Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

“Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (Documentary)” (Harry Moses)

What a great film1 . An epic culture clash between the mumble-frackers and the regular 18-wheeler-driving Janes (so to speak)

When brash trailer park resident Teri Horton bought a secondhand painting for five bucks, little did she know it could be a genuine Jackson Pollock worth millions. This film documents Horton’s volatile 15-year journey into the heart of the art world’s elitist establishment to have the painting authenticated. The clash between stuffy art dealers and the cussin’, beer-drinkin’ Horton is funny, eye-opening and utterly unforgettable. [From Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?]

Teri Horton, a truck driving, trailer park resident with a stubborn streak is annoyed by the stuffed shirts of the New York art world, and refuses to give up when they tell her the painting she owns is not authentic. To a non-member of the art gallery crowd, her evidence seems solid (for instance, a fingerprint smudged on the back of her canvas that matches a fingerprint found on a paint can in Jackson Pollack’s studio, and on the back of another authentic painting), but the various experts, such as Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, disagree. The film, released in 2006, doesn’t have a happy ending (she refuses the offer of $9,000,000 from a Saudi sheik), but doesn’t have an unhappy ending either.

Ben McGrath, of the New Yorker, wrote a small article on the topic2 recently, which begins:

The art world, we keep hearing, is in a fine mess, awash in money and bereft of direction, and a recent documentary, “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?,” seems to prove the point. In it, a retired truck driver in California named Teri Horton buys what she considers to be an ugly painting as a gag gift for five dollars at a thrift store, is later told that it looks like a Jackson Pollock (the title refers to her initial reaction), and then struggles to convince anyone who matters that it could be the real thing. The film pits old-fashioned art authenticators (Thomas Hoving, the former Met director, runs his fingers over the painting before declaring, “It’s dead on arrival”) against a forensic scientist in Montreal, Peter Paul Biro, who finds what he believes to be Pollock’s paint-stained fingerprints on the back of the canvas. Horton says she has turned down an offer of nine million dollars for the painting from a Saudi collector.

The other day, at Cipriani Dolci, in New York, Kevin Jamison, a graduate student in government and politics at St. John’s, and the co-founder of a fledgling art consultancy, flipped through a copy of Ellen Landau’s “Jackson Pollock,” comparing the reprints in the book with a pair of images stored on his iPhone. These were of paintings he’d bought, for twenty-five dollars apiece, at an antique shop in Norfolk, Virginia, this summer, and they looked, to an untrained eye, like plausible Pollocks, at least in the sense that they were abstract and drippy. “They were under a stack of paintings about this tall,” Jamison, who has a baby face masked by stubble, said, pointing at the tabletop. One is seventeen inches by twenty-one inches, and painted on rice paper, using only white and gray. The other is twenty-six by twenty-six, on canvas, and much more colorful: green, yellow, red, white, and black.

Jamison watched “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” upon returning from Virginia, and then set about finding what he hoped could be useful forensic details, which he also showed on his iPhone: a flake of gold paint, visible only under magnification (Pollock used gold spray paint in his studio); rusty vintage staples; and a peculiar screwlike indentation that he found on the left side of the larger painting, which he believes could match a similar mark that he spotted in Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950,” at MOMA. (A caveat: referring to the painting’s left side “depends on what someone considers the top or the bottom,” Jamison said. “I’ve been looking at it for a couple of months and hanging it different ways.”)

“As of now, what they’re worth is what I paid for them,” Jamison said. But Peter Paul Biro, the forensic expert, has agreed to examine the paintings in person early next month, and Jamison has also corresponded with Richard Taylor, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon, who examined fractal patterns in some of the contested Herbert Matter Pollocks (two dozen paintings discovered in a Long Island locker) currently on exhibit at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.

“Jackson Pollock” (Ellen G. Landau)

great fun: essential viewing for anyone at all interested in the art world and/or forensic science.

  1. The film’s title is probably Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollack, but good luck finding a copy that prints the full title, even in our post-Carlin world []
  2. which is why I rented the film, duh. []

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