A look back at the 2012 #conservation of #Jackson_Pollock’s #Mural
Inside #Getty’s #paintings_conservation and r#esearch_labs, you might spot a #Baroque_masterpiece in for a #cleaning, a #Van_Gogh undergoing an #X_ray_examination, or conservators at work on a #de_Kooning. Get Inspired Enjoy stories about art, and news about #Getty_exhibitions and events, with our free e-newsletter Subscribe now
Sometimes paintings need a little (or a lot) of specialized care, and Getty is one of the few places in the United States where they can visit, free of charge, and receive the conservation and attention they need.
Few pieces attracted more interest at the Getty Center than Jackson Pollock’s Mural. Massive, at about 8 feet tall by 20 feet wide, the picture is considered one of his most important and transformational works. Walk along its length, and you can see in its kaleidoscopic swirls and drips across the canvas Pollock’s evolution from Surrealism toward Abstract Expressionism. Rumors endure that he created it in a single wild session—but more about that later.
The painting’s long journey to Getty began with art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim, who commissioned Pollock in 1943 to adorn a wall of her New York City apartment. It is estimated that Mural was rolled and unrolled at least five times during its eight-year journey from Pollock’s studio to Guggenheim’s apartment and then to the University of Iowa, to which Guggenheim donated the work in 1951. Each trip caused damage, and more than 60 years later, the paint was dull and dirty, covered with an old varnish that needed removal, and flaking off. The canvas was sagging under its own weight, due to a weak stretcher.
Mural came to Getty in 2012 for a major conservation treatment that ended up taking 17 months to complete. Even with these challenges, the picture left an indelible impression on staff when it first entered Getty’s paintings conservation studio.
“It’s an extremely mesmerizing work of art, and you do get lost in it,” said Tom Learner, head of science at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). “I remember standing still in front of it on many occasions and—although this sounds a bit of a cliché—just letting the painting talk to me. It was extraordinary.”
The experience provided an opportunity to learn more about Pollock’s process and offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the conservation team to work on such a large and complex piece. One of the first steps was to find out what kinds of materials Pollock used and how he applied them. To do this, scientists from the GCI scanned Mural using hyperspectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence mapping. The scans would reveal which elements were present in the paints, and these elements could be matched to certain pigments or paint types.
Most of the materials were high-end artist oils, but scientists also made a surprising discovery—that the white paint Pollock employed to fill sections of the canvas near the work’s completion was based on casein, used as a cheap midcentury house paint. Curious about how he applied some glossy pink splatters to the canvas in its vertical orientation, researchers even tried to re-create his paint flicking in the GCI labs.
“Those tests were completely successful, but one of the consequences of doing them that I haven’t really spoken about was the mess that was left in that studio afterwards,” said Learner. “Even though we had covered every surface and the floor with plastic, that pink paint still got everywhere, in much the same way that water will always find a crack in a building and get inside.”
As to the question of whether Pollock created Mural in a single, frantic night? Analysis of a cross section of the paint layers taken from microscopic samples reveals that the first four colors he used (cadmium lemon, cadmium red, teal, and umber) were probably painted in quick succession while still wet, but that the others were not. So, while Pollock might have applied these initial layers all over the canvas in an all-nighter, it certainly wasn’t the finished piece.
Once Getty Museum conservators had a better idea of what they were working with, they dug into the long task of treating a very big painting. They removed the old varnish, meticulously cleaned the picture from top to bottom, and built a curved stretcher to support the canvas. The newly conserved Mural made its debut at Getty in 2014.
“It was one of those moments where the science and the technical art history and the conservation come together to really improve or dramatically change the interpretation of a canvas,” said Laura Rivers, a paintings conservator at Getty who worked on the project.
Rather than return immediately to Iowa, Mural racked up over 20,000 miles while visiting over a dozen museums after leaving Getty, among them the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the Royal Academy of Arts in London; the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain; and most fittingly, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy.
For Rivers, the project was an opportunity for all Getty programs to work together in a way they rarely did before. “Mural was one painting, and it just impacted everybody. In a funny way, the fact that the painting couldn’t even be moved without 20 people was very symbolic of just the huge effect it had on the institution as a whole.”
The conservation project adds a valuable chapter to the picture’s already rich history. The techniques developed and refined by the team and published in their book have helped the conservation of other Pollock paintings and works by artists from that era. After its world tour and 10 years after entering Getty’s doors, Mural will finally hang on the walls of the new University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art in fall 2022—looking better than ever.
All summer long, we’re celebrating the Getty Center’s history of bringing people together. Discover stories about art, conservation, education, and key moments from the past 25 years.