Jackson Pollock

(American, 1912–1956)

Mural

, 1943
Oil and casein on canvas, 95 5/8 x 237 3/4 in.
Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959.6

 

Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943) is legendary. It was the first time he painted at such an enormous scale—8' 1 1/4" x 19' 10", meant to cover an entire wall in Peggy Guggenheim’s townhouse. Her commission provided Pollock with the time, space, and materials to support his exploration of an entirely new mode of painting. Of his commission he wrote that it came:

...with no strings as to what or how I paint it. I am going to paint it in oil on canvas. They are giving me a show November 16 and I want to have the painting finished for the show. I've had to tear out the partition between the front and middle room to get the damned thing up. I have it stretched now. It looks pretty big, but exciting as all hell.

The painting is spectacular and explodes with swirls of colors along the enormous space, anchored by the repeated presence of black strokes that form upright figures and traverse westward across the field. The long, gestural lines tracing the sweep of Pollock’s arm are interrupted by vibrant splashes of crimson.

This seeming spontaneity has encouraged the spread of various seductive myths about the painting’s genesis. We imagine him staring at the blank canvas, complaining to friends that he was "blocked," and seeming to become both obsessed and depressed. It is said that he painted the entire canvas in one frenetic burst of energy around New Year's Day of 1944—although the painting bears the date 1943.

Through the work of the Getty Conservation Institute and J. Paul Getty Museum in 2012–2014, we now can confirm that Pollock could not have painted the entire expanse in a single go. The approach is deliberative, and even if it is clear that there are areas where he painted wet-on-wet—that is to say, laid his paints down without allowing them to dry—the analysis of the painting also demonstrates that there were extensive passages that involved a process of painting, revision, and alteration on dry layers.

There are other dramatic myths attached to the painting; some accounts have claimed that the painting was too long for the space by almost a foot, and when Pollock discovered this, he became quite hysterical. Marcel Duchamp and another artist were said to have cut eight inches from one end before it was installed. It’s tantalizing to think of Duchamp cutting Pollock’s painting down to size, but there was never any evidence of this when the painting was examined. The Getty, in its recent analysis, confirms that “the white priming on the canvas extends across the unpainted tacking margins, to the cut edges of the fabric on both the vertical and horizonal sides.”

Pollock’s Mural is one of the most influential pieces in the history of American painting, foundational for large-format abstract painting which came to dominate the art world in the immediate decades after World War II. The Getty’s treatment of the painting has enabled new perspectives on this seminal work which has continued to capture our imagination. Mural is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, through February 23, 2020.