01 February 2016

The Errant Eye

fig. 1

It's not all that difficult to tell a fake Jackson Pollock painting from a real one. Despite what some may think, and despite all the scoffing my-kid-could-paint-that cliches, it's not all that terribly difficult to discern that something is amiss.

The first indicator is the scale. Smaller works from Pollock’s "drip"/"allover" phase are in the minority, with the rest of them being quite large.

The main thing is composition, of being very familiar -- after long, extended periods of looking at the Pollock's work -- with the artist’s visual vocabulary. This might take a while, but after a time that vocabulary becomes intuitive. One general aspect is the work's compositional rhythm, its push-and-pull -- the way the composition breathes or coalesces through an amalgam of webs, skeins, clusters, puddlings and crusts. Also considering how the artist would crop the canvas after-the-fact, which was often dictated by by where the density of the composition begins to thin or become too diffuse, with only a moderate ratio of bleeding over the edges, the allover "apocalyptic wallpaper" effect being economically hemmed in by the boundaries. And then there's Pollock’s sense of distributing the paint about the canvas, in terms of chromatic harmonies and contrasts. Bold, bright elements are most often not allowed to dominate, with the artist "knocking them back" via breaking up one layer with the next. (This was perhaps done with the intent of nullifying elements that might be construed as "figurative," which the critic Clement Greenberg told him was regressive, conservative).

fig. 2, 3

Third would be the condition of the thing. This would involve a close-up inspection while bearing a number of considerations in mind, many of them having to do with the painter's methods and materials. Such as: In order to execute his famous "drip"-era painting, Pollock set up studio in a barn, with the canvases spread out on the floor. It was far from a pristine environment, and a fair amount of detritus -- dirt, cigarette butts, bootprints, etc. -- sometimes got caught up in the action. There's also the matter of looking at how the thing has aged -- basic entropic considerations. Such as the discoloration of the canvas/support. Or, given that Pollock often made these works by using commercial-grade lacquer paint, which have a tendency to quickly degrade over time -- cracking, crazing, or wrinkle at various points [fig. 2 - 3]. Such is the stuff that has kept a number of museum conservators busy in recent decades.

At the very least, the art directors of Ex Machina [fig. 1] might've contacted the prop department of the makers of the 2000 biopic Pollock. Actor and director Ed Harris had reputedly spent months studying Pollock's methods and laboring to recreate them for the sake of his performance in the film [fig. 4 - 5]. Perhaps there were one or two of the mock Pollocks still in someone’s possession?**

fig. 4, 5

Or maybe they have consulted with the British conceptualists Art & Language, getting some technical pointers from them about they went about making their Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock series back in 1979-80 [fig. 6 - 7].

Fig. 7, 8

Either might've been the better option than, say, going to Knoedler & Company and trying to borrow or acquire one of the fake Pollocks they had to offer [fig. 8]. Knoedler & Company would've charged them top dollar, far above what the film’s budgeting could justify. Plus, even when compared to the one used in the film, the Knoedler forgeries were obviously bullshit.**

Which reminds me: While you're in the process of trying to discern your fake Pollock from a real one: Maybe just check the signature, for fucks sake.

fig. 8

As the art market bubble has continued to expand indefinitely, you read of more and more cases of art fraud. Or perhaps it only seems that way because such cases are being reported more widely. Whichever the case, there have been a number of factors feeding the bubble's growth. And with so much money being poured into the market, it's only natural that some parties might want to get in on the action and work some sort of angle. Under such circumstances, you hear the usual comments about caveat emptor and nouveau-wealthy types with "more money than sense" being bandied about, as the auction houses start filling up with novice buyers with uncultivated eyes, whose interest in collecting art is mostly has to do with using it for the purposes of speculative investment or -- in some instances -- money laundering.

Be that as it may, the Knoedler case is the biggest and most sensational of recent art fraud instances. And since the story broke over two years ago, there's been a fair amount of incredulity to go around -- the amounts of money involved, the obviousness of the whole sham operation, the number of supposed experts claiming that they'd be duped as well and had no idea. I myself have seen a few names mentioned as peripheral figures who've been are alleged to have some hand (however small) in the operation -- a reputable critic or veteran gallerist or art historian who supposedly signed off on the validation of some dubious item or another. Regarding which, two likely explanations have been put forth. The first being that the huge amounts of money involved proved to have a corrupting influence so pervasive that it tainted even respectable persons who may or may not have stood to benefit. But a second (and more likely) scenario probably involves something along the lines of coercion or bullying -- i.e., with so much money at stake, certain persons were under pressure to not upset the cart. That sort of thing has been around since the practice of authentication and connoisseurship became common practices in the art market; mainly because those who are putting down large sums of money on such thing can also always afford better and more aggressive lawyers.

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*  This is not to be construed as a recommendation for the film in question.

**  Not to sound too smug and pedantic about all this; because not too many years ago I saw some recent works by Brice Marden which, had I not not know, I might've instead taken for works by someone seeking to imitate Brice Marden’s work circa two decades earlier. Not to sound too smug and pedantic about all this; because not too many years ago I saw some recent works by Brice Marden which, had I not known, I might've instead taken for works by someone seeking to do decorative knock-offs of Marden’s late-80s, "Cold Mountain" work. But I guess if (unlike Pollock) you live long enough to have a decades-long career, you’re allowed to recycle yourself at least once.

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