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Photograph: Creative Commons/Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

Whitney hangs Pollock sideways: Bonehead move or revisionist argument?

Written by
Howard Halle

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the Whitney Museum in NYC

As if the Whitney hasn't called enough attention to itself with the opening of its new building, it is now embroiled in an art-historical controversy. Visitors to the Whitney's inaugural show "America Is Hard to See" may have noticed one of Jackson Pollock's famous "drip" paintings hung vertically in a gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism. Most people would probably think nothing of it, but fans of Pollock might justifiably wonder, WTF? As they well know, Pollock's drip paintings are usually hung horizontally, so why would the one at the Whitney, titled Number 27, be any different? Well, according to the museum, it's because of a photo that appeared in a Vogue fashion spread, of all places, in 1950, the same year Number 27 was created.

The setting was a solo show of Pollock's paintings—also in 1950—presented at the Betty Parsons gallery in New York. The spread, taken by the legendary fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, featured two images, each of a model posing in front of a Pollock. One, Number 27, is indeed hung vertically, sandwiched between another painting and a corner of the room.

A photo doesn't necessarily constitute proof, though proponents of the vertical hanging theory are apparently not dissuaded by this truism, or by the fact that the direction of Pollock's signature for Number 27 would plainly make more sense on a horizontal canvas. Their main argument seems to boil down to the idea that Pollock would have never have permitted this hanging if it wasn't meant to be that way. But here's a thought experiment: What if he was in no shape to object?

First, here’s some background. Pollock created his drip compositions between 1947 and 1950 out on Long Island, where he famously laid the empty canvas on his studio floor before flinging house paint allover it. The work made him an instant celebrity, thanks in no small part to another photo spread taken by Hans Namuth of Pollock in action—this time for Life magazine. However, Pollock soon became disenchanted with his notoriety; he felt it made him appear like a phony. After 1950, he stopped making drip paintings.

More relevantly, Pollock, an alcoholic, fell off the wagon in 1950 after a period of relative sobriety in which he made the drip paintings. After 1950, he was basically on one long bender until his death in a car accident in 1956. While the argument—Why would Number 27 be pictured vertically if Pollock hadn't permitted it?—may seem sensible, it’s unsupported by any kind of documentation. There are no letters where it was mentioned, no other photos of the Parsons show. So the more salient if equally speculative argument might be this: Given Pollock's recently acquired aversion to fame (which most likely contributed to his relapse), why would he permit a Vogue shoot in the first place? Did his state of mind (or lack thereof) mean that he didn't care what fuck was going on? If so, that's different from a deliberate aesthetic choice. Also, did Pollock's condition make it easier for his dealer—who most likely arranged the shoot—to ignore whatever objections he might have made?  After all, Parsons was in the business of selling paintings. A Vogue spread would have helped—a proposition hard to pass up, regardless of Pollock's worries about being a phony. 

Again, there's no paper trail on this, but looking at the Vogue spread (which can be found here), you have to ask, What dealer, worth his or her salt, would cram a painting into a corner? So here's another thought experiment: The gallery was probably closed for the shoot, and Beaton, for aesthetic reasons, wanted to temporarily move Number 27 from its actual spot and hang it vertically in an available space on the wall. Parson agreed, and figured it would easier without Pollock’s involvement. That's as plausible a scenario as anything else.

Although the Whitney had vertically hung Number 27 in a previous exhibition in the ’90s, you have to wonder if the curators there chose to do so again out of the calculation that it might, just might, generate the buzz it has. That, too, is as plausible a scenario as any generated by this supposed debate. 

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