Friday, December 10, 2010

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006)

USA, 74 minutes, documentary
Director/writer: Harry Moses
Photography: William Cassara

More mysteries of abstract expressionism. This one starts one day in the 1990s, in southern California well east of Los Angeles, when Teri Horton, an Ozarks native who escaped to a life of long haul trucking, decides to buy a gift for a friend in need of cheering up. Horton, an inveterate prowler of the goods to be prized in rummage sales and even dumpsters behind upscale malls, finds a giant canvas in a thrift store covered with paint. The price is $8. Horton talks it down to $5. "It was ugly," she says. "If you wanna call it artwork." It wasn't exactly what her friend needed either, so Horton attempts to unload it at her next yard sale, where she is approached by a local high school teacher who tells her it might be a Jackson Pollock. At which point the action to this documentary, such as it is—including the title—gets underway. When Horton finds out that Pollock's paintings command prices starting at about the $50 million mark, she sets about in earnest attempting to authenticate her canvas, and the door is opened, for her and for us, into the very strange world of art connoisseurs, with its frauds, deceits, and pretensions. Very quickly the film establishes that the canvas probably is authentic by examining the work of a forensic scientist, brought in by Horton, who finds a fingerprint on it that matches a fingerprint found in Pollock's studio, as well as on two other Pollocks with impeccable provenance (we also find out more than we might have ever expected to know about such concepts as "provenance"). Consistencies among unique trace elements of the paint are also discovered. Comically and exasperatingly, this means very little to the connoisseurs, who as a class may be represented best here by a notably fatuous clown named Thomas Hoving, who died in 2009 and here disgraces himself by proclaiming that he is, ipso facto, expert on everything he sees because he has lived and worked most of his life in New York art circles. (This movie is incidentally very good at explicating certain elements of simmering long-term resentments held against elitists on the coasts, which persist even as they grow only more toxic over the years and decades.) From there it's on to the slimy inner workings of the art world, when Horton hires a man previously imprisoned for fraud to represent her interests; he subsequently attempts to sideline her. There's also a detour involving John Myatt, previously convicted for art forgery, who says that he would never even try to forge a Pollock, because, counterintuitively, it would be too difficult. As terrific as this story is it's marred some by how unlikeable Horton can be. You want to be on her side, if anyone's, but she's as infected by greed as anyone here. During the course of the filming she was offered $2 million for the painting, "no questions asked," and during post-production, by another party, $9 million. Either one would be a handsome profit on a $5 investment, of course, but she turned down both offers. Latest word I can find is that she has had it for sale in a Toronto art gallery since 2008, with an asking price of $50 million, but it hasn't moved. Still, I defy anyone to see this and not find themselves at least temporarily obsessed with the various shades of truth of everything it looks at—the problems of authentication, the intrinsic values of abstract expressionism, the greed and pretentiousness of the art industry, and the deep fractures of class divisions.

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