CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


Beyond Empiricism: Technical Analysis and Interpretation of Jackson Pollock’s Mural

Session 15 Creative Misunderstanding


The combination of conservation science and technical analysis with art history offers a powerful tool for identifying and clearing up misunderstandings about artistic process and the interpretation of works of art. In the case of Jackson Pollock’s Mural, the combination of these fields challenges several of the central myths that surround the painting, myths that became foundational aspects of the ascendance of the New York School. The two principal stories were that Pollock painted Mural in one day and that Marcel Duchamp cut the painting down during its installation at Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. The idea that Pollock painted the first truly large Abstract Expressionist painting in one explosive burst has long been accepted as a fundamental change from the carefully planned works by French masters such as Matisse and Picasso—a new kind of painting requiring a new method of painting. While Pollock’s process seemed to signal a radical break from European precedents, the intercession of Duchamp was an indication of continuity with the most advanced elements of the Old World, a handing off of the avant-garde from Paris to New York.

The analysis conducted at the Getty has determined that neither of these stories is true. Most importantly, it is clear that Mural was painted over a considerable period of time, more likely months rather than hours. This is confirmed by the relative absence of wet-on-wet paint application, demonstrating that many of the layers of Mural had time to become at least touch-dry before the next paint went on. Physical examination of the painting also established that the canvas had never been cut down and that the four original tacking margins are still extant. These examples are related to the empirical side of art history, the branch of the field on which conservation and its related science would naturally seem to have the most impact. This paper, on the other hand, employs some of the tools and methods of conservation and conservation science to propose new interpretations of aspects of Mural, pushing these disciplines outside their comfort zone of establishing facts and into far more speculative and subjective endeavors.

The conservation treatment and technical study of Mural have brought into sharper focus the interplays between abstractive, figurative and decorative undercurrents in the piece, the carefully structured relations between colors, and the attention Pollock undoubtedly paid to the creation of a sense of depth within the painting. The physical evidence also shows that Pollock’s interventions on the painting demonstrate an interest in overall compositional balance and harmony, characteristics that have not in the past featured prominently in scholarly commentary on the artist.

The insights obtained during the two-year conservation and technical study of Jackson Pollock’s Mural and the subsequent period of reflection on the project have resulted in significant further developments in our understanding of how Pollock was working, how the painting was made, and how it changed over time.  The results of this cross-disciplinary study have provided the basis for an alternative perspective to the narratives that have dominated the critical and art historical literature on Pollock over the last seventy years.  By returning to the work of art itself and embarking on a new level of material study it is possible to push the art history forward.  

PERCHUK, Andrew   




2009–                          Deputy Director

                                    Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles



2005–09          Assistant Director

                                    Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles


2005–08          Adjunct Associate Professor

                                    University of Southern California, Los Angeles


2003–05          Head, Contemporary Programs and Research

                                    Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles


1992–2001      Staff Writer



1991–94          Curator

Alternative Museum, New York


1989–90          Associate Editor of Publications

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


1985–88          Editorial Assistant

Library of America, New York





1997–2006      Yale University
Ph.D., Art History, 2006
Ph.D. thesis, “From Otis to Ferus: Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, and Peter Voulkos in Los Angeles, 1954-1975,” awarded Frances Blanchard Fellowship Fund Prize for outstanding dissertation in art history

M.Phil., Art History, 2000, with distinction


1994–97          University of Southern California
Ph.D. Program, Art History
M.A., Art History, 1997


1990–91          Whitney Museum Independent Study Program


1980–85          Columbia University
B.A., Comparative Literature, 1985