up at Greene Naftali Gallery. The show appears to be some crazy meditation on Iggy Pop (“his animalistic energy and pop cliché”) in sculptures, collages, photographs, a net, wallpaper and “toilet seat furniture.”

Drain, who now lives in Miami, produced amazing posters, comics and costumes while in Providence. He has since won acclaim for his psychedelic-tribal-style knit, sewn and beaded abstract sculptures. For the RISD Museum’s “Wunderground” exhibit last year, he produced "Vertical Faces with Sculpture and Totem Pole," a beaded zigzag-striped shrine-installation incorporating a century-old Native American totem pole from the museum's collection.

In this new show, Greene Naftali’s highfalutin’ press release explains, “Drain continues his merger of psychedelic formalism with the irreverent critique of pop culture common to subcultural art. By pushing these styles to their extremes, he denotes the hallucinogenic character of the international consumer world and its affect on human bodies.”

Jim Drain, “I Would Gnaw On My Hand,” Greene Naftali Gallery, 508 West 26th St., New York, Sept. 4 to Oct. 13, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “iii open iii closed,” 2007, mixed media sculpture, and two untitled 2007 collages.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fitz Henry Lane used camera lucida?

Among the new research on Fitz Henry Lane that has appeared in the past few years is a report from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that the 19th century Gloucester marine painter may have used a lens known as a camera lucida to sketch a Gloucester scene and then transfer that sketch to his canvas when creating his 1862 oil painting “View of Coffin’s Beach” (above). This could explain some of the precision of both his drawings and paintings.

“We noticed there seemed to be this wavering back and forth between drawings that seemed to be freehand and those that seemed to be mechanical,” says Karen Quinn, an assistant curator of paintings at the MFA, who was assisted in the study by MFA conservators Jean Woodward and Sanda Kelberlau.

By “mechanical,” Quinn means that Lane's drawing has the quality of something traced with the aid of some sort of helping device. The camera lucida is a prism that attaches to a table or board with a metal arm. Looking through the lens the scene seems to be transposed upon the paper or canvas on your table. The artist then can “trace” the scene.

The MFA team tracked down Lane’s sketch of the scene in the collection of Gloucester’s Cape Ann Historical Museum and then headed out to the site of Lane’s painting. On the back of the painting, which is in the MFA’s collection, is a notation: “View of Coffin's beach, from the rocks at/the Loaf, after a sketch taken, August, 1862./by Fitz H. Lane.”

“We actually did drawings with a camera lucida from the same site that Lane did his drawings from … and then we did measurements against the Lane drawing. And they actually lined up very closely,” Quinn tells me. They found the sketches were nearly the same width and the outlines of the shore opposite matched.

She says Lane seems to have used the camera lucida to sketch in the contours and placement of the shoreline and rock formations, then he drew in details and shading freehand.

Other clues include an infrared reflectography scan of Lane’s canvas, which revealed underdrawing that matches very closely to Lane’s pencil sketch, but about twice as large. They also found matching vertical marks on the drawing and painting that Lane may have used to help line up the drawing as he transferred it part by part to the canvas.

“We think he did use a camera lucida,” Quinn says. “It’s something that’s easily portable. It’s a drawing aide. It doesn’t create the final work of art. It’s like Thomas Eakins using photography” as a reference for his works.

They announced their findings in an article in the July 2006 issue of The Magazine Antiques:
Although the relationship between the underdrawing and the finished painting is close, Lane made subtle but significant changes. He smoothed over details such as the tops of the trees in the background, and he nearly tripled the expanse of the sky, accentuating the horizontal format and emphasizing the expansiveness of the composition and the sense of emptiness in the finished oil.

The camera lucida captures only stationary elements. Neither the original sketch nor the transferred underdrawing include any of the transitory elements in the final work: the sailboat, waves, clouds, or light and its effect on color. Lane painted these directly after laying in the ocean and sky. For the dawn light, he applied thin layers of paint and blended them on the canvas to create the imperceptible transitions from salmon pink to blue in the glowing color of the early morning sky. Along with the careful refinement of the composition, it is Lane's exploration of light and color that transforms his topographical study into a work of art.
They haven’t discerned how many years Lane may have used the camera lucida, or when he began.

Their findings fit into the growing study by folks like Oxford historian Martin Kemp, and popularized by California painter David Hockney, of whether artists used optical aides to make their work – perhaps as early as the Renaissance.

Quinn says they don’t know how common the use of lenses was among 19th century American painters, though there’s evidence suggesting that Philadelphia’s Titian Ramsay Peale (son of Charles Willson Peale) and Massachusetts painter Alvan Clark (who later developed optical devices) perhaps did.

“It certainly gives us a sense of their process as well,” Quinn says. “And in many cases some of them were interested in new scientific aides that could be used,” including new pigments and optics.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Big Red blogs

We’d like to offer a great warm welcome to Big Red & Shiny’s blog. Especially since in their announcement they go out of their way to compliment The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research thusly:
Blogs are a dime a dozen. … Is there a need for an arts blog, especially one based in Boston? There are other blogs that talk about the arts here. They serve a purpose, ones that we are not diametrically opposed to.
Hey, it’s not much, but we’ll take whatever compliments we can scrape up.

