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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.

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.


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