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The Pollock Mystery

Now you can decide for yourself

A controversial cache of drip paintings is unveiled for the first time at BC. The question remains: Did the famed Abstract Expressionist create them?

So are they really Jackson Pollocks?

That's a question, perhaps the question, surrounding the exhibition "Pollock Matters," which opens Saturday at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art. Though the show features about 170 pieces, including paintings, drawings, photographs, and letters, the highlight promises to be about two dozen small drip paintings discovered in a storage locker five years ago, labeled as works by Pollock. Studied by scientists and argued over by art historians, the paint-spattered pictures will be on view for the first time. They're being displayed in the last of seven rooms housing the exhibit.

But Ellen Landau, the show's curator, says she hopes the focus on these controversial works doesn't overshadow another story. She's spent years exploring the connections among the famous Abstract Expressionist Pollock, his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, and two close friends, the photographer Herbert Matter and his artist wife, Mercedes.

Landau's research, which has taken her from the Matter archives at Stanford University to Switzerland to visit with relatives of the late photographer, will be published in the exhibition's catalog.

"One of the things people say, 51 years after Pollock's death, is, 'Is there anything new that can be said about Pollock?' " said Landau, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, recently by phone. "And the answer is, 'Yes, there is.' Because nobody has really looked carefully into his relationship with Herbert Matter."

The story of the discovered paintings, which will not be credited to any artist in the McMullen show, began in 2002. That's when New York filmmaker Alex Matter found them in a storage locker that had been rented by his father. They were wrapped and labeled in pencil by Herbert Matter as "experimental" Pollocks. If genuine, they could be worth millions.

Early on, Matter showed the paintings to historians, including Landau, and had some works that were in bad condition restored. Based on the paintings' style and the friendship between Herbert Matter and Pollock, Landau believed they were authentic, and she was quoted saying so in the pages of The New York Times. But others raised questions. And earlier this year, Harvard University published a scientific study, commissioned by Matter, which fed into those doubts. The study stated that some of the pigments used in the works were not available in the United States during Pollock's lifetime.

Landau subsequently declined repeated requests for interviews, but in a rare phone interview this month, the curator stated that she couldn't say definitively that the pictures were real Pollocks. But she's got a hunch.

"If I draw a line down the page and point to all the things that point to Pollock on the left and things that point away on the right, what points away does not explain all the things that point to," she said. "So I think that more study is required."

More study has been done for the McMullen exhibition. Museum director Nancy Netzer recruited Museum of Fine Arts conservator Richard Newman to examine some of the questionable works. Neither she nor Landau will say what Newman found; his research will be published in the catalog, available when the show opens. (Newman, through the MFA, declined comment.)

The McMullen also commissioned a study from Montreal-based conservator Peter Paul Biro. He's known for declaring another controversial work, the splatter painting that California truck driver Teri Horton bought at a thrift store (seen in the film "Who the $#%& Is Jackson Pollock?"), a genuine Pollock, based on a fingerprint he found. He declined an interview request about his McMullen essay.

The catalog will include Oxford professor Nicholas Eastaugh on pigment analysis and two essays by BC art history professor Claude Cernuschi -- who co-edited the catalog with Landau -- including one essay detailing research Cernuschi conducted with BC physics professor Andrzej Herczynski, in which they studied whether Pollock's technique limited how big his works could be. Cernuschi declined to provide their conclusion.

And then there is the study that won't show up in the catalog. It was done by Williamstown-based forensic scientist and conservator James Martin. He was hired two years ago by Matter's art dealer to examine two dozen of the paintings, but his report has never been released, with the two sides arguing over what Martin found and whether he can publish it. Martin said in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer in February that Matter's attorney, Jeremy G. Epstein, told him he was not authorized to put out the report. Matter told the Globe he simply wanted to discuss his concerns with Martin's findings before allowing its release. But Martin says he won't release the study unless Matter and others in his camp agree not to sue him, Martin's attorney, Stan Parese, confirmed. Martin has recently declined interview requests, but he has spoken to colleagues about the conflict. He told Mark Gottsegen, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and co-director of the Art Materials Information and Education Network in Cleveland, that he had been invited to contribute to the McMullen catalog, but that the museum said he had to agree to allow his scientific study to be edited and he could not speak to the press about the report.

