Probably the most regrettable of the Museum of Modern Art’s misguided auction disposals of nine paintings in 2004 was its casting off of Jackson Pollock‘s “Number 12, 1949.” Retired dealer Eugene Thaw, an honorary trustee of MoMA and co-editor of Pollock’s catalogue raisonné (quoted in my May 13, 2004 Wall Street Journal article, The Lost Museum: MoMA’s Distressing Disposals) predicted that this sale “will come back to haunt them.”
Now it has.
MoMA’s $11.66-million cast-off has a starring role in the Guggenheim Museum’s resoundingly major retrospective-in-miniature, No Limit, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper, to Sept. 29. Created during the apogee year of Pollock’s brief career, “Number 12, 1949” more than holds its own on the wall that is the show’s focal point—a line-up of six signature abstractions that make the approximately 60 other works in the exhibition seem like prelude and postlude. It is nestled between a work owned by the the Pompidou Center in Paris and one that the Guggenheim acquired as a gift from Sylvia and Joseph Slifka in 2004, the year of MoMA’s disposal. The Guggenheim is celebrating its important acquisition through this exhibition.
All this makes MoMA’s jilted Pollock a textbook case of deplorable deaccessioning—the sale from the public to the private domain of a work of undeniably major museum quality. Even the Guggenheim, which borrowed the work, hasn’t a clue about who now owns it: The museum unearthed it through exhibition curator Susan Davidson‘s fortunate dinner encounter with an intermediary.
When I asked how they felt about MoMA’s prior sale of a painting they had singled out for prominent display, both Davidson and Lisa Dennison, director of the Guggenheim, opined that MoMA has better examples.
Not true: MoMA now owns no classic drip Pollocks on paper from the key year of 1949—works that were extolled in a MoMA-published book by Bernice Rose, the museum’s own former drawings curator, as “gem-like” and “more adventurous in color” than the renowned large canvases. Thaw called them “absolutely the most lyrical of all the Pollocks.”
It’s time for MoMA to rethink its longstanding practice of selling major treasures to bankroll curatorial buying sprees. This latest proof of past folly should be the impetus for change.