(Detail from Jackson Pollock’s “Sea Change.”)
When invited to see a Jackson Pollock painting off the wall, out of the frame, so close you can smell it, you run, you do not walk. On Tuesday, a group of eager arties went to Seattle Art Museum’s conservation studio to learn more about SAM’s restoration of its Pollock, the 1947 “Sea Change.” Donated by Peggy Guggenheim, “Sea Change” represents a pivotal moment in Pollock’s career; it literally illustrates his move away from easel painting to his history-making drip technique. It’s at risk, however: The piece was liberally sprayed with varnish decades ago, to “protect” it. What one person did in five minutes, says SAM conservationist Nick Dorman, is taking him months to undo. The varnish has put a shiny finish on the painting, something Pollock never intended, and puts the piece at risk. The painstaking work of varnish removal is being made possible by a grant from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, which awards money to nonprofit museums worldwide to conserve artworks in danger of degeneration. (Others awarded money in 2012 include The Guggenheim, for Picasso’s “Woman Ironing,” and National Gallery of Art for restoration of Gilbert Stuart portraits. These grants are not just handed out, in other words.)
Dorman said he hopes to have the varnish removed by spring. He’s consulting with other museums on materials and methods, and he expects much will be learned both here and at other institutions about identification, preservation and restoration of such pieces.