There are two Holy Grails of modern and contemporary art collecting. The first would be the re-discovery of the Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait, The Artist on the Road to Tarascon (1888), which disappeared from being stored in a salt mine during World War II. The other would be the emergence of a previously unknown Jackson Pollock “Drip” painting. Of the two, the Pollock might be more elusive.
Jackson Pollock’s classic Drip canvases are synonymous with putting the period at the end of the sentence of how far you could take abstract painting. For true art aficionados, a Pollock symbolizes something akin to genius, achieved through tremendous personal struggle. For non-art world partisans, his work is viewed as the clichéd, “My child could do that.” Regardless, anyone with an open mind and a little knowledge of art history, often experiences an epiphany when standing in front of a major Pollock, such as Lavender Mist at the National Gallery, One: Number 31 at MoMA, or Lucifer at the Anderson Collection at Stanford.
During Pollock’s lifetime (he died in 1956 at the age of 44), he was modestly prolific. Between 1947-1951, the sweet spot for his Drip paintings, he produced approximately 160 works on canvas and paper. According to the Jackson Pollock Catalog Raisonné, a total of nine are lost. The editors are aware of their existence and have descriptions of them — but lack images. They are familiar with these works because of existent gallery records, such as a checklist from the Betty Parsons Gallery. The missing pictures include works on paper and canvas in various mediums. The authors of the catalog postulate that these works may have been destroyed by the artist or reworked.
What’s especially noteworthy is that none of the absent Pollocks exceed forty inches in any dimension. Scale was crucial to the esthetic success of Pollock’s imagery. This begs the question: Is it possible that an authentic major Drip canvas exists — that fell between the cracks and was never recorded?
We know that Pollock’s widow, the painter Lee Krasner, kept good records of paintings consigned to galleries. We also know that Pollock sold out of his studio and gave away paintings as gifts. There were even a few instances of Pollock trading his works to a merchant in the Springs to cover grocery bills he ran up. What we don’t know is “what we don’t know.” That’s to say, were there any substantial pictures that Pollock traded away, gave away, or threw away?
A clue was revealed by the maverick dealer Allan Stone, in the documentary, The Collector, directed by his daughter Olympia Stone. According to Allan, “Everybody knew that Pollock dumped a lot of his unsuccessful things in the dump in East Hampton. You know in those days, they weren’t worth anything.” That observations played out when, during the 1980s, a picker arrived at Stone’s gallery on E. 86th Street in New York, with a modest-size Drip painting. A long time ago, a car dealer found it and used the back of the canvas to make a sign. Stone recognized both the picture and the backstory were genuine — and bought it.
If a previously unknown Pollock Drip painting does surface, there’s a good chance it could be something he once gave away — behind Lee Krasner’s back. Lee was well-known for her devotion to Jackson’s career and served as his de facto manager. Despite Lee’s best efforts, her husband’s erratic behavior could have led to a gift of a sketch on paper or a small unstretched canvas — without her knowledge. It’s also possible that the estate of one of the era’s art critics or curators, who frequented Pollock’s studio, contains a Pollock which he stashed away — that his heirs have yet to find.
For the above reasons and others, curators and collectors hold out hope that a classic bona fide Pollock Drip painting will surface someday. There have been a few close-calls over the last twenty years. One centers around the estate of the photographer Herbert Matter, who along with his wife the painter Mercedes Matter, were friends with the Pollocks. In 2002, long after Herbert had passed away (1984), his son Alex discovered a group of 32 alleged Pollocks, wrapped in brown paper that had been in storage. The outside of the package was labeled, “Experimental Pollocks.” After years of controversy the paintings were declared to be forgeries — close but no cigar. There’s also the famous story of Teri Horton’s thrift store “Pollock” find, portrayed in the documentary, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? Regardless, it remains a longshot but a bona fide rolled up Drip canvas might be languishing somewhere, waiting to see the light of day.