You know a Jackson Pollock painting when you see one. His giant canvases look as though the artist splashed paint onto them. Indeed, he did! Pollock’s radical technique of dripping, flinging, and throwing paint made him a pioneer in abstract expressionism, an artistic movement that originated in New York City following World War II.
Pollock’s distinctive works pose a problem for the museums that exhibit them. After years of display, many of the paintings are in need of cleaning. But owing to the artist’s unconventional techniques, conservators (experts who care for artworks) have had to develop innovative methods to clean the paintings without damaging them.
A Painting Shows Its Age
Many of the paintings have been consistently on display since Pollock completed them more than 60 years ago. But age and popularity have taken their toll. Today dust, dirt, and grime discolor many of his works, including Number 32 (shown above), completed in 1950. Pollock didn’t use a primer, a protective layer of neutral-colored paint, before he added black paint to the canvas. The untreated canvas is therefore more vulnerable to wear and tear.
Number 32 is part of the collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen museum in Düsseldorf, Germany. Otto Hubacek, the museum’s chief conservator, knew it was time to clean the work, which had turned a brownish yellow. But he feared that the solvents normally used to clean paintings would damage the raw (unprimed) canvas. Instead, he used a technique previously reserved for paper conservation. Hubacek used an airbrush to spray tiny particles of wheat starch and cellulose, a plant fiber, onto the painting, forcing dirt out of the painting’s textured surface. Then he vacuumed up the particles and dirt.
In total, Hubacek used more than 11 pounds of material and spent nearly four months conserving the work, which is nine feet tall and 15 feet wide. The work paid off: The painting is noticeably brighter.
The Power of Preservation
It’s been said that when Pollock finished a painting, he turned to his artist wife Lee Krasner and asked, Is it a painting? In other words, had he simply flung paint onto a canvas, or was he redefining what it meant to paint?
Most will agree that he did the latter. “Pollock’s influence on art was huge,” says Jim Coddington, head conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. “He was doing something radically different, and he was doing it successfully,” he explains.
Preserving an original work of art is a serious and precious undertaking. “You ought to be a little bit scared all the time,” says Coddington of the task.
In 2013, MoMA began conserving three of its Pollock paintings that were in need of restoration. After painstakingly cleaning each work, conservators removed areas of paint that had been added during a previous restoration. “It was the most laborious part,” Coddington says.
For as important as preservation is, it shouldn’t permanently alter the original. In art conservation, it’s called the principle of reversibility. Coddington and Hubacek agree that Pollock’s paintings are no exception.