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BC to Exhibit Controversial Jackson Pollocks

More than two dozen paintings at the center of an art world controversy will be on view for the first time ever beginning tomorrow at Boston College.

When the paintings first surfaced, they appeared to be by Jackson Pollock, whose canvases of dripped and splattered paint redefined abstract art. But as experts looked closer, they wondered — were the paintings what they appeared to be?

WBUR'S Abigail Beshkin guides us through the mystery and previews what new findings may be revealed.

ABIGAL BESHKIN: Alex Matter tells the story of finding the paintings this way: It was 2002 and his mother had just died. His father had died in 1984. Matter was sorting through their belongings.

ALEX MATTER: And we came upon this package and it described on the front "Pollocks," and when they were painted, that they were experimental...a whole bunch of information my father had written down.

BESHKIN: His father was Herbert Matter, a photographer and graphic designer. To Alex Matter, his father's handwriting on the brown paper wrapping made it clear: Jackson Pollock had given the paintings to his good friend.

MATTER: People that know my father, if he wrote it, that's what it was. He was ruthlessly honest.

BESHKIN: The paint was peeling. So Alex Matter had the works restored. It's something he now regrets. He also showed them to Pollock expert Ellen Landau of Case Western Reserve University. To Landau, the 32 works seemed to share traits with the authenticated Pollocks ...

ELLEN LANDAU: ... including such small details as correcting areas of paint that the artist felt didn't fit the overall compositional needs... certain very characteristic gestures and shapes that you could find in other known works by Pollock.

BESHKIN: Then the scientific studies started rolling in. A Harvard analysis of three of the paintings determined some pigments and materials weren't even available in the late 1940s, when Pollock supposedly made these paintings. To Pollock believers, the findings were damning, explains Cleveland Plain Dealer art critic Steven Litt.

STEVEN LITT: The results show that these paintings include pigments that were not available during Pollock's lifetime, and these were not pigments on the surface of these pictures but way down in the lowest layers. So that would seem to raise some serious questions about the others.

BESHKIN: Meantime, BC's McMullen Museum was planning an exhibit about the friendship between Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, and Herbert Matter and his wife, painter Mercedes Matter. The paintings Matter's son had found were going to be displayed as Jackson Pollocks. The Harvard findings forced the museum to rething that, explains McMullen Museum director Nancy Netzer.

NANCY NETZER: We would borrow Pollocks that had already been authenticated ... and in the final room, we would show the newly discovered works.

BESHKIN: The linchpin of the exhibit will be the catalog, which museum officials are keeping under tight wraps — an unusual practice. It will include an article by curator Ellen Landau suggesting, among other things, that Pollocks signature "drip" paintings may have been inspired by projects that Matter was doing the same time, dripping ink into photographs.

LANDAU: No one has ever considered the impact of his artistic friendship with Herbert Matter. Some of the questions that we have had about Pollock are answered by looking at this relationship with Herbert Matter.

BESHKIN: The fact that Landau is curating the show, and the secrecy of the catalog, has led the Pollock-Krasner Foundation to keep its distance. The McMullen Museum says the exhibit lays out information without expressing a point of view. But Pollock-Krasner attorney Ronald Spencer says he's not sure.

RONALD SPENCER: The fact of that matter is the exhibition catalog, which we have not yet seen, one of the chief essays in that catalog is by Ellen Landau, who is an expert on Pollock but a major proponent of the authenticity of the Alex Matter-owned paintings.

BESHKIN: The Pollock-Krasner Foundation owns Pollock's copyrights and won't allow the one dozen known Pollocks in the show to be printed in the catalog. Spencer explains why.

SPENCER: If I owned some of the Alex Matter paintings and I was trying to sell them five years from now, one of the things I'd say to a buyer is, look, they were exhibited in a major museum to critical acclaim and they were displayed with undisputed Pollocks as well. That's a selling point, if you will.

BESHKIN: Much of what is fueling this controversy boils down to money. Pollocks sell for millions. That means Alex Matter could be sitting on a gold mine, says New York University art historian Pepe Karmel.

PEPE KARMEL: I know there are paintings on paper by Jackson Pollock of a comparable size that have sold for $4 million or $5 million each. Well if there are 40 of them, the group is worth $160 million and maybe more.

BESHKIN: There were, in fact, 32 in the package. And a few found elsewhere. But Alex Matter says he doesn't care about the money.

MATTER: They have created this whole show and a legacy of my father that never existed before. And if nobody ever wants to buy them — and i'm not sure i want to sell them — but if nobody wanted to buy them, that's fine.

BESHKIN: Matter has, however, come under fire for trying to stifle a newer scientific analysis of the paintings. Missing from the catalog will be a study he commissioned from a western Massachusetts conservation scientist, James Martin. Martin wouldn't publish the study, saying Matter had threatened to sue him. The museum isn't used to such controversy, and museum director Nancy Netzer says people should decide the matter for themselves.

For WBUR, I'm Abigail Beshkin.

This program aired on August 31, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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