Jackson Pollock's Most Important Painting, Restored and In Display in L.A.

 Photos by Jordan Riefe

Considered one of the most important American paintings of the 20th Century, Mural (1943) by Jackson Pollock is going on display today March 11 through June 1 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles after undergoing 20 months of painstaking restoration.

The creation of the painting was "the moment when painting is really changing, going from figurative to the abstract,” the Getty’s Yvonne Szafran tells THR in a discussion with fellow conservationist Tom Learner about the on-loan work. “The idea that you might do a painting throwing the paint, as opposed to just brushing it or dabbing it on. It is certainly a transitional moment in Pollock’s own career.”

Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for the entryway to her New York townhouse, Mural was begun in July 1943 and likely finished some time in November. Despite the myths surrounding the painting (valued at about $145 million), it was not whipped up in an alcohol-fueled 15-hour frenzy as Guggenheim, critic Clement Greenberg and Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner later reported. Restorers though note that major compositional elements in dark teal, yellow, red and umber were probably applied in a single session.

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At the time of Mural, Pollock had been working his way toward abstraction with paintings like Stenographic Figure (1942) and The Moon-Woman (1942). But the roughly 8’ by 20’ dimensions of Mural and its lack of a compositional anchor give it the “all-over” quality that characterizes his later drip paintings. And even though Mural was painted with a brush in the conventional manner, there are portions that do appear to have been dripped on.

Through the artwork’s itinerant past -- Guggenheim’s townhouse to Vogue’s studios for photography to a 1947 exhibit at New York’s MoMA, then later Yale University and finally University of Iowa, its permanent home -- it accumulated enough wear and tear to present restorers with several challenges. The painting’s stretcher was of inferior design, inadequately strong enough to support the canvas. Over the years, a sag materialized in the top center of the composition. A restoration of the painting in 1973 attempted to fix it by adding a lining to the back of the canvas, which helped but did not alleviate the problem.

“For a painting of that size it’s a fairly minimal sag and it’s not unusual for a large painting to have that issue,” says Szafran. “What’s interesting about Pollock is that we observed the same problem with much smaller paintings. Perhaps he didn’t fully understand how strong that stretcher needed to be.”

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The team of scientists and conservators from the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Museum were unable to fully fix the sag but cleverly mitigated it in a way that makes it almost invisible to the casual viewer. A new shape-fitting stretcher dips slightly on top and bottom so the composition is now shaped like an imperceptible smile, accommodating the defect and rendering it unnoticeable.

A coat of varnish applied over the painting during the earlier restoration neutralized the paint’s texture and dulled the colors, casting a glare that made it difficult to experience the entire composition from a single angle.

“For the grime we have various water-based solutions,” says Szafran about the painstaking cleansing process using cotton swabs. The unwanted varnish coat required cautious testing of various petroleum distillates. Each color responds differently to whatever solvent is employed, but most problematic was a common house paint Pollock applied as a unifying background element that helps draw the composition together.

The completed restoration highlights a variety of textures ranging from glossy to matte, which were formerly hidden. And for the first time in years, the colors are as vibrant as they were in Peggy Guggenheim’s entryway.

“It is one of those paintings that just hits you between the eyes,” says Learner. “There must be something about the legend of Pollock himself, all the myths around this painting, it really was a massive breakthrough for him. Perhaps Pollock himself didn’t quite realize what he created with this, it was so strong.”

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