I popped in to the National Gallery in Canberra last week after its recent COVID-19 hiatus and spotted the famed Blue Poles painting in a new position at the end of a room by itself with a strange metal contraption at the side. Odd, I thought – wonder why they moved it there. Actually, I was also mildly annoyed that it spoilt the aesthetics of the photo I took.
It turns out the NGA was taking advantage of the shutdown period to do a little clean up and conservation work on this immensely popular painting, one of the gallery’s most iconic, which is normally always on display. And that would explain that strange moveable seat/crane I spied at the left, which allows the conservator to easily access different parts of the fairly large canvas. I hadn’t thought of that.
Blue Poles was painted by American artist Jackson Pollock in 1952, an example of abstract expressionist style. Originally it was called Number 11: not an evocative title but that’s the point – the idea was not to use a label. Once it’s called Blue Poles, everyone looks for the poles and may miss much of the rest of it. It’s painted in bold primary colours in a restricted palette in the ‘drip and pour’ method: pour the paint on and see what shapes emerge as opposed to mops and buckets which he also used. At the time, many derided the method with the name ‘drool school’. Perhaps some still do.
A few days later, I happened upon a live Facebook interview with several NGA staff members (an indication perhaps I spend too much time lurking on social media) which was fascinating. During the discussion which included David Wise, the head painting conservator at the gallery, I discovered a number of interesting things about the painting. I’d previously known that some of its texture came from glass and aluminium, but I didn’t realise it also contains screws, staples and cardboard (I’m going to have to try to spot them at another time), and even some fingerprints. I did ask the question if they were Pollock’s fingerprints, but apparently we need to call in the FBI or CSI or some other acronym to verify that.
I also learnt that the paint is incredibly layered, and that it actually uses household enamel paint rather than conventional artists’ paint. I guess that might have been cheaper for the artist but probably makes conserving a 70 year old painting a bit more challenging.
I remember clearly as a kid when the National Gallery purchased the painting back in 1973 (that’s actually 9 years before the gallery was officially opened in 1982 by the Queen, where incidentally one of my friends was there to meet her). The painting cost $1.3 Australian (or US$2 million, which is a pretty confusing conversion given I’ve always known US dollars to have greater value than ours). The cost meant the director of the gallery at the time, James Mollison, couldn’t authorise its purchase as it was over $1 million, so it was approved by the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, a lover of the arts and a man not to be taken lightly. He wanted to make the price tag public, which of course sparked quite a media storm and divided the nation. I recall the conversations, even around my own dining table, and the news reports: what a ridiculous waste of money, it’s just rubbish, sometimes isn’t it amazing, and of course, I could have bloody done that myself.
The arguments about valuing modern art must have stuck with me as I recall several years later at the end of Year 12 having a very long and earnest conversation into the wee hours of the night about the merits of modern art versus traditional and whether a blank white canvas deserves a place on a gallery wall. The conversation continued passionately until 4 or 5am, perhaps fuelled with Star Wine, our drink of choice at the time. (I apologise for that: I’ve moved on.) It was a conversation I had with a bunch of school mates on our ‘schoolies’ week on the Gold Coast back in the very late 70s when a rather large bunch of Novacastrians headed north en masse for the warmth of Burleigh Heads and the lights and discos of the Gold Coast. While we like to think we were quite instrumental in founding the whole schoolies movement (though nowadays that’s not an accolade), in retrospect and in comparison to now, our activities were very above board, and as this story relates, quite cultural as well.
But I digress.
Back to Blue Poles.
There’s no doubt a large number of people would look at this painting or other expressionist works of arts and be confused or even scathing, but I really like it. But even for those who don’t love or even like the painting, no one can argue it was a bad financial investment. It’s impossible to provide an exact value for a painting like this but it was insured for $350 million when it travelled to New York for an exhibition in 2016. That’s really quite a good rate on investment on the $1.3 million purchase price look. Not as good value though as the original $32,000 paid for the painting in 1957 by Ben Heller, a friend of Pollocks, who bought it just after the artist died.
And for those Ben Affleck fans among you who’ve watched The Accountant movie, you may have recognised Christian’s favourite possession in his van as a Jackson Pollock original painting. That is to say, in the story it’s counted as the original, clearly they would have been a copy, probably a print, because you know, budget. The real deal, Free Form painted in 1946 and reputed to be the artist’s first ‘drip’ painting would be worth tens of millions of dollars if not hundreds of millions and just a bit beyond their film budget. I did read in an online review that ‘that painting has been altered for the movie, by placing an eye looking askance from the middle, which isn’t in the original’ but to be honest, I can’t actually see the eye the writer is referring to. Can you? I’ve provided some photos below so you can do a little compare the pair.
Hands up if you recognised the artist as soon as you saw the painting? Not a bad parting gift to receive from a work colleague!
If you want to learn more about this painting or visit Blue Poles in person at the National Gallery, now’s the great time to do so. Every Wednesday from 1.30 to 2.30pm, David Wise the head painting conservator is onsite next to the painting to answer questions. You have to book a place (it’s free) because we’re still being wary of spaces and accountability in the age of COVID-19.
Go to the gallery’s page here to book a space https://bluepoles.nga.gov.au/conservation/live-conservation/
or if you’re not close by, check out what’s available online.