"They should have invited him to submit his findings without any restrictions," said Gottsegen.

Netzer stated that Martin was asked to abide by the same restrictions as other catalog contributors, who were "obligated not to release their essay or discuss their findings prior to publication." Matter's attorney, Epstein, said that he offered Martin assurances that he would not be sued as part of a release, but that Martin declined to sign it.

Parese said last week that the proposal from Epstein stated that if Martin were to sign, the McMullen catalog would be the "sole and exclusive manner for publications and public disclosure" of his analysis. Parese credited Netzer with trying to broker a deal, but said that in the end, Martin wasn't comfortable with the terms.

"To say, 'Yes, you can participate, but you have a sock stuck in your mouth the rest of your life,' those aren't terms that are acceptable," said Parese.

Searching for proof
As the show opens, the rift remains between those who believe the Matter pictures are authentic and those who believe they are not. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which once enlisted Landau on its authentication panel, has refused to permit the McMullen to use images of authenticated Pollocks in its catalog and has requested that Martin's study be released. Ronald Spencer, lawyer for the foundation, has stated, "The foundation's position is we've seen no hard evidence these paintings are by Pollock."

Landau refused to discuss Martin or the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. She also would not discuss attempts to find evidence that might refute the Harvard report. But e-mails from last March, provided to the Globe by Alex Matter, suggest that she tried to gather proof that the debated works were genuine.

Harvard's study cited US patent dates in stating that some pigments used in the controversial works were not available until, in some cases, decades after Pollock's death. But Alex Matter says that Pollock got supplies from the Swiss-born Herbert Matter, who acquired them from a store run by relatives in Switzerland that sold paints not yet patented in the United States.

A March e-mail Landau sent Matter discussed a telephone interview Landau did with one of Herbert Matter's cousins, Dorothea Hofmann, who, as an art student in the late 1940s, had often visited the Swiss store; Landau and Hofmann discussed a possible link between Pollock and the Swiss paints. Also in March, Landau exchanged e-mails with Peter Walsh, a freelance journalist researching a story on the Matter pictures. Walsh criticized the Harvard report and stated he felt the patent dates were "largely irrelevant." In forwarding the note to Matter and others, Landau lamented that Walsh, a contributor to Museums Magazine and WBUR's online site, didn't write for a more "prominent media outlet." Walsh's story has yet to appear.

Close relationships
So what exactly will appear in the McMullen show? Among other things, there will be 12 authenticated Pollocks, Netzer said. The MFA has sent one of two Pollocks in its collection, "Number 10," to the museum.

Netzer also provided an outline of other items visitors will see: The exhibit will trace the friendship of Mercedes Matter and Krasner through oil and charcoal sketches the women created when studying art with Hans Hofmann in New York. It will include photographs and other works by Matter from the 1930s and '40s that, Landau believes, will show for the first time how much the photographer influenced his painter friend. In the exhibit, Landau links pieces that Matter showed in a New York gallery in 1943 -- abstract photographs of swirling ink dropped in glycerin -- and paintings that Pollock displayed later that year.

"In this exhibition, there is work by Pollock that relates so closely to one of Herbert Matter's photographs that you'll drop your teeth," said Landau.

In the catalog, tracing the connections between the couples, Landau also quotes from a cache of letters among Pollock, Krasner, and the Matters that Alex Matter found at his parents' house.

In deciding not to make the catalog available until the show's opening, the McMullen is deviating from typical practice, in which museums provide exhibit catalogs to journalists in advance. Organizers also initially said that no interviews would be granted before the opening, then reconsidered, designating Landau and Cernuschi as spokespeople.

"You talk about the press, and one of the things I have problems with is that they sometimes have a tendency to sensationalize and to boil down evidence to a sound byte," said Cernuschi. "We want the arguments in the catalog to be seen in conjunction with the exhibition itself. We want everything to be seen as a complete package."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts, visit boston.com/ae/ theater_arts/exhibitionist.

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