'Pollock' divides the old and new
Modern techniques attribute disputed artwork to painter, reigniting a row with traditionalists over the best way to determine authenticity
For nearly 60 years, a small painting with swirls and splotches of red, black and silver has stood as a symbol of enmity between Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock's widow, and Ruth Kligman, his lover.
Until her death, in 2010, Kligman, herself an artist, insisted the painting was a love letter to her created by Pollock in the summer of 1956, just weeks before he died in a car crash. But the painting was rejected by an expert panel set up to authenticate and catalogue Pollock's works by a foundation established by Krasner.
This month, it seemed the dispute that outlived both women might finally be settled. Kligman's estate announced that forensic tests comparing samples from the shoes Pollock died in, his rugs and his backyard had linked the painting with Pollock and his home.
But instead of resolving one dispute, the findings only reignited another, one that pits traditional ways of determining whether a work is genuine against newer technologies.
On one side stands Francis O'Connor, a stately "old world-style" connoisseur with a beard and curled moustache, who believes erudition and a practiced eye are essential to judging authenticity. O'Connor, a co-editor of the definitive Pollock catalogue and a member of the now-disbanded Pollock-Krasner Foundation authentication committee, said Red, Black and Silver did not look like a Pollock.
On the other side is Nicholas Petraco, a retired New York detective who investigated at the request of the Kligman estate. Approaching the canvas as if it were a crime scene, Petraco said he had no doubt the painting was made at the Pollock house and was linked to Pollock.
As technology advances, the art world has turned to microscopic analysis to verify or challenge the judgments of a tiny club of experts whose opinions have long been treated as law.
In this case, the difference of opinion could be worth millions. Unauthenticated, Red, Black and Silver would be listed as "attributed to Pollock" and carry an estimate of no more than US$50,000, said Patricia Hambrecht, chief business development officer at Phillips auction house, where the painting is consigned. If judged a Pollock, the painting's estimated value would soar to seven figures, she said.
Kligman's account of the painting dates to the summer of 1956 when she was 26 and living in Pollock's house in East Hampton, New York after Krasner, having caught the lovers together, sailed for Europe.
Pollock was in an alcoholic haze and had not painted in two years. As Kligman detailed in a new introduction to the 1999 edition of her memoir, Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, the artist was on the lawn when she brought him his paint and the sticks he used. After he finished, he said: "Here's your painting, your very own Pollock."
Despite what was shown on television crime shows, hairs and threads could not be traced to a specific individual or sweater, Petraco said.
What built a forensic case was not any single piece of evidence but a combination of consistent factors. In this case, Petraco said the clincher was discovering a polar bear hair, a rare find in a country that has banned the import of polar bear products for more than 40 years.
A polar bear rug that had adorned the living room floor in 1956 was still in the East Hampton attic.
In O'Connor's view, "the Kligman work is in limbo with respect to authenticity".
Whether it remains that way is an open question. After all, precisely what happened between two people, now dead, who were alone on a summer afternoon in an East Hampton yard 57 years ago may ultimately be beyond science or connoisseurship.