While Echo was the first treatment carried out by the MoMA conservation department, documentation, analysis and restoration of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 followed. One is representative of what colloquially would be known as Jackson Pollock’s most distinctive style. The massive canvas is layered with paint applied through splatters, drips, even punctured painting cans as James Coddington suggests.
From my personal experience seeing the work installed on MoMA’s wall, the paint appears to hover before the canvas making a net between viewer and stretch fabric. What struck me most about the piece was that rather than moving into the pictorial space, Pollock’s action painting seems to sit above the canvas, obscuring entry into the represented world. What I didn’t know when looking at Pollock’s One back in 2013 is that the painting had recently undergone a conservation treatment that comprised cleaning and the removal of overpainting from the 1960’s.
One of the works to be brought back into the conservation studio for the Jackson Pollock Project, Echo: Number 25, 1951 was subject to careful scrutiny and eventually subject to a restoration treatment.
Echo features an all-over working of the canvas wherein Pollock allows for an analysis of both the mark making techniques and the use of the bare canvas. Conservators noted that there was increased yellowing at the top of the canvas that had probably resulted from museum display with strong lights coming from above. Along with a thorough dusting of the work, treatment involved the use of solvents to remove a very, very thin layer of the canvas so as to even out the coloring of the work.
Also in the treatment of Echo, there was a danger that the acidic wood of the frame would start to come through to the front of the work. So, conservators removed it from its frame, added an inert plastic wrapping to the wood, and then re-stretched the canvas on the original frame. There is a strong comparison between this treatment of Echo and the removal of Erased’s acid mount. Here, I think the notable difference between the two instances of conservation is the volition of the artist. Rauschenberg brought his work into a New York conservation studio for treatment, while Echo’s treatment happened in the context of a museum’s conservation department. Conservators determined that the yellowing at the canvas’ top needed to be corrected because it distracted from the work that Pollock did on the canvas. The warp of time did not match how the conservators determined the object should look within the museum’s collection.
 Jennifer Hickey, “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project, Post 3: Documentation and Treatment,” Inside/Out, Modern Museum of Art, October 2, 2012.
In the following video, Getty conservators discuss how their analysis of Pollock’s Mural challenges the origin story behind the work provided by Lee Krasner and Peggy Guggenheim. Like Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, the narrative behind the artwork’s making carries weight in its reception. The story goes that after a bout of painter’s block, Pollock was struck with inspiration and painted Mural in one night.
Looking at how paint is layered in the art object, conservators determined that while some of the painting was painted wet-into-wet, other layers of oil paint sit on top of each other unmixed. These unmixed layers require that the bottom layer is dry first- a process that can take days with oil paints like those which appear in parts of Mural.
What we are left with is two processes by which the painting was made, the historical one propagated by the artist- and surrounding audience- and the conservator’s analysis.
These two conflicting origin stories constitute an instance of iconoclashing. But I think in their juxtaposition, we begin to appreciate Pollock’s painting process, and the resulting artwork, as more than an instance of artistic genius. The added consideration for a prolonged time of making put up against the narrative of instantaneous making, reveals how Pollock, Krasner, and Peggy Guggenheim were reacting to the art world at the time. This type of study on the part of conservators, is the source for a re-exmination of how we treat the figure of the artist and how we can re-examine the interplay between maker, object, and environment: something which was done at the Getty’s conference following their display of the conserved Mural.
In an interview conducted for the MoMA magazine James Coddington, Chief Conservator and co-author of all of the posts on the Jackson Pollock project, sits down with Anna Hammond, Editor-in-Chief of the Museum’s magazine. Hammond starts with the issue of intentionality and process as they are addressed in Pollock’s paintings. Coddington’s responses reveal the efforts on the part of the conservator to re-frame broad, immaterial issues into a discussion of materials and process. As seen in the interview, art conservators sit at the nexus of reading the artists’ process from material paint and developing an understanding of the actions of the artist through the record left behind embedded in the material.
Present in Coddington’s considerations of Jackson Pollock’s intentions are historical sources of information- like the Jose Gutierrez’s book From Frescos to Plastics which professed the durability of enamel paints back in 1956. Also present in his discussion of the artist’s studio and the choices made by Pollock is a visualization of the artist’s studio space preserved by photographer Han Namuth.
These structures of studying the art objects from the collection meet up with considerations of the art work. For more of my thoughts on the art object | art work distinction look this way.
For more discussion on the interview and what happens when the art object mis-matches with its origin story, see here.