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A Work Of Art: Jackson Pollock’s Mural At The Getty

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The field of art is so much more than being creative. It has always had a tie to science, mathematics, and history and even more specific fields like physics and thermodynamics. We don’t think of this as viewers but, unless the piece is a performance, materials are used to create and their materiality has innate properties that age and change over time. Can a work of art remain the same decades or almost a century after it has been created? Of course—but not without rigorous tweaking.

This is the circumstance surrounding The Getty’s exhibiting of Jackson Pollock’s Mural. It is a more contemporary move for the institution and one that brings their historically leaning works into the present. Mural‘s significance is bigger than art though: it is a feat of science. The resulting show is less an art exhibition and is more an academic deconstruction of what Pollock was doing when he created. It places art viewers into the Getty’s laboratories to investigate art through various academic entry points.

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Mural was created in 1943. It was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her apartment in New York City and subsequently went on to a brief stay at Yale and eventually the University Of Iowa Museum Of Art following Guggenheim’s relocation back to Europe. The piece is over eight feet long and was the first in this scope that Pollock tried to create. Moreover, it was an important moment for him in that the piece went on to show MoMA, eventually breaking him as an important contemporary artist to be placed next to Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Obviously, Mural has a history woven into american art history and Pollock’s own personal canon. Interestingly, the painting itself has a history, a fact that many do not consider in terms of art: some works go through a lot in order to be conserved for future exhibitions. In the case of Mural, a lot of questionable things happened for its betterment or worsening. For example: when it was moved into Guggenheim’s apartment, the piece was too big and the canvas was wrapped around a smaller frame to fit into the space. The imprint of those premature nail holes are still present today. Yale only exhibited Mural for a brief time eventually rolling it up and placing it in a warehouse (which is why Guggenheim took it from them). The resulting treatment led to a sagging in Mural‘s frame. At Iowa, there were attempts to preserve the piece that ultimately fussed with its integrity, acts like varnishing the work and applying waxes to its back.

The painting arrived at The Getty two years ago from Iowa so that The Getty Research Institute and The Getty Conservation Institute could study it. The piece was unvarnished and its contents were taken apart. Paints were broken down on a molecular level to discover what paints were actually used in relationship to Pollock’s future history with atypical paints, to position this in his own history. There were multiple painting techniques in Mural that pre-date his drizzling techniques he became famous for in his horizontal paintings. How was that accomplished without dripping? Apparently from heated oil paints that don’t sag when applied vertically, The Getty discovered.

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Thus, the showing of Mural is not for audiences to encounter but to absorb themselves in. The painting is bewitching as an piece, yes. It has so many worlds within it: you can see eyes and faces and can find it relatable to modern street art. You see the gestural nature of his work and can pick apart the textures within it like a Getty scientist. You see how macho and aggressive Pollock’s work can be, a product of a confident man doing something atypical for his time. It’s size is enveloping and, again, may be a symbol of the artist asserting how big of a man he is. There are endless conceptual and aesthetic discussions to be found in Mural.

The work’s showing at The Getty isn’t about that, though—and that is exciting. It’s brief stay in Los Angeles before returning back to Iowa is an effort to bring in the science, history, mathematics, and more surrounding a piece of art into the museum. The Getty shows that art is important, yes, but art is more than making: it is tied to so many other worlds outside of expression. Mural at The Getty is not an art show: it is an immersive academic experience.

Jackson Pollock’s Mural will be on view at The Getty starting today, March 11, through June 1. You can read more about the exhibition here.

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