More on Pollock

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I was visiting Portfolio.com this morning to look over Anthony Haden-Guest’s piece on how the ongoing banking and credit market upheavals may effect patronage of the arts. Big banks and investment houses like UBS, Deutsche Bank and Lehman Brothers are major supporters of art fairs and exhibitions, and major collectors too. The upshot: a number of corporate art people telling Haden-Guest that everything will be fine, while the big losses suffered at their outfits make you wonder.

But what then caught my eye was this post from last week by Felix Salmon, who blogs for Portfolio.com about markets and who takes a frequent intelligent interest in art. (An example — see his post of a few weeks ago explaining what was wrong with the attempt by the economist David Galenson to identify the 100 greatest works of 20th century art by toting up how often they appeared as illustrations in art history textbooks.) But Salmon’s post about the potential sale by the University of Iowa of Mural, an important Jackson Pollock, relies on a blind spot that I’ve seen a few times in discussions about that Pollock.

The pertinent paragraphs:

…some paintings belong not to “the people of Iowa” so much as to the people of the world, and belong in a world-class collection. Which, frankly, the University of Iowa Museum of Art isn’t.

Remember that the idea was never to simply sell Mural off to the highest bidder; it was to sell it to another museum. And I’m pretty sure there’s more than one major US institution which could rustle up a nine-figure sum pretty much overnight if the painting were to come on the market.

But the problem with selling the Pollock, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, is that it would represent a further worsening of the (so far limited) trend by colleges to look at their campus art collections as assets that can be stripped and sold off to pay for other needs. If that practice ever becomes legitimized, no campus collection is safe. That is the main thing at issue in the fight to prevent the Pollock from being sold. (Which, as I also pointed out the other day, looks unlikely now.) And it trumps any and all other benefits that a sale might bring.

I also don’t agree with Salmon’s claim that a painting as important as Mural doesn’t belong in a place as remote from the great urban art centers as Iowa. The logic of that argument leads inevitably to the idea that all great paintings belong in just a dozen or so major cities. In which case, why bother building that Guggenheim in out of the way Bilbao? Alice Walton’s practice of dangling money in front of cash strapped colleges to get access to their art is a lamentable development, but her underlying ambition, to build a first class collection in the middle of Arkansas, is a perfectly good one.

Meanwhile, though Mural may be tucked away in Iowa, by no means has it dropped out of the art historical story. Its crucial importance to Pollock’s development is well understood. Salmon suggests that if the picture had been in the possession of the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the past half century it would probably be recognized now as the greatest American painting of all time, thanks to MOMA’s power to promote its holdings to the top of the art historical rankings. But that overstates Mural‘s significance. It was a breakthrough for Pollock. But it’s a transitional painting, not a culmination, which is what his drip paintings are. It’s important as a turning point between the congested imagery of Pollock’s earlier work and the freer gestures of his drip paintings, between the Pollock who painted with his wrist and the Pollock who painted with his entire body.

And for the record yeah, I’ve actually seen the thing — though I’ll admit it was not until it came to New York for MOMA’s big Pollock retrospective ten years ago.

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