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Iowa’s Pollock at the Figge: The Masterpiece and the Myth

Pollock, “Mural,” 1943, University of Iowa Museum of Art, as installed at the Figge Art Museum

“I’m just totally awed and amazed by it,” I lamely told an Iowa television interviewer, who popped the “what-do-you-think?” question, only a few moments after I had set eyes on “Mural.” That monumental 1943 Pollock, owned by the flood-ravaged University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, is now on loan to the Figge Art Museum, Davenport.

Lame as it sounds, “awed and amazed” was my immediate, unguarded reaction, before I had time to absorb the complex rhythms of black verticals and swirls, with accents of turquoise and pink brushstrokes, splotches of yellow, and touches of red, blue and green. This is Pollock-the-colorist at his best, with all the seemingly spontaneous gestures and color applications coalescing into a unified composition.

I’ve seen lots of Pollocks—even this one, which was in the 1998 Museum of Modern Art retrospective (where it was upstaged by the classic drips of later years). But I wasn’t prepared for the knockout punch that this—the largest canvas ever painted by Pollock, allotted its own perfectly proportioned room—would pack in an off-the-beaten-track Iowa art venue.

Part of it had to do with the installation’s visual build-up—the experience of other important works in the preceding galleries, preparing the eyes for this masterpiece. The experience of this journey feels like a pilgrimage with a glorious final destination. The impact is heightened by the powerful simplicity of the installation, intensifying the focus on this ground-breaking precursor to the celebrated drip paintings.

As you approach the small room from the more spacious gallery containing other UIMA masterworks, you see the Pollock in isolated splendor, perfectly framed by the opening to the gallery (as you see in the photo above, taken from just outside the Pollock’s space, where the white verticals flanking the painting are the walls on either side of the opening through which you enter).

I felt so engulfed by the painting, that I didn’t realize anything else was in the gallery until I turned around to leave. I then spotted, on the opposite wall, another much smaller Pollock, cohabiting with “Mural”:

Pollock, “Portrait of H.M.” [probably Herman Melville], 1945, University of Iowa Museum of Art, as installed at the Figge Art Museum

Like “Mural,” this small abstraction was given to the university by pioneering collector and Pollock patron Peggy Guggenheim.

Also in the same room was a computer screen with a multmedia presentation about “Mural” that perpetuated the improbable tale (also told on the UIMA’s website) that “according to all reports,” this complex, enormous work “was painted in one frenetic burst of energy on New Year’s Day.” Gazing at it and trying to decipher its knotty pictorial puzzles, I found it difficult to believe that this tour de force could have been accomplished in such a frenzy. For all its manic energy, it seems carefully plotted by an organizing intelligence.

In fact, as Pam White, UIMA’s interim director told me, the one-day miracle is most likely a myth. It seems clear, she said, that some brushstrokes had dried before others were applied.

This is not the first time that I’ve seen explanatory material in a gallery that fancifully contradicts what experts believe to be the less romantic reality. But I have yet to understand why this is allowed to happen. I encountered a striking example of this gallery/scholar disconnect when I visited the Getty Museum in Malibu a bit more than a year ago, where one of its most celebrated antiquities (scheduled to be relinquished to Italy in 2010) was labeled: “Goddess, Probably Aphrodite”:

“Goddess, Probably Aphrodite,” Greek, South Italy, 425 – 400 B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum, courtesy of the Republic of Italy, region of Sicily

A group of experts convened by the Getty in 2007 to study this sculpture had reported that she is probably NOT Aphrodite. She might be Hera, she might be Persephone, but none of the experts seemed to favor Aphrodite. Why the Getty, in its own galleries, continued to call her “probably Aphrodite,” after the experts whose advice it sought had spoken, may have more to do with the popular appeal of the voluptuous goddess of love than with the current state of scholarship.

Similarly, the masterpiece-in-a-day Pollock tale would be an engaging anecdote, if only it were true. As it is, it seems highly improbable to anyone who actually takes time to look closely at the painting.

For news on efforts to bring some of the University of Iowa’s art back to campus later this year, see Regina ZilbermintsSome Artwork to Return to UI in the Daily Iowan.

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