Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: “Pollock and Motherwell: Legends of Abstract Expressionism”
Want to see the largest painting Jackson Pollock ever made? Now’s your chance.
Through Oct. 29, Pollock’s “Mural,” measuring 8 by 20 feet, is on view in the Bloch Building Project Space. The showing in Kansas City is part of a global victory lap for the painting — now back in U.S. from a tour of Europe — following two years of restoration work.
Made in 1943, “Mural” is the ultimate transitional work in Pollock’s oeuvre. The landmark painting shows him poised between his past work, sustained by mythic characters and graffiti-like scribbles, and the gestural drips and splashes of paint that became hallmarks of his mature style.
In a 2014 column about “Mural” advancing its display at the Getty Museum, “LA Times” art critic Christopher Knight lauded the painting as “an early, galvanizing leap toward the emergence of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist art in the aftermath of World War II.”
In person the work glows, thanks to 21 months of work at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. The removal of varnish and years of grime allows Pollock’s original vision to be enjoyed anew. Swirls of bright, joyful teal, lemon yellow, cadmium red, umber and casein white counterpoint vertical slashes of black rhythmically dispersed across the picture plane. Years later Pollock used this same compositional gambit of subdividing the canvas with dark vertical lines to greater visual effect in his 1952 masterpiece “Blue Poles.”
By the early 1940s Pollock was on an upward climb. Art doyen Peggy Guggenheim gave him his first real gallery exhibit at her newly opened gallery-cum-museum, Art of This Century.
In July of 1943 she paid him a one-year stipend of $150 per month in exchange for an equal value of paintings — an almost unheard-of arrangement for an American artist at that time. As part of the agreement, Pollock fulfilled Guggenheim’s request for a mural-sized painting for the outer wall leading to her apartment. That same “Mural” is now on view at the Nelson.
The apocryphal history of “Mural” has become part of modern painting’s lore. Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, claimed “Mural” was completed in one inspired, genius-fueled overnight session after the canvas sat untouched for months propped between two rooms in their apartment. The couple’s version of the painting’s birth was included in Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Pollock, and thus the story became accepted as fact.
“Not so,” say the Getty conservators. Microscopic samples of the painting revealed at least seven distinct layers of oil paint, some of which were completely dry before the next layer was applied. The Getty estimates that Pollock worked in a steady manner over the final months of 1943.
As World War II came to an end, Peggy Guggenheim decided to close the gallery and move to Europe. She opened negotiations with the Museum of Modern Art to take “Mural” on loan, and when talks stalled, the painting was put in storage. Guggenheim eventually gave “Mural” to the University of Iowa in 1948 after three years of off and on correspondence. All the University had to do was pay $40 for crating and shipping. Not a bad deal as it turned out. The painting’s current estimated worth is around $140 million, according to Abigail Cain in a 2016 article on Pollock for Artsy — a website that tracks international sales of artworks.
“Mural” appears at the Nelson as part of the exhibit “Pollock and Motherwell: Legends of Abstract Expressionism.” The installation, curated by the Nelson’s Sherèe Lutz, pairs “Mural” with another massive Ab Ex painting, Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to The Spanish Republic, No. 126.” The work was commissioned in 1972 by the director of the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art to hang with and visually respond to “Mural.”
Lutz sees the exhibition as “a unique opportunity to consider the idea of legendary stories,” and “to reveal some behind-the-scenes information about the paintings, the artists, and the (Abstract Expressionist) movement.”
“Pollock and Motherwell: Legends of Abstract Expressionism” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through Oct. 29. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org