Film Review: Who the [Blank] is Jackson Pollock? (2007) by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

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The Best Art References in Woody Allen Films Image via Complex / APJAC Productions

Film: Play It Again, Sam (1972)

In 1972’s Play It Again, Sam, Allen plays a film critic trying to get over his wife’s leaving him by dating again. In one scene, Allen tries to pick up a depressive woman in front of the early Jackson Pollock work. This painting, because of its elusive title, has been the subject of much debate as to what it portrays. This makes for a nifty gag when Allen strolls up and asks the suicidal belle, “What does it say to you?”

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Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam

Uploaded on May 20, 2009

Scene from ‘Play it Again Sam’ (1972)

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Allan: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?

Museum Girl: Yes, it is.

Allan: What does it say to you?

Museum Girl: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?

Museum Girl: Committing suicide.

Allan: What about Friday night?

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Guardians of the Secret

1943

painting | oil on canvas

The SFMOMA building is closed for expansion. Many of the works in our collection are on view at other institutions as part of our On the Go program.
  • Guardians of the Secret

    Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943; oil on canvas, 48 3/8 in. x 75 3/8 in. (122.89 cm x 191.47 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Albert M. Bender Collection, Albert M. Bender Bequest Fund purchase; © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Film Review: Who the [Blank] is Jackson Pollock? (2007)

Thinking this was a documentary about Jackson Pollock, I borrowed it from a local library. It turns out to be more of a real-life mystery than a study of Pollock, the man or his work. But along the way, one learns quite a bit about this strange and intriguing figure and his abstract painting (if that is the proper label). The plot-line of this documentary is simple: an uneducated and plucky female truck driver, named Teri Horton, buys a large, odd painting for a friend from a thrift shop for $5. She is later told that it looks like a Jackson Pollock original. She eventually learns who he was (she had no idea, and thought the the painting was essentially junk, since it was nonrepresentational), the tremendous worth of his painting (a new original work would fetch fifty million dollars), and approaches the art world in the hope that it will be authenticated as a genuine Pollock.

The film is about how we know things (epistemology)–in this case, how do we know whether a painting is painted by a particular painter. That is, how to we come to a justified and true belief about this painting? Was it painted by Pollock or not? To answer this, one must consider criteria for authenticity. We find (at least) two cultures in conflict. The culture of the experts in the art world and the culture of forensics. Those in the art world largely rejected the painting as inauthentic. Some rejected it forcefully, others more hesitantly, but no recognized art expert certified the painting as a Pollock for the following reasons. (1) It is unsigned. (2) It has no provenance. Provenance concerns the documented genealogy of the painting, its causal ancestry or pedigree. Mrs. Horton bought it as a thrift shop and was not able to gather information beyond that. That is, it simply appears as a painting without a history. (3) It does not look enough like a Pollock work to the trained eye.

However, there is another angle to pursue–forensic evidence. Mrs. Horton hires a forensic expert who has authenticated several anonymous paintings as legitimate works by well-known artists. He finds a fingerprint on the back of the painting that matches one found in Pollock’s studio. He also finds paint like that used by Pollock. The art world cares nothing for this: forensics is not art criticism. They are two different worlds, with two different sets of criteria.

This epistemological debate is what I found fascinating about the film. I did not warm to the crusty, seventy-three-year old who discovered the painting. One may pity her hard life and appreciate her tenacity, but she strikes me as crass and pointlessly stubborn–refusing to sell a painting of at least questionable pedigree for nine million dollars. She says her unwillingness to sell for anything less than the full worth of a Pollock is a matter of “principle.” But what principle might that be? Apparently, she is convinced it is a Pollock, and hired a professional art dealer to sell it as such (a rather slick and slimy character, to be sure). But is any moral principle violated if one sells a painting for nine million dollars when, in fact, it may be worth fifty million; however? There is, after all, still good reason to question its authenticity.

What criteria are normative for identifying a work of art? When the experts evaluate the work, they size it up rather intuitively, based on previous knowledge of Pollock’s style. But they do not all agree. Moreover, artists do vary their style to some degree. The other side has to do with trying find in the extant painting some forensic (not aesthetic) quality that identifies it as having been painted by Pollack. This involves photography, chemistry, and some speculative history (since documented provenance cannot be established). One large question is whether one can establish a plausible scenario in which Pollack, an established if eccentric painter, somehow lets one of his works lose such that it ends up in a thrift shop in California, as opposed to having it displayed in a New York art museum or as part of an art collector’s collection.

It is difficult to come to a conclusion about the identity of this painting. But working through the questions is fascinating and rewarding. To make a more accurate assessment, one would need much more than simply a film on which to base a judgment.

This is not a film that directly addresses the aesthetic value of Jackson Pollock’s paintings or the worldview behind his work. (At some point, Pollock set up mechanical means by which to make paintings which attempted to leave out his own personality and rely on chance. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) assesses this philosophically in his book and film series, How Shall We Then Live?) However, the film stimulates significant thought about the art of knowing. Who is a reliable witness? What are the proper criteria for truth assessment. For those reasons, I delighted in the film and may use it for teaching on these subject.

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