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Visual Arts Review

Exhibition brings Pollock mystery to life

If the two dozen small paintings discovered by Alex Matter five years ago in his deceased parents' storage locker are not by Jackson Pollock, then I'd like to congratulate whoever did make them. Now on view for the first time in a fascinating, much anticipated exhibition called "Pollock Matters" at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art, they are beautiful little pictures.

If they are not by the master, they are expert imitations in miniature of the great abstract expressionist's late-1940s drip and dribble style works.

The organizers themselves do not claim outright that the paintings are the real deal. Exhibition wall labels only call them "Untitled" and don't name the artist. In her catalog introduction, the show's curator, art historian Ellen Landau, acknowledges that doubts raised by circumstantial and forensic evidence - described in detail in the catalog - call for further investigation before Pollock's authorship can be affirmed or denied.

Nevertheless, the paintings look enough like real Pollocks to make a viewer study them long and hard. They are almost all made on approximately laptop-size cardboard panels, but they are formally various. Some consist of dense, all-over textures created by many layers of finely drizzled lines; some feature more open, looser weaves and lines that loop through space as though driven by their own choreographic exuberance. Some are limited in colors to brown, black, and white; others abound in jewel-like colors ranging from deep purples to incandescent yellows.

The brown paper wrapper in which Alex Matter says he found the paintings had the words "Pollock Experimentals" scrawled in pencil on it, but the paintings don't look experimental. Most of them look like they were made with decisive intentionality and well-understood technique, and they are brought to a state of finish that the word experiment would seem to abjure. That almost all have been restored - many twice - may account in part for why they look so fresh, but that can't be the only reason for why they are so optically gripping.

Not all the found paintings look like Pollocks, I should note.

There's a set of three compositions of loopy lines made of red enamel poured on paper in which the gracefully calligraphic "handwriting," as it were, looks closer to that of one of Herbert Matter's abstract photographs hanging nearby - a composition of dark, gracefully curvy lines on a white ground made by drawing in space before the camera with a light pen and then printing the bright lines in reverse.

The disputed paintings are not all there is to the show. The exhibition's ostensible main purpose is to explore the context of friendship among Pollock; his wife, Lee Krasner; the New York photographer and graphic artist Herbert Matter; and his wife, the painter Mercedes Matter. (The latter two were the parents of Alex Matter.)

Presenting more than 170 objects, the exhibition includes, besides the disputed Pollocks, minor paintings and drawings by Krasner and Mercedes Matter; a small, surprisingly Pollock-like painting by their teacher, Hans Hoffmann; a handful of authentic paintings and drawings by Pollock; photographs and posters by Herbert Matter; and letters, snapshots, and other ephemera revealing the depth and extent of the friendship between Pollock and Krasner and the Matters.

Altogether, this material conveys the heady spirit of a time - the 1930s and 40s - when young ambitious artists could feel themselves part of an ongoing revolution in visual culture, an avant garde with a real future. We follow along as they as they discover new styles, materials, techniques, and philosophies.

Herbert Matter's role is particularly noteworthy. He shared with Pollock an interest in the philosophy of Vitalism, which places greatest value on what you may call "soul energy"; and in his photography he created abstract images featuring luminous, looping and meandering lines that may have inspired Pollock's own compositions of looping and meandering lines.

You might think that the sensational appeal of the disputed paintings - the fact that they would be worth millions of dollars if they are ultimately proven to be real Pollocks - would make the rest of the show appear secondary. But the two parts together create a compelling synergy. Because of the uncertainty of the disputed works, you may find yourself studying the whole exhibition and reading the various catalog essays with heightened curiosity, like a detective hunting for clues.

You might also scrutinize the Pollock paintings - the authentic ones and the disputed ones - with a kind of searching focus you don't ordinarily bring to paintings in museums. And you may consider a variety of philosophically intriguing questions: What are the criteria for determining authorship? Is intrinsic, purely visual evidence ever enough? Or is this a job that only science can handle?

And what if the paintings are never proven to be Pollocks - or proven indisputably not to be Pollocks - will they then become worthless?

The best of them are still lovely to look at - or so it seems to me. What matters most in today's market-driven art world, the artist or the art? The object or the brand?

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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