How to restore Pollock's 'drips': very carefully

The way Jackson Pollock painted has sometimes resulted in conservation problems.

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A number of Jackson Pollock's all-over skein paintings, like "Number 2, 1949," can be described as "friezes." They are much wider than they are high, a format similar to the flat band on classical buildings that runs below the cornice and above the architrave.

American painters of Pollock's generation considered moving away from easel painting toward painting directly on the wall. Pollock's paintings came somewhere between the two concepts. They often had architectural proportions and scale. Nevertheless, he still painted on canvas - laid flat on the floor - to be stretched and hung only when finished.

Pollock's kind of painting would have been impossible to do vertically on an easel or a wall. He dripped and ran his paint in natural rhythms and interweavings, making it trail across the canvas. He never touched the surface with a brush. The linear webs of paint dried where they were on the canvas.

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On a wall, however, the paint would have run down, and he would have lost the "total control" and "denial of the accident" that he notably emphasized was his aim.

The unconventional way Pollock painted has sometimes resulted in conservation problems. On two occasions, conservator Tom Branchick, director of the Williamstown (Mass.) Art Conservation Center, has worked on "Number 2, 1949," which belongs to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y. He recently removed a veil of PVA (polyvinyl acetate, a synthetic resin), restoring the painting, in his words, so that "the colors are now in harmony. They sing."

His first involvement, however, was in the late 1990s. The painting was then to be loaned to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York for a Pollock retrospective. Its owners, according to Mr. Branchick, "were, I think, extremely nervous about sending it" because cracks were evident, cracks that had, in fact, called for attention even earlier - in 1959, a mere 10 years after the artist painted it.

These cracks had resulted, he points out, directly from the distinctive way Pollock painted. "The fabric's on the floor of his studio. His linear applications of paint are in some areas very thick. The painting is finished. Now you've got to move it. So you're pulling it up from the floor. The act of flexing the fabric and paint film that sits on top of it" means it is "going to crack in certain areas."

So just prior to the 1998-99 MoMA show, Branchick, using a small brush, bled a thermo-plastic adhesive into the cracks and apertures.

Unfortunately, however, the PVA that had been sprayed all over the surface by well-meaning (but unnamed) conservators in 1959 acted not only as a consolidant, "but also as a varnish." This uniformly veiled and dulled the "individual reflectances" of Pollock's colors.

Today, Branchick says, no one would think of varnishing a Pollock.

Now, his second intervention has been to apply ethanol to remove the PVA. He gave himself a two-week window for the job. "Even with careful testing, you're never quite sure until you do it," he explains.

But the ethanol application (with a large brush) took about half an hour. The rest of the day, he watched the alcohol "off-gassing from the surface - literally like watching paint dry" - and the job was done.

"We pulled the rabbit out of the hat," he says with satisfaction. "Now I can breathe easy!"

The restored painting and two other Pollock 'drip' paintings are on view at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass., until Oct. 1.

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