James Coddington, left, chief conservator of the Museum of Modern Art, gained a new perspective on Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950” at the museum’s conservation lab.
By CAROL VOGEL
Published: May 27, 2013
“Jackson Pollock’s unconventional working methods — spreading a piece of unstretched, unprimed canvas on the floor of his Long Island studio and then pouring, splattering and literally flinging industrial paints across its surface — have long been part of his myth, performance art executed without an audience.
“On the floor I am more at ease,” he once wrote. “I feel nearer, more part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”
During his lifetime Pollock was famously photographed creating these seminal works, known as drip or action paintings. His process and his canvases have been so extensively studied that it would seem there could be nothing else to learn. Yet a 10-month examination and restoration of his “One: Number 31, 1950,” by conservators at the Museum of Modern Art, have produced new insights about how the artist worked. The conservators also revealed a mysterious missing chapter in the painting’s history.
Restoring “One” has been on MoMA’s to-do list since 1998 when the work — often called a masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism — was featured in a retrospective. Seen in the context of paintings from the same period, “One” showed its age, with its canvas yellowing and years of dirt and dust in its crevices.
But it wasn’t until last July that work finally started. And almost a year later, on Tuesday, “One” will be rehung in its place on the museum’s fourth floor, considerably cleaner and its conservators a bit wiser.
The process began, as most restorations do, with a feather dusting. From there, James Coddington, chief conservator, and Jennifer Hickey, project assistant conservator, began to tackle the decades of grime covering the large painting, which is 9 feet high by 17 ½ feet across. They used sponges, moist erasers and cotton-tipped swabs soaked in water and a gentle, pH-adjusted solution.
Pollock’s drip paintings are complex, highly textured compositions with multiple coats of dripped and poured paint. In some areas paint is applied so thinly it seems to just stain the canvas. In others the paint is denser, with colors blending, swirling and bleeding together. There are also places where the paint has a smooth, glossy surface, and places where Pollock applied paint so thickly that it dried like curdled milk, with a puckered, wrinkled surface.
But when the conservators started to study these layers with X-rays and ultraviolet lights, certain portions of the canvas didn’t resemble Pollock’s style of painting at all. The texture was different, suggesting repetitive brush strokes not seen elsewhere in his work.
Another kind of paint was used in these areas too, one that “didn’t have the typical characteristics of poured house paint that we know Pollock used,” Mr. Coddington explained. The style of painting, he said, had a kind of “fussiness that has nothing to do with the way Pollock applied paint.”
He and Ms. Hickey then took microscopic paint samples from various parts of the canvas. They found household enamel paint known to have been used by Pollock, but they also discovered a synthetic resin that Pollock was not known to have used.
How had it gotten there? Records showed that nobody at the museum had touched the painting since it entered MoMA’s collection in 1968. And there was no evidence that it had been restored before coming to MoMA.
Museum officials did know that “One” had once belonged to Ben Heller, a dealer and a close friend of Pollock’s. The painting had also been in a traveling exhibition in the early 1960s. When they began researching that show they unearthed crucial evidence: a photograph taken in 1962 by a scholar in Portland, Ore., revealed that the painting had none of the questionable, uncharacteristic areas they had discovered.
“That meant they were added after 1962,” Mr. Coddington said. “And since Pollock died in 1956, those photographs confirmed they were put there after his death.” It is still unclear, however, who added them and why.
“We presumed it was to cover up some damage, but we didn’t know how extensive it was,” he said. Studying these areas with an ultraviolet light, the conservator saw small cracks below the surface of the paint. Presumably the later painting was an attempt to cover the cracks, perhaps to make the painting more salable.
That wasn’t the only surprise. When examining the painting with scholars and curators it became clear that some of the brown drips in the center and bottom of the canvas could not have been painted while “One” was on the floor. “They’re vertical drips,” Mr. Coddington said of the downward trickles of paint.
They then examined photographs of Pollock in his studio taken by Hans Namuth, who photographed many artists, and these showed how Pollock hung paintings toward the end of their creation. “They’re like final edits applied late in the game,” Mr. Coddington said of the downward drips. “They showed that the artist was not just looking at these paintings as the big gestural achievements that they appeared to be.”
To Mr. Coddington this indicated that these canvases “were really carefully conceived compositions.” Pollock he said, “looked at these paintings with a level of detail that was so great even we can’t understand it.”
Once they felt confident about Pollock’s original intentions, Mr. Coddington and Ms. Hickey painstakingly removed the paint that was applied after Pollock’s death. But they also made sure to preserve certain quirks in the painting, like a fly, still intact, stuck in the right-hand corner and tiny blobs of pink paint that they believe landed on the canvas by accident; there is no pink anywhere else in the composition.
When the cleaning was complete and the extra paint removed, the white and black underneath suddenly became visibly sharper, and fine, spiderlike skeins of paint appeared “like strands of silk,” Ms. Hickey said. So did more pronounced areas that almost look marbleized.
Toward the end of the restoration there was one final step: the conservator wanted to put the painting flat on the floor to “see it as Pollock did,” Mr. Coddington explained.
On an early May afternoon, three art handlers, two curators and the two conservators gathered as the giant painting was taken off the wall of the conservation studio and gently placed on the floor.
Not only did the canvas suddenly appear smaller, more human in scale, but Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, pointed out that when looking at the canvas on the floor, it was possible to see the rhythm Pollock created with areas of bare canvas where the eye could rest before taking in the complex, layered ribbons of paint. “Now that it’s been cleaned, the white and the black are far more pronounced,” she said. “There’s more electricity.”
Only when it was on the floor did Mr. Coddington discover what he described as “toasty” areas, darker portions deep in the middle of the canvas that still need to be cleaned. “We have to see how it looks upright first,” he said. “That’s how it’s seen.”
He added, “The point is to bring it back as close as we can to how it was when it left the studio.”