Related: Man willing to part with personalized original Greg Cook drawing on eBay for only 99 cents, plus $3.50 shipping. Act now. The bidding is only open through Sept. 10.

Readings: Koch’s wine, Dada

Bill Koch’s wine: Bill Koch, the “tycoon” whose collection was honored by the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s 2005 exhibit “Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch,” is the subject of Patrick Radden Keefe's great who-done-it in last week’s New Yorker. It addresses Koch's expensive investigation into the provenance of four bottles of wine he bought in 1988 that were said to have once belonged to Thomas Jefferson:
Koch’s collection of art and antiques is valued at several hundred million dollars, and in 2005 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts prepared an exhibition of many of his possessions. Koch’s staff began tracking down the provenance of the four Jefferson bottles, and found that, apart from Broadbent’s authentication of the Forbes bottle, they had nothing on file. Seeking historical corroboration, they approached the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several days later, Monticello’s curator, Susan Stein, telephoned. “We don’t believe those bottles ever belonged to Thomas Jefferson,” she said.
What’s particularly interesting (as Narayan Khandekar kindly pointed out to me) are the similarities between this case and the disputed “Pollock” paintings that went on view in Boston College’s “Pollock Matters” exhibit on Saturday.

Dada on Wikipedia: From The Onion's report "Hard to tell if Wikipedia entry on Dada has been vandalized or not":
"This is either totally messed up or completely accurate," said Reed College art history major Ted Brendon. "There's a mustache drawn on the photo of Marcel Duchamp, the font size keeps changing, and halfway through, the type starts going in a circle."

Clark@Mass MoCA

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown announced last Wednesday that it had arranged a 20-year lease of 29,000 square feet of building space at Mass MoCA in nearby North Adams. The Clark’s press release explains: “The area includes a prominent building facing the entrance to the MASS MoCA campus and will include public exhibition space as well as storage for part of the Clark’s art collections, library, and archives.”

They plan to open “Clark@MASS MoCA” in 2011. The move is part of the Clark’s ongoing expansion and renovation: “The master plan includes two new buildings on the Clark’s campus designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Tadao Ando: Stone Hill Center opens June 2008, and an exhibition, visitor and conference center is scheduled to open in 2013. The original museum building and the Manton Research Center are being renovated by Annabelle Selldorf and will also be completed in 2013.”

“Coming shortly after our recently announced collaboration with Yale University Art Gallery on a long-term installation of Sol LeWitts’ wall drawings,” Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson said in the press release. “MASS MoCA is no longer a single cultural institution but a multiplicity of public art and educational assets.”

The Globe’s Geoff Edgers reports on the deal here. "We now operate 120,000 square feet of gallery space," Thompson told Edgers. "We have all that we can handle. I'm not keen to expand that. I am keen to use the Yale and Clark model to find ways to build more public gallery space through more collaborations."

By the bye: Mass MoCA seems to have begun a blog in July. It is still very much a work in progress.

Update: Addison Gallery expansion

A publicist for the Addison Gallery emails: “The Addison will close in July 2008 for renovation of our historic Platt building and expansion with reopening scheduled for 2010. During the time we are closed, some of our greatest masterworks will be traveling in our show ‘Coming of Age: 1850s to 1950s,’” with stops in Dallas, London, Venice and Fort Lauderdale.

This confirms my previous report. More details to come.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Update: “Pollocks”

Newly released information from two studies of a set of disputed “Jackson Pollock” paintings says that 17 of the 26 paintings studied so far contain materials that were patented after Pollock’s death. These paintings come from a cache of 34 done in Pollock’s style that the son of a Pollock friend, Alex Matter, says he found among his late father’s effects in 2002.

The findings were reported in the catalogue for the exhibit “Pollock Matters,” which opened at Boston College Saturday. Organizer Ellen Landau, a Pollock scholar at Case Western Reserve University, in collaboration with Boston College art historian Claude Cernuschi, has assembled more than 170 artworks and ephemera to make the groundbreaking argument that Matter’s father, the designer and photographer Herber Matter, was a key inspiration for Pollock’s signature poured paintings.

Three groups of scientists have now studied the “Pollocks” to date their materials based on when they were patented. The exhibition catalogue reports that the Williamstown firm Orion Analytical (whose findings have not been fully released) found that 16 of 23 Alex Matter paintings contained materials patented after Pollock died when he flipped his convertible near his Long Island home in 1956. The catalogue adds that scientists led by Richard Newman at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts studied six of the same paintings and concurred. They found one of three previously unexamined paintings included a red pigment patented by the Swiss firm “Ciba-Geigy in 1983 and apparently not introduced into the market until a few years later.” These studies corroborate a Harvard study released Jan. 29 that examined three of the same paintings Orion did and found that all of them contained materials patented after Pollock’s death.

Landau and Cernuschi write in the catalogue’s introduction that “the science of identifying and dating pigments … is not as hard and fast as if often assumed.” They argue that the patent reference books used to date the paintings may be inaccurate or incomplete. They add that the paints may have been custom or experimental paints from Herbert Matter’s brother-in-law’s art supplies shop in Switzerland and so may not appear even in good reference texts.

I hope get into more details over the coming week.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in background, I’ve already reported extensively on the Harvard study and debate surrounding these paintings. Try starting with this link.

“Pollock Matters,” McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Sept. 1 to Dec. 9, 2007.