Sunday, August 24, 2014

Art and a Movie at the Ringling: Who the *$&% is Jackson Pollock?

Earlier this summer, the Ringling Museum had a really interesting exhibit on entitled "Intent to Deceive."  The show told the stories of five master art forgers, including how they ultimately were found out.  As a follow-on to the show, the Ringling is hosting a series of "conversations" followed by a movie whose purpose, according to curator of education Maureen Zaremba, is to "virtually take us behind the scenes of the museum."  The first of these evenings focused on art authentication.

Maureen Zaremba and Beth Mattison
Zaremba and Beth Mattison, this year's Selby Fellow for Education, kicked off the evening by giving an overview of the ways in which art can be authenticated.  The somewhat surprising fact is that there is no real system by which works of art are authenticated.  Instead, museums, galleries and collectors use a triad of methodologies to determine whether an artwork was created by the artist in question.

The first of these methods is looking at the work's provenance; i.e., establishing the line of ownership from the hands of the artist to the current owner.  (As they spoke about provenance, I found myself thinking about how the provenance of "antique" furniture was faked in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and wondering how often disreputable art dealers engage in similar practices.) One of the ongoing areas of research relates to the provenance of artwork that might have been stolen by the Nazis during WWII.  The Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal is one such project.  Its objective is to provide a researchable site covering all works in U.S. museums that changed ownership in Continental Europe during the Nazi era.  Needless to say, a huge task, and one that the Ringling has participated in.

The second means of authentication is connoisseurship, essentially an art expert putting his seal of approval on a work of art as genuine.  It reminds me of the Supreme Court's test for obscenity.  "I know it when I see it."  Of course, in this case, the connoisseur has usually spent a lifetime studying and writing about the artist in question.

An Amptek x-ray spectometer in use to examine a wall painting
The final means of authentication falls under the broad heading of scientific analysis.  These days, the use by a forger of materials that weren't available during the period the real artist was alive can lead to his downfall.  Other fakes have been detected using computer analysis to look at brushstrokes at a microscopic level to determine if they are consistent with those in other works by the same artist.  The technology available to assist in these inquiries is constantly growing and changing.  Zaremba shared that the Ringling previously used the x-ray machine at Sarasota Memorial Hospital to take a closer look at some of the works in its collection.  This tool is no longer available because x-rays, like so many things, have gone digital.  If you want to read a bit more about the use of an XRF spectrometer in analyzing art and architecture, click here.

Zaremba and Mattison then gave us a bit of background about the cast of characters we would encounter in "Who the *$&% is Jackson Pollock?"   The story revolves around Teri Horton, a California truck driver who purchased a larger than life painting from a thrift store for $5 to cheer up a friend.  When a high school art teacher suggested that the painting might be a Jackson Pollock, Teri's reaction led to the title for this documentary.

Teri Horton now knows who Jackson Pollock is.  
In the film, we meet Horton and some of her friends and family.  (Trust me when I say that Horton is quite colorful.) We also meet some of the people who have been involved in the authentication debate.  There's Thomas Hoving, a "professional connoisseur" who emphatically concludes the work is not a Pollock.  (The movie doesn't reveal that his area of expertise is not Pollock, or even modern art, but medieval art.)   There's Paul Biro, the "forensic" authenticator who uses science to reach his conclusion that the painting is a Pollock.  (Once again, the movie doesn't tell the backstory that Biro was implicated in a number of lawsuits relating to art fraud.) And we are introduced to the International Foundation for Art Research, a "nonprofit educational and research organization dedicated to integrity in the visual arts" that authenticates artwork but doesn't disclose the individuals who were involved in the authentication process.  (Purportedly, this is to protect against lawsuits, but it seems a bit odd to me that people are not willing to publicly stand behind their judgments.)  It's an entertaining movie that kept me interested until the very end.  And while I could have watched the movie in the comfort of my home, it was much more fun to share the experience with an auditorium filled with art lovers.

The final installment in the Ringling's series will give the audience a peek into the ways museums protect their collections from would-be thieves.  On Thursday, August 28, at 6:00, Ringling staff will talk about security at the Museum, with a screening of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo) to follow.  Admission is only $5.  Perhaps I'll see you there.

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