“Mural is safe,” reported the Daily Iowan last night after Iowa state Rep. Scott Raecker (R) withdrew his bill that would have forced the sale of Jackson Pollock’s monumental painting out of the collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art. For the second time in three years, a disastrous forced sale was averted — for now. In an email cited by the Daily Iowan, Raecker emphasized that he’s only putting the idea on the shelf for this legislative session: “I’m a firm believer in the legislative process, and further discussion of the sale of the Pollock painting will not be moved forward in the legislature this year.” (Read a Des Moines Register blog post on same here.)
Late last week I talked with New York University art historian Pepe Karmel about Pollock’s Mural. Along with Kirk Varnedoe, Karmel co-curated the Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 Pollock retrospective. This is the first of two parts. Part two is here.
MAN: I think the overwhelming majority of people who care about art have seen Mural only in JPEG form, at about 600 pixels wide. That’s always a tough way to look at pictures of art, but especially so in the case of Mural. Can you tell us why it’s an important painting for Pollock?
Pepe Karmel: First of all, we’re talking about this because it’s a landmark painting for Iowa and for the University of Iowa. It stands for their historic openness about art. It would be a disaster for it to leave.
It’s an important painting for Jackson Pollock because it’s the moment that announces his future as a painter of large, mural-scale paintings that become environments, and furthermore paintings that are in this distinct, all-over style that changes people’s idea of what a painting might be.
Before he did Mural, he had one a number of late surrealist-style paintings, part of the abstract surreal tendency in the early 1940s shared by Pollock and a lot of other painters in New York at the time. Then he gets this commission from Peggy Guggenheim and he runs with it.
There are famous mythic stories about him struggling for months and not knowing what to do and then how he did the whole painting in a day or two before Peggy Guggenheim’s New Year’s Eve party. That doesn’t seem to be true. It seems more likely that he worked on it for months and finished it at the last moment.
The commission was that he paint a very large, specifically a very long painting from side to side. It’s eight feet high and it’s really, really wide, almost 20 feet. That forced Pollock to relate to space in a different way. He couldn’t make a scene you look into that had illusionistic space. He hadn’t been doing that in the surrealist paintings he had been doing, but he knew about something like Miro or Picasso that was advanced. Having to do this huge space forced him to work in this repetitive frieze format where he paints many large abstract almost figures and then joins them so they become an enormous tapestry. You can hardly look from one to the next — and this looks forward to the 1950 paintings that are at the Metropolitan, in Dusseldorf (above: Number 32, 1950, collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen) and at MoMA. These are the pictures that give us this sense of scale.
MAN: You have to be there for it.
PK: It does not reproduce well because it’s so wide. It’s like Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis or Pollock’s own Number 1, 1950 (left, collection of the National Gallery of Art). You have to be there. You have to be standing in front of it and feel it filling up your field of vision and feel it wrapping around you and feel yourself falling into the field of the painting. If you don’t have that experience first-hand, you won’t get the feeling of the painting.
I get people seeing it in JPEGs saying, ‘Next!’ but that’s not the effect it has in real life. When Kirk Varnedoe and I went out to see it when we did the MoMA exhibition, we were blown away by how big it was. It was a big hassle getting it to New York City and when we installed it in the show it transformed the the first half of the show. This painting, when we got it on the wall, we were blown away by how great it was.
MAN: You talked about how important the painting was in terms of Pollock’s oeuvre. Can you detail why it’s so important to what came next in American and modern and contemporary art?
PK: The next step is off the wall and out into space. In contemporary art that deals with installation as an art form, which comes out of those paintings in 1950 and that comes out of this painting in 1943. It just doesn’t get more historic than this.
It’s truly a kind of unrecognized monument of American art. If it’s ever sold, it will be a loss to Iowa and the university, yes, but potentially to the art world as a whole because it may very well go into a private collection somewhere and who knows when and if it will be seen.