The Canvas and the Clue

Photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

How Jim Coddington ’74 solved a Jackson Pollock mystery.

By Christian Viveros-Faune
Reed magazine, September 2013 cove

Reed magazine cover, September 2013
Photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

For most people, a canvas is a surface on which to paint. But following World War II, a succession of American artists began to treat the canvas, in the words of art critic Harold Rosenberg, as “an arena in which to act.”

One of the most prominent and influential of these abstract expressionists was Jackson Pollock, who became a household name in 1949 when images of him in his Long Island studio landed on the pages of LIFE magazine. Pollock seemed to embody America’s brawny, postwar spirit of innovation, and his untimely death a few years later at the age of 44 while driving a convertible at high speeds along East Hampton’s farm lanes further stoked his biopic-ready renown. It’s no small irony, therefore, that many of Pollock’s half-century-old canvases today depend on just a few low-profile masters for their survival—namely, rare experts like Jim Coddington, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief conservator since 1996.

Art historian Max Friedlander had it right when he said: “Pity the poor restorer. If he does his job well, nobody knows. If he does his job poorly, everybody knows.” Consider the case of Cecilia Giménez. The octogenarian Spanish amateur took it upon herself to restore a century-old Ecce Homo fresco inside Zaragoza’s Sanctuary of Mercy Church in 2012, with disastrous results. Her name is now synonymous with the search words “famous botched restoration” (nearly half a million Google hits at last count), and wags have dubbed the fresco “Ecce Monkey.” No wonder conservators generally prefer anonymity. In the words of the late art historian James Beck, restoration is a lot like having a facelift: “How many times can people go through one without their poor faces looking like an orange peel?”

detail, before

detail, after

top: Before treatment; the painting had some deep cracking and was partially filled with gesso.
bottom: After treatment; Coddington and his team retouched such cracks using watercolor paints, not to mask them completely, but to make them less visually prominent.

It was with some trepidation, then—earned through a lifetime of hard-won experience—that Coddington faced the challenge of restoring one of the signal works of postwar American art: the abstract expressionist gem One: Number 31, 1950.

An example of Pollock’s monumental drip paintings, One was completed in summer 1950 while Pollock was at the height of his powers. A virtually priceless treasure—a smaller painting, No. 5, 1948, sold for $140 million in 2006—the painting is one of Pollock’s most ambitious and monumental works. A mural-sized masterpiece in need of expert TLC (the painting measures 9 feet high by 17½ feet across), One makes a unique case for this artist’s enduring importance. In the words of the art critic Robert Hughes, Pollock in the 1940s and ’50s was “the first American artist to influence the course of world art.”

MoMA held a blockbuster Pollock retrospective in 1998 that gave One pride of place. But the exhibition also revealed that the canvas, according to Coddington, was suffering from a general “yellowing and buildup of dirt and dust in the painting’s crevices.” In July 2012, One was officially retired from the museum’s fourth floor for restoration. Over the next 10 months, Coddington and assistant conservator Jennifer Hickey embarked on a period of close examination, cleaning, and repair that they chronicled on MoMA’s blog. As they inspected the historic canvas, however, they stumbled across an unexpected puzzle—one portion of the picture contained paint and brushstrokes that were dramatically different from the rest. Was this simply an example of Pollock’s unpredictable technique? Or was it a subsequent alteration by a different hand—the equivalent of a doodle on the Mona Lisa? At stake was the painting’s very integrity, not to mention its value. If the MoMA team made the wrong call and altered the canvas accordingly, they would be guilty of a monumental artistic crime. But if they ignored it, they would be aiding and abetting someone else’s crime. To find his way out of this dilemma, Coddington needed a crucial piece of evidence—and he knew where to look for it.


detail, before

detail, after

left: Before treatment; the white passage had been partially obscured by gritty, yellowed overpaint and small splatters of black paint.
right: After treatment; removal of the overpaint reveals hairline cracking but an otherwise undamaged surface.

“Exhibitions themselves can be the impetus for considering conservation of a work, as they offer unique opportunities to compare related works directly,” Coddington wrote revealingly in his blog’s first entry. “During the 1998 Jackson Pollock retrospective at MoMA we were able to do this, and at that time we were able to see subtle variations in the tonality across the canvas of three paintings executed between 1948 and 1951.” A backstage pass to the conservation equivalent of the Beatles’ dressing room, Coddington’s informative yet entertaining posts also acknowledge the historical and popular importance of the Pollock painting. “We blogged about the restoration of One largely because of its celebrity status,” Coddington told me one June afternoon as we sat inside the museum’s airy conservator’s studio. “This is a picture people come to the museum to see. If it’s not on view, then I think we owe them some kind of explanation, which we can also use as an opportunity to educate the public about how restoration unfolds.”