Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” one of the most important paintings of the 20th century, is on display in Boston for the first time ever. A new Museum of Fine Arts exhibit pairs Pollock’s 1943 work with German artist Katharina Grosse’s “Untitled,” which was commissioned by the museum especially for this display.
At nearly 20 feet wide by 8 feet tall, “Mural” was the largest work Pollock ever painted, but, more importantly, it launched his career and introduced a new direction for the artist. Peggy Guggenheim commissioned the piece for the foyer of her Manhattan townhouse, giving the relatively unknown Pollock an opportunity and the finances to experiment and concentrate fully on this painting.
In 1951, Guggenheim donated “Mural” to the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art, and this most famous of artworks has been on a world tour ever since. Finally, it makes a stop in Boston.
“When we were offered the painting, we thought, what can we do with it? What does it mean to us today?” exhibition co-curator Akili Tommasino said at a press preview Thursday.
Tommasino, the associate curator of the Modern Contemporary Art department, said the idea was to present “Mural” differently and not with Pollock’s other works in the museum’s collection or with the work of his peers. German artist Katharina Grosse immediately came to mind because of her large-scale work, Tommasino said.
“This is the largest painting Pollock ever did, but this is not Grosse’s largest work, not by far,” Tommasino said while standing between the two mighty pieces, which are the only artworks in the display.
“Untitled” is not a response to “Mural,” but a pairing, he added.
Grosse’s painting is set perpendicular as if leading off, but not opposing, Pollock’s. It is free-hanging from the ceiling and intended to be viewed from both sides, each revealing different aspects of Grosse’s vivid prismatic coloring and angular shapes, which have a hard, machine-age look. The MFA has yet to acquire “Untitled” for its permanent collection, Tommasino said: “We may do,” he said, simply.
Both pieces explore traditional formal murals and, although Pollock predated graffiti art and street murals, both artists’ work have threads to and from the genre. Grosse often uses an industrial paint-sprayer and her canvas is frequently concrete and outdoors.
It might seem static, but everything about “Mural” evokes movement and change. It is busy and poetic, capturing urban life as it moved into an ever faster lane; and introducing the Wyoming-born Pollock’s move from figurative landscape painting into abstract expressionism.
He hadn’t yet used his drip technique, but here are its beginnings: The canvas was painted upright and paint flicked at it and allowed to congeal in delicate streams among small, purposeful brush strokes. Mid-century pastels — pretty pink and mellow yellow — are cut with shadowy swathes of black, evoking a dark underbelly, perhaps Pollock’s dark side, a torrid reputation Grosse remarks on in a video interview looping on a small screen in the gallery.
Conversely, the blank white patches in “Untitled” are like windows allowing blinding daylight to penetrate and illuminate the dense coloring.
Legend aside, it is Pollock’s immense artistic legacy that Grosse said she explored and, “how I stand in relationship to that.”
Grosse remarks on how Monet’s work prepared her for Pollock’s work and how she admires the American master’s sense of surface structure, density, and understanding of space. Ultimately, she said Pollock pushed the art world and “managed to bring something forward,” and “Mural” was his first bold statement of intent.
“Mural: Jackson Pollock | Katharina Grosse” is on view in the Charlotte F. and Irving W. Rabb Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts through February 23, 2020.