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Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’ is on display at CMA. Have you seen it yet?

Jackson Pollock’s 20-foot “Mural” changed the destiny of modern art. Not only did it catapult Pollock into the spotlight, it also brought audacious new scale and experimentation to Abstract Expressionism.
Jackson Pollock’s 20-foot “Mural” changed the destiny of modern art. Not only did it catapult Pollock into the spotlight, it also brought audacious new scale and experimentation to Abstract Expressionism. Courtesy of Columbia Museum of Art

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” the 20-foot-wide painting that catapulted the artist into the spotlight, brought audacious new scale and experimentation to Abstract Expressionism, and changed the destiny of modern art, is now at the Columbia Museum of Art until May 19.

“Jackson Pollock: Mural,” featuring the single, iconic work as well as in-depth scientific research on it and its creation myth, is part of a whirlwind international tour that includes premier European and American museums.

“Having this landmark painting at the CMA is an extraordinary opportunity,” says Curator Catherine Walworth. “I get caught up in the exciting story of Pollock making ‘Mural’ and what happened to the painting in the decades afterward. But I also want to encourage people to stop, sit down, and really enjoy looking at a painting for longer than perhaps they are used to doing.”

Pollock is among the most influential painters in American history, and his 1943 “Mural” is widely recognized as a watershed moment for the artist. “Mural” is Pollock’s largest painting and was his first commission by legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who wanted a painting for the entry hall of her New York townhouse. Guggenheim moved to Venice, Italy, in 1947 and “Mural” was loaned to Yale University until it was donated it to the University of Iowa in 1951. In 2012, the work was sent to the Getty Conservation Institute for two years of analysis, which was followed by extensive cleaning, removing of a 1973 layer of varnish, and restretching the canvas to address sagging.

Also on display now at the Columbia Museum of Art, next to Pollock’s “Mural”, is the exhibit “Midcentury Masters: Jasper Johns’ Gifts to the CMA,” a varied collection of prints gifted to the CMA by the artist. It will be on display at CMA until Feb. 24 and includes several prints by Johns as well as the work of such postwar heavyweights as Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, and Andy Warhol. There is also archival materials documenting Johns’ time living and establishing his artistic identity in Columbia, this unique exhibition provides insight into the mind of South Carolina’s most famous artistic son.

“Artists, critics, and collectors the world over know the name Jasper Johns, but few know that his career began in Columbia where he studied at USC,” says chief curator Will South, who organized the exhibition. “And though he became an international art star, he did not forget South Carolina. This is a show documenting the importance of contemporary art to the collection and celebrating the importance of its patrons, like Jasper Johns.”

One of the most influential American artists of all time, Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, and raised in South Carolina and spent a significant portion of his life in Columbia. He attended three semesters at the University of South Carolina, where he built lifelong friendships with his teachers, and was then stationed at Fort Jackson from 1951 to 1953. He exhibited around town and for a while was a curator for the CMA’s Fort Jackson Gallery, a single room inside the old museum on Taylor Street.

We asked Walworth to answered a few questions about the historical painting by Pollock as well as the Midcentury Masters exhibit:

Q: What makes Jackson Pollock’s work distinctive? What makes it so well known?

A: Jackson Pollock is recognized as one of the leading postwar American artists, but even more broadly, he is often credited as being one of the most influential artists in all of 20th century American art. He made a bold move in 1947 when he began making paintings entirely by dripping paint from brushes and sticks onto canvas laid on his studio floor. He was able to move around the canvas from every direction and his technique for flinging paint became a performance of individuality that fit with the Abstract Expressionist moment. With this technique, on the one hand he allowed for chance effects, something he learned from the Surrealists, and on the other hand he also had a masterful ability to control the flow of paint without ever touching the canvas.

That being said, “Mural” is a transitional moment four years before his drip paintings. Here we see an incredible flurry of brushwork, sometimes the entire length of his body as he had to bend, reach, and crouch to paint it. The drips here were flung at the canvas vertically near the end of the process, and give hints of future Pollock.

This work is part of an international tour and highly sought after, so the fact that our audiences can see it here in Columbia is quite an exciting coup.

Q: What about the Midcentury Masters exhibit makes it worth folks coming to see?

A: This gift of prints by so many different artists offers an intimate glimpse of what appealed to Jasper Johns as an artist and a friend, what he gathered to himself from all the artwork he saw around him. The exhibition also makes meaningful connections to Johns’ history with Columbia and with the museum. It’s a nice jolt of both visual exuberance and human storytelling.

Q: What is your favorite thing about the Midcentury Masters’ exhibit?

A: There is a terrific range of artists and styles in this exhibition, and it is full of surprises in styles and scale. Mostly you’ll find wonderful examples by famous artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Richard Hamilton, and Robert Motherwell, and a large still life in ben-day dots by Roy Lichtenstein. Among the usual big-name suspects also lurk some French surrealists and other artists you might enjoy bumping into for the first time.

Q: How does Pollock’s Mural fit in with the Midcentury Masters’ exhibit?

A: While they are separate exhibitions, they also make sense next to each other. Both exhibitions speak to the New York art scene, roughly between the 1940s and 1970s with a few outliers. In a gentle way, too, you can pick up on the fact that many international artists dropped in and out of the American art scene and changed it along the way. Surrealism’s idea of moving the hand freely (or automatically) was a significant influence on Pollock’s Mural, for example, and the Johns gift includes artists from England, France, Japan, Romania, and Sweden who circulated in Jasper Johns’ orbit along with his American peers.

Q: Why did the mural help catapult Pollock’s career?

A: In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim was convinced to take a chance on Jackson Pollock, who was a struggling and relatively unknown American artist at the time, and give him his first solo show at her gallery The Art of This Century. As part of Pollock’s contract, he was also to paint a 20-foot-wide mural for the foyer of Guggenheim’s new townhouse. Many critics and artists were not quite sure what to make of the paintings in Pollock’s 1943 exhibition, but when Guggenheim invited folks to view “Mural” in her foyer in 1945, it was instantly recognized as a monumental success by critics like Clement Greenberg, who cultivated artists working towards pure abstraction. As he later recalled: “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.” In just four more years, Pollock would be on the cover of “Life Magazine” with the question, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Q: Why would you encourage folks to come see “Mural”?

A: “Mural” is a pivotal work for Pollock, and no matter what preconceived notions you already have of the artist, this painting is quite unlike anything else you’ve ever seen by him. It opens up both in scale and color to a new place and it is exuberant.

This painting is the perfect example for why you really must come to museums to look at art in person rather than in a book or on your digital device. It is so much fun to look at with friends and talk about together because “Mural” is so large that it consumes you and offers so many extraordinary little moments in a massive field of movement and color.