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Pigment Could Undo Pollock

Electron microscopy raises questions on authenticity of three paintings

By Lee ann W. Custer, Contributing Writer

A sophisticated scientific analysis has raised questions about the authenticity of three paintings attributed to Jackson Pollock, Harvard researchers reported this week. But the canvasses are still slated to go up for exhibition at Boston College this fall.

Using scanning electron microscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and a slew of other state-of-the-art techniques, scholars at the Harvard University Art Museums found materials in the paintings that were not available until years after Pollock died.

The analysis revealed that one of the three paintings includes a brown pigment that was not created until the early 1980s and not available on the market until 1986. Pollock died in 1956. The other two paintings spawned similar findings, containing materials not available before 1962 or 1963, according to the study.

Despite the growing controversy, Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art will display the majority of the collection from which the three disputed paintings stem in its “Pollock Matters” exhibit opening in September.

Nancy Netzer, the museum’s director and professor of art history at Boston College, said that the works still merit exhibition and further investigation.

“Our aim is to present all of the information that we have,” Netzer said. “There is a lot of conflicting evidence that we want to bring to the table. It is important to engage with other scholars who may have never seen these works before.”

According to Netzer, the paintings will be labeled as “problems for study.”

The authenticity of Pollock’s paintings has more than scholarly significance. An undisputed painting by the famed American abstract expressionist, “No. 5, 1948,” recently sold for $140 million, making it the world’s most expensive masterpiece.

The Harvard investigation was a collaboration between Harry Cooper, a curator of modern art at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum; Narayan Khandekar, a senior conservation scientist at the Straus Center for Conservation, an arm of the Harvard museums; and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Christina B. Rosenberger of Havard’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art.

The analysis of pigments and binding media was conducted largely at the Straus Center.

Alex Matter—the son of photographer Herbert Matter and painter Mercedes Matter—first reported discovering the paintings in 2002. He has said that he found them in his deceased father’s Long Island storage facility, wrapped in brown paper and labeled as “32 Jackson experimental works.”

The Harvard study, conducted pro-bono, was initiated at the request of Alex Matter himself.

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