Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006) is an amusing documentary about a 72-year-old-truck driver named Teri Horton who buys for five dollars a large painting that may (or may not) be the work of Jackson Pollock. Much of the film takes place in a bar where Teri and her friends sit and drink and talk.

Human personalities are the main interest of this film. Teri and her conviction that she has discovered a work of art worth fifty million dollars (she turns down offers of $3 million and then $9 million dollars for the painting) versus art scholars and critics convinced that all the known Jackson Pollocks have been discovered and catalogued and that Teri's painting is a fraud.

The film interviews several experts on Pollock, all of whom for one reason or the other don't believe the painting is genuine. Yet a fingerprint on the back of the canvas, discovered by an investigator whom Teri hires, supposedly belongs to Pollock and matches his fingerprints on other paintings. Experts point out stylistic quirks in the painting that do not match Pollock's style. One notes that the presence of acrylics in the painting, supposedly created before acrylics were widely in use, means it is a forgery. But close-up images of the painting, as compared to other confirmed Pollock paintings, seem indistinguishable from the real thing.

Critics and scholars resist granting the painting status as a true Jackson Pollock because to do so would be to deny, to some extent, their own scholarly authority and expertise. How could a valuable Pollock painting escape their notice, especially one bought by an ignorant elderly truck driver at a flea market? One museum proprietor in particular is contemptuous both of Teri and of her painting. He comes off as an effete, over-stuffed, arrogant poseur, a fop.

The film resists taking sides on the question of whether the painting is genuine. Rather it highlights the controversy surrounding the painting along with Teri's efforts to confirm its identity and receive the money she thinks is due her. To represent her in her campaign to prove the painting's authenticity, she hires an art dealer who has recently been released from prison where he served time for art fraud. Asked why she would hire someone convicted of art fraud, she answers that everyone in the art world is a fraud, so what does it matter?

What is art? What makes one painting "great" and worth fifty million dollars and another an easily identified forgery worth $5? That's one of the big questions in the film. The more I looked at Teri's five-dollar painting, a huge and expansive canvas covered with whirling, dynamic colors, a flow of motion and image, the more convinced I became that, whatever its origins and whoever its creator, it was impressive. This film reminded me of The Moderns (1988), which investigated similar questions by focusing on young artist's involvement in art forgeries in 1920s Paris.

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