MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Conservation Project: Wrapping Up Treatment of One: Number 31, 1950
A meeting between conservators and curators to view <em>One: Number 31, 1950</em>

A meeting between conservators and curators to view One: Number 31, 1950 as Pollock would have during its creation: laid horizontally

Throughout the project, we’ve been working closely with curators in MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, and this exchange of ideas surrounding Pollock has enriched and informed the treatment process. During one such meeting, we took advantage of the opportunity to view One: Number 31,1950 as Pollock saw it during its inception: laid horizontally.

Preparators and conservators gently lower the painting

Preparators and conservators gently lower the painting

Preparators and conservators gently lower the painting

The displacement of the viewer’s physical relationship to the painting provided a rare, fresh perspective on Pollock’s working method. Our first impression as One lay flat was how much smaller it seemed, no longer a wall-sized mural further magnified by its status as a cultural icon. Rather the scale became a direct, human one through which the possibility of working across the canvas, as Pollock did, could be more readily understood.

Examining the paint surface of One

The differences in the paint surface’s gloss can easily be discerned with the painting laid flat

This exercise was essentially an extension of our last post, which focused on similar insights into Pollock’s process arising from our observations and research. However the treatment of One continued apace as we’ve been busy in the studio completing the final phase of treatment: the removal of overpaint dating to a mid-1960s restoration. After nine months of meticulous research and work, the details of Pollock’s composition have emerged from beneath thick passages of overpaint.

One before treatment

An image of One before treatment: the pink regions indicate areas of restoration paint applied in the 1960s

One conservation detail

Before treatment (left): A detail showing the 1960s restoration. Much of the white passage is overpainted. The restorer typically used small spatters of black paint to integrate areas of restoration. After treatment (right): Removing the overpaint reveals hairline cracking but an otherwise undamaged surface

Pollock conservation detail 2

Before treatment (left): again, the white passage has been partially obscured by gritty, yellowed overpaint. After treatment (right): Beneath the restoration we some thin cracks and small bits of wood embedded in the paint layer

Pollock conservation detail 3

Before treatment (left): an area of black overpaint. After treatment (right): Details of the original composition emerge

As we anticipated, the surface is stable but not pristine. You’ll recall that, before choosing to remove the overpaint, we examined the underlying layers of several restored areas using X-radiography and consistently observed cracking in the Pollock’s original paint.

X-radiograph of Pollock's One

The X-radiograph shows the cracks underlying an area of overpaint

A desire to mask these cracks appears to have been the rationale for the 1960s overpaint. However, having removed the restoration, we’ve found that the majority of the cracking, while observable at close range, fails to interfere with Pollock’s intricate composition. In fact, even the largest cracks are wholly unobtrusive when viewing the painting in its entirety.

Much of the cracking is minor and, furthermore, it reflects the natural aging process of Pollock’s materials as he chose to use them. Enamel house paint inevitably tends to crack when applied thickly to a flexible support like canvas. Other Pollock paintings exhibit a similar phenomenon.

We therefore decided to limit our own retouching. A handful of areas present cracking that is deep and separated, and the 1960s restorer had filled these with a white gesso, contributing, once the overpaint was removed, to their visibility. Such cracks, especially those at eye-level, we chose to retouch using watercolor. Retouching, as defined by conservators, limits itself to areas where original paint is lost or discontinuous, as we find here. The toned cracks don’t disappear; rather they visually recede, restoring coherence to the details of the paint with minimal, and easily reversible, intervention.

Pollock Conservation detail 4

Left: Some cracking is deep and separated and partially filled with gesso. Right: We retouched such cracks using watercolor paints, not to mask them completely, but to make them less visually prominent

With the overpaint successfully removed, we returned our attention to the disparity of discoloration observed in One’s canvas. Earlier in our treatment, we had unsuccessfully attempted to remove darkened degradation products using moistened swabs, a procedure that had been successful in our treatment of Pollock’s Echo. After testing a variety of dampened sponges, however, we arrived at a more successful method and were able to reduce the darkening across the top of the painting. The canvas still exhibits discoloration, but, now, more evenly so. Like the paint layer, it shows the effects of aging befitting its 60 years of existence.

One after conservation

One after treatment. The surface has been cleaned, the overpaint removed, and the discoloration across the top of the canvas reduced

It’s illuminating to reflect on the change in aesthetic priorities between the mid-1960s and the present and the resulting implications for our conservation decisions in this treatment. When the overpaint was applied in the mid-1960s One was still a young painting, and Pollock’s use of house paints had received scrutiny not long before from critics skeptical of the durability of these new, untested materials. The desired “look” for a Pollock painting, therefore, seems to have been an unblemished, crack-free surface. Today, though, the cracking is viewed as an acceptable mark of age, and the discoloration of the canvas is accepted as a patina, of sorts, too—as long as it’s even. Without a doubt, a century from now aesthetic consensus will have shifted subtly yet again. For conservators, it’s imperative that we recognize that we undertake our work within this ever-evolving zeitgeist, and this understanding, along with deep respect for the objects in our care, guides our philosophy of minimal, re-treatable intervention.

Continue to follow the blog as we investigate our final painting, Pollock’s Number 1A, 1948. Finally, for those readers who have eagerly anticipated One: Number 31,1950’s return to the public gallery, please stop by—the painting has returned to the fourth floor!