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Pollock's Mural:

by Donald Kuspit
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On Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011, Scott Raecker, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, introduced a bill requiring the University of Iowa to sell Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943), which the university owns. In 2008 the estimated value of Pollock’s painting was $140 million; the Des Moines Register estimates that it’s worth $150 million today. The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that the money from the sale would be used for “scholarship assistance to U of I undergraduate students from Iowa.” “Proceeds from the sale would go into a trust, from which interest would pay for scholarships.” A worthy purpose, no doubt, for a pricey painting: presumably Scott Raecker thought the exchange was worth the price.

Raising an issue that has become widespread these Great Recession days, Raecker argued that the state “legislature needs to focus on passing a budget for Iowans that meets priority needs and doesn’t spend more than we take in.” For Raecker creating a “perpetual fund and pay for hundreds of scholarships for university students” is more important -- a higher priority -- than owning one painting, however important it may be. Scholarships do more public good than any work of art, however good it may be. And indeed, Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa, acknowledged Raecker’s “good” intentions.    

Ed Dove, the President of the university’s Faculty Senate, calling the painting a “national asset” as well as a “critical asset to the university’s collection,” and “invaluable” to its educational purpose, said the sale “would be a disaster for the university.” And for its museum: the Pollock is its prize possession. As though to appease both, “The bill allows the university to have the painting on loan for three months at a time at least once every four years” -- a strange arrangement that assumes the buyer would agree.

On Monday, Feb. 21, 2011, Raecker’s bill died in the Iowa State legislature. It had become “cumbersomely emotional,” as the Des Moines Register eloquently described the “strong opinions” -- some involving “profanity and ill wishes” towards Raecker -- it aroused. “John Pappajohn, a well-known Des Moines philanthropist who has given about $40 million to the university, publicly criticized” the bill. While the governor acknowledged the need “to have more money available for scholarships,” he concluded that the sale would have “unintended consequences, in terms of donations to the universities.” So Pollock’s Mural, safely on display in Davenport’s Figge Museum after the University of Iowa’s art museum was closed in 2008 because of flooding, remains in the hands of the State of Iowa, perhaps one of its most valuable properties. (One wonders why the university’s museum hasn’t been repaired. Lack of funds?)

Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to paint Mural for her New York apartment in July 1943. An oil on canvas, rumor has it that the work was intended for the hallway. The piece is 8 feet 1 ¼ inches wide by 9 feet 10 inches long. It may have been longer; ever-present rumor has it that it was too big for the space, and Marcel Duchamp cut it down to its current size. A “wall of paint,” it is implicitly an “’allover’ composition,” however delusionally figural. It is of special importance because Pollock had “to work on the floor. . . so that he could move around all sides of the picture and reach every part of it.”(1) In short, it’s a sort of breakthrough, “revolutionary” painting, retrospectively understood as a “transition” to Pollock’s predestined “pure gestural style,” although I doubt that Pollock was ever as “pure” a painter as he supposedly became, considering the rancorous rawness and uncertainty of his gestures, compensated by their grandiosity. “Compositional interest” is not evenly distributed “across the entire surface of Mural”(2) nor for that matter over any of the later so-called allover paintings, but rather scattered and scattershot. Interest is drawn this way and that, without a center to anchor it. The work is a sum of distractions, a sort of tattered web woven by a demented spider, too self-intoxicated to weave a stable, harmonious pattern. “Even distribution of compositional interest” suggests an evenness of handling and composure that Pollock’s works lack.

Peggy Guggenheim gave Mural to the University of Iowa in 1951, perhaps to spread Pollock’s fame beyond New York, perhaps because that was the year when he stopped making allover paintings, suggesting that he had spent his creativity in vain, perhaps because she didn’t think much of the work, perhaps because, as the Des Moines Register suggests, she “believed it was worth [only] a few thousand dollars,” and thus a bad, unprofitable investment. What a loss for the market!

But the University of Iowa clearly made a profit on it. And it’s been put in a predicament: should it take its profit and use it for the profit of its students -- students in need, students who cannot afford an education without state aid, students who are the future of Iowa and the USA -- or should it hold on to Mural, out of respect for its art historical importance and museum quality? (Although Guggenheim seemed to think it belonged in a museum in the provincial, art-backward Midwest, perhaps because she thought Pollock’s painting was provincial, crudely American modern art in contrast to the cosmopolitan, sophisticated European modern art she exhibited in her Art of the Century gallery. And perhaps in recognition of the fact that Pollock was from the Wild West. Pollock was after all the heir to all that European advanced art had achieved, not one of its initiators. It remains an open question as to just how innovative and “experimental” he was compared to them.)

Raecker’s bill is dead, and the University of Iowa continues to be the proud possessor of Mural, but the issue Raecker’s bill raises remains alive. It can be put another way: Mural may be a “national asset,” as Dove said, but how much of an educational asset is it? It gives the university, its art history department, and its museum a great deal of prestige -- the prestige it has as a decisive work in Pollock’s development -- but what can the students learn from it, however much they may learn about it? Just what exactly does it contribute to their intellectual and emotional development? Would it be of greater benefit to them if it was sold and the money from the sale used to fund scholarships in perpetuity rather than whatever benefit they might gain by studying it -- and I don’t doubt there is an educational benefit? But however long the work lasts, what lasting effect will it have on the students -- and I don’t doubt that it will have an effect, shortlived or memorable? Simply put, what good does it do hanging in all its glory in the university’s museum -- in any museum -- considering the good it could do if it was sold to endow a scholarship fund?  

I think the university and state had the chance to do some human good with Mural and muffed the chance. It seemed an opportune moment to sell the painting, considering their financial needs -- and the financial needs of poor students. Pollock’s painting is old; the students are young. Pollock’s painting is past history; the students are future history. Pollock’s painting is an object; the students are people. Pollock’s painting represents money; the students represent mind. Pollock’s art is immortal, as art supposedly is; the students are merely mortal, as human beings are.

In 1969, after some three decades of writing about art, Clement Greenberg, who supported Pollock to the extent of according him major art historical importance, said, “There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. . . . Art shouldn’t be overrated. . . . The weal and woe of human beings comes first. I deplore the tendency to over-value art.”(3) Is Greenberg talking about himself -- and Pollock? Did he come to feel that Pollock sacrificed his life on the altar of art, and the sacrifice wasn’t worth it? Did he come to feel that he over-valued Pollock’s art -- at the expense of the values evident in other art -- however much it served his theoretical interests? Did he come to regret having devoted so much of his life to art? Did he come to believe that it cost him his happiness? If his writings are any clue, much of it made him unhappy, for it didn’t live up to his aesthetic expectations. Was he always more concerned about the weal and woe of human beings, as many of his essays suggest, than the well-being and woes of art, however concerned he was with them?

For the State and University of Iowa art comes before the weal and woe of its students -- its human constituency. It’s made its choice. What’s yours?

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art

(1) Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000; 2nd ed.), 90

(2) Ibid.

(3) Clement Greenberg, “Interview Conducted by Lily Leino” [1969], The Collected Essays and Criticism, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), vol. 4, 313-14