MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: One Joins Echo

In our introductory post, we explained that Jackson Pollock’s 1950 painting, One, has been relocated to MoMA’s conservation studio for study and conservation. As seen in the image above, it is currently sharing our space and attention with a second work of Pollock’s, Echo: Number 25, 1951.

Pollock painted Echo (below) in 1951. At roughly 7 x 7 1/2 feet, it seems misleading to describe Echo as “smaller,” but it does represent a significant scaling-back from Pollock’s expansive canvases of 1950.

Pollock pared down his technique in other ways between 1950 and 1951. While One’s surface dazzles with its dense, energetic web of color…

…with Echo, Pollock restricted his palette to a single hue, black, and reduced his mark-making, leaving ample bare canvas to act as an assertive compositional element:

Echo has already been in the studio for a few weeks now and treatment has progressed during that time. Compared to One, Echo’s more manageable size, the relative simplicity of its material construction, and the fact that it was not on view made it an attractive first subject for research and treatment. The first (indespensible!) step involved in any conservation treatment is close assessment of the object’s current state What, then, is its condition? Such an assessment starts with familiarizing oneself with an artwork’s history, so we reviewed the condition records that have accumulated over the years for Echo. These records include examinations of the painting when it goes out on loan or as part of routine checks of works in our collection. As documentation standards and technologies have changed over time, an archival file typically offers a mash-up of handwritten and typed reports, along with slides, photonegatives, and, more recently, digital files. Together, these documents provide a timeline describing any noticeable changes, problems, damage, and conservation treatments associated with the artwork in the past. Echo, we can happily report, has led a relatively uneventful, stable life compared to some: no floods, no flaking paint.

The next step in assessing a painting’s condition is, on the surface, simple enough: look at the painting closely. We meticulously inspected Echo, front, back, top, and bottom, and recorded observations about materials, construction, and current condition. We assessed it from typical viewing distance and then got up close with magnifiers and the microscope. Changing the lighting conditions can be helpful, too. For instance, a strong raking light brings the three-dimensional, tactile character of the painting into sharp relief. Similarly, lighting at an angle can make evident the varied patterns of gloss across the painted surface:

This stage of assessment invariably raises questions about the artist’s materials and techniques, and the changes that have occurred over time. These questions will drive our investigation and determine the treatment protocol for the work of art.