“Mural,” by Jackson Pollock, looks as though it were painted in a single burst of energy; when you first encounter it, you feel as though the painter has just left the room.
Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” an eight-by-twenty-foot painting that the artist completed in 1943, has been on a continuous world tour since 2014. It’s travelled a lot of miles.
Legally, the painting belongs to the state of Iowa, because the University of Iowa is where it ended up after Peggy Guggenheim, the person who commissioned it, left New York City for Venice. Guggenheim had originally given “Mural” to Yale, but Yale didn’t want it. The students weren’t interested, she was told. So, in 1951, the painting went to Iowa City, where it hung for many years in an art studio, and then in the library, before it was finally installed in the university’s art museum, which opened in 1969. No one knows how much the painting is worth today, but it must be north of a hundred million dollars. It is generally regarded as Pollock’s breakthrough work. It is also a stunning picture.
The painting’s travels began in crisis. In 2008, the Iowa River flooded, essentially destroying the university’s art museum. Almost miraculously, Pollock’s painting—along with most of Iowa’s amazing collection—was saved and moved to a space in Davenport. In 2012, “Mural” was shipped off to the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, for a two-year face-lift. And ever since, like an aging rock star, it has been on perpetual tour, in the United States and in Europe, while the university rebuilds its museum. This month, “Mural” arrived in Boston, where it is being exhibited until next February, in the Museum of Fine Arts.
“Mural” may be over sixty-five, but it still has star power. Pollock finished it about three years before he began doing the drip paintings that would make him famous. In “Mural,” you can see the same appearance of creative abandon combined with compositional control that makes those later paintings inimitable.
Both Guggenheim and Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, are responsible for the myth that Pollock painted the entire work overnight—a complete impossibility, as anyone looking at the canvas can tell. (Just in case, the painting has been examined using various imaging techniques, and it’s clear that Pollock made several applications of paint.) Still, “Mural” looks as though it were painted in a single burst of energy. In letters that Pollock wrote to his family while he was working on the painting, he says how excited he is by the project. And when you first encounter “Mural”—I saw it in Davenport, in 2011—you feel as though the painter has just left the room. The paint seems as if it is still wet. You can almost hear the sound of the door closing.
There are other myths that adhere to “Mural.” Guggenheim commissioned the painting for the foyer of a town house that she was renting on East Sixty-first Street, and the story is that, when the canvas turned out to be too big for the space, Marcel Duchamp, who was a friend of Guggenheim’s and who helped Pollock install it, blithely snipped eight inches off the sides. How this tall tale got taken up is hard to explain—maybe because it sounds so Duchampian—because you only have to see where the canvas is attached to the stretcher to know that nothing was cut.
And Guggenheim almost certainly made up the story about how, after the installation was finished, Pollock got drunk, took his clothes off, and walked into a party that was under way in her apartment and pissed in the fireplace. Pollock was an alcoholic who did stupid, mostly belligerent things when he was drunk, but it would have been unprecedented for him to walk around nude at a party. There was a fireplace in Guggenheim’s foyer, and it’s possible that, while Pollock was hanging the painting, he urinated in it, in front of Duchamp. The wild-man stories suit a popular view of Pollock, just as the insouciant gesture of snipping eight inches off someone else’s canvas suits a certain view of Duchamp.
There are drips in “Mural,” and many places where the paint seems slashed or stabbed on. Pollock attributed some of these effects to his excitement, but they obviously point the way forward for his art. What “Mural” seems to have most in common with the drip works is the biomorphism. When Pollock took his canvas off the easel, he changed the locus of painterly concentration from the eye to the body. The drip paintings are records of a person in motion. The painting literally represents the gestures used to make it: thrown paint looks like thrown paint. In a way, as later artists appreciated, the dance is the work of art, the painting its residue.
The key structural element in “Mural” is a series of verticals, some of which reach the whole height of the canvas. It’s possible to read these anthropomorphically, as walking or marching figures, and they give the painting a powerful left-to-right dynamic. (It has been suggested that the black verticals spell out Pollock’s name, although I can’t see it.) They represent the reach of the painter, someone stooping as low as possible below his knees, reaching as high as possible above his head.
The M.F.A. owns a drip painting called “Number 10, 1949,” which hangs in its Art of the Americas wing. “Number 10” is unusual because of its dimensions: almost nine feet long and just eighteen inches high. It is a luxuriant example of the other aspect of Pollock’s biomorphism, the petri-dish effect of the drips when you see them up close. Pollock could make the big, painterly gesture, but he had fine motor skills, too.
Every venue that “Mural” visits has to figure out how to display it. At the M.F.A., it is presented alongside just one other piece, a work that the museum commissioned from the German artist Katharina Grosse. Like Pollock’s, her piece is a mural that is not a mural. In her case—the work is titled “Untitled”—the non-mural hangs from the ceiling and covers some portion of the floor. It is forty-eight feet long and sixteen feet high, more than twice the dimensions of “Mural” (which is the largest work Pollock ever painted).
The museum has wisely hung the Grosse perpendicular to the Pollock, so that we are not forced to imagine them engaged in some kind of visual face-off. Grosse uses industrial spray paint on thin fabric, which is hung, not stretched, giving the painting a kind of liminal immateriality. It’s very different from Pollock’s surfaces. Grosse’s colors are highly fluorescent, too, and her piece does have the effect of dulling Pollock’s a little. She makes him look his age. That’s worth contemplating, too.