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Syracuse Refuse: Everson Museum Discards its Pollock to “Address Inequality” & Pursue the New

I’ve been planning to call out the lamentable decision of the Everson Museum, announced on Sept. 3, to jettison its only Jackson Pollock painting “in order to refine, diversify, and build the museum’s collection for the future” (in the words of the Syracuse, NY, museum’s self-justification). Christopher Knight‘s scathing critique of this “inexcusable move” (his words) in yesterday’s LA Times online, bumped this blunder to the top of my to-do list.

Below is the oil-on-masonite, small (19¼” x 23¼”) early drip painting that made both Knight and me see red and made Christie’s see green (for its evening sale in New York of 20th– and 21st-Century Art on Oct. 6):

Jackson Pollock, “Red Composition,” 1946
Presale estimate at Christie’s: Estimate: $12-18 million

In the Everson’s press release, Elizabeth Dunbar, its director, makes a preposterous leap, linking this deplorable deaccession to “the murder of George Floyd and a string of senseless killings of Black lives.”

According to Dunbar’s muddled logic:

Now is the time for action. By deaccessioning a single artwork, we can make enormous strides in building a collection [!?!] that reflects the amazing diversity of our community and ensure that it remains accessible to all for generations to come.

This is not so much “building a collection” as dismantling it. As Knight points out, this disposal is in the dicey tradition of trendy tradeoffs (which I’ve previously deplored on this blog): the Baltimore Museum’s self-described “canon correction”—sales of works by undeniably important artists to bankroll purchases of art by the latest trendy names; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s sale of a Rothko (given by the artist himself, at the express request of the museum) to buy 11 of-the-moment works, some of which (to my eyes) do not always represent those artists at their best. (The above links are mine, not Knight’s.)

The Everson’s permanent collection website is testimony to the Pollock’s former importance to its collection. Below is a screenshot I took today (which may have been edited by the museum by the time you see this):

NOTE: “Jackson Pollock” is highlighted by me.

Originally owned by Peggy Guggenheim, the Pollock was donated to the Everson in 1991 by Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Reisman (Syracuse natives). Presuming to channel the deceased donors, Robert Falter, trustee of The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation, declared that “Marshall would have been extremely happy to see his gift used for the greater good of the museum, its future sustainability, and its impact on the community” (as quoted in the Everson’s press release).

Like Knight of the LA Times, I’m not entirely convinced of this.

In response to my query, a spokesperson for the I.M. Pei-designed Everson said that the only other Pollock it owns is a 1951 ink-on-paper drawing. By contrast, SFMOMA owns better Rothkos than the one that it deemed expendable, which had not been shown at the museum since 2002:

Mark Rothko, “Untitled,” 1960, sold by SFMOMA for $50.1 million at Sotheby’s on May 16, 2019
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Below is the far superior Rothko that SFMOMA keeps on permanent display, which I have admired on several visits. (Photos cannot do justice to its hypnotic power.)

Rothko, “No. 14,” 1960, SFMOMA

Knight noted that the Everson is “betraying its legacy” by selling “a rare formative work by the first American painter with profound international impact.” I would add that the museum’s sole painting by this celebrated artist is being monetized to give acquisitive curators a chance to go on a shopping spree for works currently in vogue. This is a win-win for Christie’s (assuming it can get a good price in these economically challenging times), but a loss for the Everson’s core audience of knowledgeable art lovers and possible future donors.

That said, the museum’s records indicate (according to its spokesperson) that the last time the Pollock painting was displayed in its galleries was in a 2017 installation, “More Real, More a Dream,” for which the Pollock was the signature work:

Screenshot from Everson’s Past Exhibitions website

CultureGrrl readers may remember another recent example of a museum’s shortsighted market-play, which was not mentioned in Knight’s article: In 2013, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then directed by Harry Philbrick (father of the recently arrested Inigo), auctioned one of its two Hoppers to fund the purchase of contemporary works and historic works that filled gaps in its collection.

Edward Hopper, “East Wind Over Weehawken,” 1934, sold for $40.49 million in December 2013 (far in excess of its $28-million high estimate) by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

And let us not forget the much criticized 2007 disposals by the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, of highly important antiquities and other masterworks, to bankroll a contemporary art-buying spree. The most important of those castoffs, “Artemis and the Stag,” ended up on anonymous loan at the Metropolitan Museum (and was still there, when last I looked):

The ex-Albright-Knox sculpture, renamed “Artemis and the Deer” by the Met, at entrance to the Leon Levy & Shelby White Court for Greek & Roman art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In other deaccessioning news, the Association of Art Museum Directors has temporarily loosened its tight strictures on members’ use of art-sale proceeds, due to the serious financial impact of the Covid Crisis.

There’s no question that the professional climate for art museum directors and curators is rapidly changing during these turbulent times—a factor that may hasten some retirement decisions. Speaking of which, Brent Benjamin, currently president of AAMD’s board, yesterday announced that he will retire next year after more than 20 years as director of the St. Louis Art Museum.

Brent Benjamin
Photo courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum

But let’s get back to bemoaning the upcoming auction disposals by nonprofits of works by major Abstract Expressionists: Christie’s this fall plans to sell more than 60 works by Robert Motherwell (paintings, prints and works on paper). They’ve been consigned by the Dedalus Foundation, which boasts of having “carefully conserved the works [Robert] Motherwell left to it, made them available for publications and exhibitions, and placed many of them in museums [emphasis added].”

Now it will “place many of them” on the auction block and in online sales, with proceeds to benefit the foundation, established in 1981 by Motherwell (who died in 1991) and now led by art historian Jack Flam. A member of its board is John Elderfield, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture (who went on to become curator and lecturer at the Princeton University Art Museum and a consultant for Gagosian gallery).

Is your head spinning yet? I’d blame it on all those fumes wafting across the country from the West Coast!

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