In 2012, the GCI and the Paintings Conservation Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum embarked on a two-year project of conservation and research on Jackson Pollock's seminal work Mural (1943). The aim of the project was to undertake a thorough investigation into the materials and techniques used by the artist during this critical early moment in his career, and to carry out a major conservation treatment to improve the painting's aesthetic impact and to stabilize its physical structure.
The painting, which is in the collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, was last conserved in 1973. This included a wax-resin lining treatment that successfully mitigated a long history of flaking. However, it also locked into place a sag in the canvas, resulting in a misalignment of the painted image with its rectangular stretcher. In addition, a varnish applied during this treatment had become dull, masking the vibrancy of many of the colors and obscuring the subtle variations of gloss one might expect from such a varied surface. Structurally, the 1973 stretcher was unable to support the considerable weight of the lined canvas.
Scientific research undertaken by the GCI focused on the paints and the application techniques used by the artist, to determine if any of the well-known characteristics of Pollock's later work—such as the use of house paints and his placement of the canvas on the floor while he painted—were part of his working methods in creating Mural.
It was determined that Pollock's initial paint marks appear to have been made in four highly diluted colors applied wet-on-wet and still visible in several areas of the painting. This showed that Pollock probably completed an initial composition over much of the canvas very rapidly. However, the majority of paint layers on Mural were not part of this session and were frequently added over earlier applications of paint that had already dried, indicating several days or even weeks would have passed between painting sessions.
There is strong documentary evidence that Mural was painted as a stretched canvas leaned against a wall in Pollock's New York apartment/studio, and most of the paint appears applied with the canvas upright. However, one paint, a pink, stringy paint, had a different appearance—it was similar to the enamel house paints he used in his later works to pour onto a canvas lying on his studio floor.
|Detail of Mural showing the pink, stringy paint in the top right corner|
The Getty team investigated whether Pollock might have applied this paint onto Mural in a similar way despite the cramped conditions in his studio. The team manipulated modern oil paints with various media and solvents to alter the viscosity of the paint, and experimented with application methods. The team found that paint of a certain consistency, when flicked at a test canvas placed upright, could create the same results. It is therefore unlikely that Pollock laid this painting horizontally to apply paint to the canvas for Mural.
In terms of the conservation treatment carried out, Getty Museum conservators removed surface grime and then an aged synthetic varnish, which made an important visual change to the depth of and surface of the painting.
However, the larger conservation challenge was deciding how to deal with the exposed edges of the painting and the pronounced sag in the original canvas. The stretcher from the 1973 treatment needed to be remade to properly bear the weight of the artwork. The Getty research team therefore began to think of ways in which the shape of the painted surface could be incorporated into the new stretcher design, involving numerous colleagues in the field in that discussion.
The decision was made to create a slightly curved stretcher to follow the existing painted edges, thereby returning all areas of unpainted canvas to the sides of the stretcher, and to re-establish the original edges of Pollock's work.
The painting was exhibited at the Getty Museum for three months, alongside the team's extensive research and analysis. The display occupied two galleries, with the painting installed in the first. The second gallery examined the materials and techniques used to create Mural, explored some of the legends surrounding the work, explained how it has changed since it was completed, and discussed its recent conservation treatment at the Getty.