With study and treatment of One: Number 31, 1950 completed and the painting returned to exhibition, we’re moving on to the final painting of the project: Number 1A, 1948. At roughly one-third the size of One, Number 1A exerts a comparatively subdued presence in the conservation studio, but, of the three Pollock’s we’ve studied, it’s condition and treatment history are arguably the most complex.
Executed in 1948, Number 1A is also the earliest of the three we’ve studied, exhibiting media and techniques that bridge Pollock’s earlier easel paintings and the poured works for which he’s most widely celebrated. Unlike Full Fathom Five, painted a year prior, Pollock completely abandoned the easel with Number 1A, instead working horizontally, on an unstretched canvas, from inception. His strategy for laying in the composition moved through several application techniques, each subsequent layer increasingly mediated. The underlayer is the most direct and intimate: a series of handprints that provides structure for the layers that follow.
Pollock then applied a layer of brushwork and paint dragged directly from the tube.
Finally, he dripped and poured paint across the surface.
Number 1A illustrates the gradual material shift in Pollock’s career, from artist oil paints in his early work to industrial house paints later. By the time he painted the 1950 murals, house paint had replaced artist oils as Pollock’s preferred medium. Here, Pollock incorporated both, setting the ribbon-like impasto achieved by throwing and squeezing artist oils from the tube against flowing, pooling pours of enamel paint.
As with Echo and One, the composition of Number 1A includes large passages of unpainted canvas. In this instance, though, Pollock did not leave the canvas completely exposed. He primed, or coated, the surface with hide glue before laying down paint. This material has discolored over time, and while the cause of canvas discoloration is different than that of our two prior paintings, the result is a visually similar disfigurement.
The painting’s history further complicates its current state of preservation. Note the uneven, patchy nature of the discoloration of Number 1A’s canvas, and compare it to the even, vertical gradation of darkening we observed with Echo and One. The inconsistency of Number 1A’s discoloration appears to be the result of the painting’s last significant conservation treatment, which took place in 1959.
To clarify: the painting hasn’t looked as it does today since 1959. In fact, Number 1A looked remarkably even and fresh in 1959, given the circumstances that led to its treatment. In 1958, a fire in one of the Museum’s galleries damaged and destroyed a handful of paintings. Pollock’s Number 1A, hanging in an adjacent stairwell, suffered heat and smoke exposure.
After the fire, Number 1A required substantial cleaning to remove soot from the canvas and paint. In this instance, conservators were not merely cleaning as a matter of maintenance. Rather, they were faced to respond to the consequences of a significant incident of damage. Therefore the intervention to remove soot and restore the painting’s color balance was, of necessity, comparably exacting. According to the record, conservators conducted their work mindful that any intervention undertaken had the potential to become evident over time, as the effects of treatment would likely cause different areas of the canvas to age in divergent ways. This, indeed, appears to be the case.
Continue to follow the blog as we develop and test a strategy to re-treat Number 1A, cleaning the painting for the first time in 60 years and addressing the complications arising due to its prior damage.