It’s a good time to be studying and working on Jackson Pollock’s paintings. With projects also underway at the Seattle Art Museum and The J. Paul Getty Museum, Pollock’s materials and technique are being studied in several conservation studios. The concurrent research provides a great opportunity to share observations and ideas.
Here at MoMA, we’re focused on One: Number 31, 1950. Pollock painted One during the summer of 1950 while at the height of his productivity and, thanks to a spread that appeared in the August 1949 issue of LIFE Magazine, he was already gaining notoriety beyond the New York City art scene. Now an anchor of MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist holdings, One is a powerful example of Pollock’s monumental pour paintings.
As you’ll recall from previous posts, conservators follow standard assessment procedures to develop a well-informed protocol for treating an artwork, and, during each stage of treatment, they document the actions taken and the motivations behind the treatment steps. Methodologically, therefore, we approached the big painting much as we did Echo.
First, we recorded One’s current state of preservation and spent time looking closely at the painting. The sum of these observations is crucial in defining and prioritizing preservation problems that we’ll address over the next few months:
As with Echo, we see some differential discoloration of the canvas in One, the top foot of the picture having yellowed to a somewhat greater degree than the rest. While the discoloration appears to be very similar to what we saw on Echo, we can’t assume that the treatment will proceed identically. A successful treatment approach in one instance (for example, water swabbed and blotted on Echo’s surface) may not produce the same effect on another painting, even with seemingly identical materials. Echo can thus serve as a frame of reference, but One will ultimately require its own testing to determine the most desirable course of action. Moreover, the visual impact of the problem is a point to be considered with each new set of circumstances; the expanded scale and complexity of One’s painted composition makes the darkened area less distracting than was the case with Echo.
In addition to canvas discoloration, several decades of accumulated dust and grime have also subtly altered the color and sheen of the surface.
Though conservators regularly dust the works in the galleries, our soft-bristle brushes are effective only at removing loosely bound dust. Over time, the more tenacious airborne particles build up on painted surfaces and require tools beyond dusting brushes for their removal. More on this later!
Thus far in our discussion, One’s condition has closely paralleled that of Echo. When we examine the paint layer more closely, though, our observations of both the paint and its condition begin to diverge. The multiple layers of dripped and poured paint that comprise One yield an intricate web that exhibits a complex series of paint interactions. For example, we observe some layers applied so thinly that they appear to merely stain the canvas with color. Contrast this with the slightly thicker, wet-into-wet areas where different colors blend, swirl, and bleed together.
Other passages reveal several layers of paint that build to a smooth, glossy surface. And still more textural nuance can be seen where Pollock applied such generous amounts of paint that they dried, due to their thickness, with a puckered, wrinkled surface skin.
We also find passages of paint that exhibit features uncharacteristic of Pollock’s painting technique at the time.
In such areas we see a different kind of texture, one that appears to be fussily applied, laboriously constructed using repetitive, tiny brush strokes. In our next post, we’ll delve into the examination and analysis of these “different” passages of paint and what they imply for our restoration.