One of the real treasures of Seattle Art Museum’s collection is about to go back on display.
A transformative work in the history of 20th century art, Jackson Pollock’s 1947 painting “Sea Change” has been out of sight in the museum’s conservation studio for more than a year.
SAM chief conservator Nicholas Dorman has been undertaking some major work on the piece: He’s done a microscopic study of its several layers of paint and, most important, removed a layer of synthetic resin varnish that was applied by a freelance New York conservator in the late 1970s. That layer not only significantly dulled the painting’s appearance but threatened to destroy it.
The new conservation work was funded by Bank of America’s prestigious Art Conservation Project, which launched in 2010 and has funded 57 projects around the world to preserve “historically or culturally significant works of art that are in danger of degeneration.”
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SAM pulled off something of a coup in winning BofA support. This was one of the first U.S. projects the bank funded; the others were at the National Gallery, the Guggenheim and the Menil Collection in Houston.
“Sea Change” joins such projects as conservation of paintings at the National Portrait Gallery in London and restoration of a Rembrandt in Prague and of the “Winged Victory” sculpture at the Louvre.
Though more than a half-century has passed since a drunken Jackson Pollock died driving his car into a tree in Springs, N.Y., his work continues to divide opinion.
Time magazine dubbed the abstract expressionist “Jack the Dripper” during his own lifetime, and for many people, the value that is attached to pictures made by spilling paint sums up everything that is wrong with modern art.
In addition, there have been a slew of disputes over the authenticity of so-called Pollocks in the past few years. In October, a former New York police detective claimed that it required his CSI skills to verify a work identified as the artist’s final painting.
Fortunately, the SAM Pollock boasts what the experts call an “impeccable provenance,” which is to say its route from the artist’s studio to the museum is fully documented.
In fact, that route was unusually direct. Peggy Guggenheim was Pollock’s New York patron and dealer, and when “Sea Change” failed to sell for the $650 asking price, it entered her collection. She offered it to SAM shortly before Pollock’s death, and it went into the museum’s collection in 1958. (Legend has it that Zoë Dusanne, a Guggenheim friend and “Seattle’s first modern art dealer,” had to persuade SAM’s founding director Richard E. Fuller that it was even worth having.)
The painting — or at least the back of the canvas that it is painted on — appears in photos taken by sculptor Wilfrid Zogbaum in Pollock’s studio around 1947. This was a key time in Pollock’s career, and SAM’s painting turns out to mark a vital step in the development of the artist’s celebrated drip technique. Dorman admits that removing the 1970s-era varnish achieves no more than a “subtle transformation,” but it makes it immediately obvious that the picture was made in two separate phases.
First, Pollock painted it in a relatively traditional way: brushing paint onto a vertical canvas. Then, crucially, he decided to lay the picture flat on the floor and drip much thicker layers of aluminum and black house paint on it. He also sprinkled pebbles into the wet paint. The new microscopic studies show the different paint layers, but more importantly, now that the shiny varnish has been removed, the contrast between the matte brushed surface and the glossy, dripped paint is immediately obvious. As a consequence, SAM staff members have decided that when “Sea Change” goes back on display it will not be behind glass.
What Dorman also points out is how carefully Pollock applied the dripped paint. This was not the wildly splattered “action painting” that many people imagine. At some stage in the process, Pollock painted linear guidelines in dark-brown paint and then went to great trouble to obscure most of them with fine trickles of black and aluminum.
Jim Coddington, chief conservator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has spent time recently working on three Pollock paintings. He traveled to Seattle to compare ”Sea Change” with the MoMA Pollocks, and he was delighted at the insights that provided. “It’s comparative looking that makes things easier to see,” he says. “That’s almost always going to be the case with these great Pollocks.”
Dorman admits that single-handedly removing the varnish was “a nasty job.” He did it by applying the toxic solvent xylene with a swab not much bigger than a Q-tip. He had to wear a mask and conduct the work in a ventilated chamber. He could work on it for only a couple of hours at a time, but he reckons the entire project took more than 200 hours.
Was it worth it? You can decide that for yourself by having a good long look at the painting. But bear in mind that its monetary value is beyond doubt. In May, Pollock’s “Number 19,” which was made within a few months of “Sea Change,” sold at Christie’s in New York for more than $58 million. It is only one-third the size of the SAM painting.
Robert Ayers: firstname.lastname@example.org