Over the last 58 years, art scholars have been arguing about the authenticity of a painting that just may be the last Jackson Pollock work ever created. In a fight that has pitted Pollock’s lover against his wife, the legacy of one of the great abstract expressionists—and plus or minus five million dollars—is at stake.
The painting in question, Red, Black and Silver, is just 24 by 20 inches and wholly unlike any other by Jackson Pollock. But it is Jackson Pollock’s last painting. Perhaps. Ruth Kligman, the artist’s mistress, who was in the car with him when he crashed to his death on Fireplace Road in Springs, Long island in 1956, claimed he had painted it for her just weeks before. Lee Krasner, the painter’s widow, who had returned from Europe after the crash, said it was a fake. Krasner died in 1984. The Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board continued to nix Red, Black and Silver, until they disbanded in 1996. Ruth Kligman died in 2010.
In November, forensics investigator, Nicholas Petraco, long-time with the New York City police department and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, issued a report after examining the evidence around the painting. Petraco, who was working for the Kligman estate pro bono, declared that minutiae stuck to the canvas proved conclusively that Red, Black and Silver had been painted on Pollock’s property. His interview appeared in a New York Times article by Patricia Cohen, who also spoke with Francis O’Connor, a co-editor of Pollock’s four-volume catalogue raisonné. O’Connor airily described the forensics as “redundant and essentially irrelevant,” compared to a connoisseur’s eye. In the piece, O’Connor said that the painting was in “limbo.”
“He created a masterpiece. It would have set the stage for the future had he lived. No one could have produced that painting but him, no one.”
I met with Kligman from time to time in the years before her death and was invited to her 14th Street apartment in Manhattan, which had once been Franz Kline’s studio. Did she show me the Pollock? No. But a while later, I did meet up with Rick Librizzi, a veteran private dealer, who knew the abstract expressionists and had worked with Warhol, and who was then working with Kligman on this painting.
“I knew I was going to see a real Pollock from the picture on her book A Love Affair,” he said. “I knew it was not a fake. It’s a real Pollock. But I wasn’t ready for what I saw. When I came into the room, I had to sit down. And she started to cry because people had been running her down and running her down. But she had a lot of letters. She had a letter from Leo Castelli. They all agreed: it had to be a Pollock. It’s one of the greatest paintings of the last half of the 20th century, which is being denied to the culture because of sour grapes. I understand sour grapes. I understand a woman whose husband is going out with a younger, beautiful girl, and she says the painting is no good. And so on, and so forth. But it’s an act against Pollock, it’s an act against art, and it’s an act against the fact that in that painting Pollock discovered where he was going to go.”
Librizzi has always struck me as an admirable man, rough-hewn as a New York cabbie. But he is an art dealer. He was working on the picture. So he would say that, wouldn’t he?
I called him after seeing The New York Times report.
“Well, you know, I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that it’s real,” he said. “I don’t have an agenda. Ruth wanted me to sell the work. These people eclipsed me, so I have no reason to be beneficial to them. But I have to speak the truth here. At that time, that painting would have been worth nothing. Sidney Janis said that if he sold one Pollock a year for $1500 he was doing good.”
For Librizzi, the painting’s authenticity was never in doubt. And it didn’t take forensic evidence to tell him that; all he had to do was look at it. “The minute I saw it, I knew that it was right. All of the fake Pollocks I’ve seen are ridiculous. It’s like trying to play Charlie Parker. Only Charlie Parker could play Charlie Parker.”
“And there’s that motif in Ruth’s painting—a half circle with a dot in the center. Anybody that has an obsession, the form keeps repeating itself. You can find them in the Jackson Pollock Museum of Modern Art, and you can find them in the psychoanalytic drawings. He uses it early and all the way through. It was a consistent motif. And if you brought it to a psychoanalyst they would probably say what they thought it was. But I think it’s an embryo in a womb. It’s glaring in his work. It doesn’t exist in Kline. It doesn’t appear in de Kooning. It belongs to Pollock.”
“That’s his last painting. It’s a very important painting and it really annoys me that this has been happening. At that point, Pollock was a desperate man. He didn’t want to repeat himself. And he had the Museum of Modern Art show coming up. Greenberg was saying, ‘If you don’t stop doing the figurative stuff, you’re not going to get the show.’ He was under immense pressure. He had taken a step backwards. But that didn’t satisfy him long term so he had stopped painting.”
But, according to the story Kligman told Librizzi and others, it wasn’t until she intervened that Pollock was able to move forward and paint a piece that represented the next evolution of his style.
“When Ruth asked him to show her how to paint, she had come from the camp she was teaching at. She wasn’t an accomplished painter. Her painting was very primitive, very outsider. Her hand was slow. And she threw one of her old canvases on the ground. And of course this put him on the spot. He was macho, he was in love with this girl, and she asked him how to paint.”
“And that unlocked a new format. And he created a masterpiece. It would have set the stage for the future had he lived. The silver, black, and red work he created that day…it looks like an embryo in a womb against the background of the void… also perhaps his desire for a child… because he wanted a child but Lee Krasner didn’t trust him… and also the embryo in the bloody womb could symbolize the new work. Because it was a revelation. No one could have produced that painting but him, no one.”
While scholars have been debating the work’s authenticity for decades now, the answer is an easy one, according to Librizzi. Just look at the painting.
“All the fakes that I have seen distort space. They think he just poured, they didn’t understand the structure within the pour. Of all of the fakes I have seen, the worst are Pollocks. He’s the least understood as far as how he made a painting work, its structure. He flew by the seat of his pants. When I saw Ruth’s Pollock for the first time, I had to sit down. I was so overwhelmed by it. And she started to cry. It’s like a scream for help but then a halleluiah at the same time. He found what he was looking for.”
“I brought Ivan Karp and John McWhinnie amongst others to see it and they all agreed it was a great work and unquestionably a Pollock.”
So there you have it. Another connoisseur’s eye.
And it’s value? I asked Asher Edelman, a collector and a dealer, and a man steeped in Abstract Expressionism, what the painting would fetch if it were (A) accepted as authentic, (B) dissed as “attributed to” or (C) if it was seen as irresolvable, accepted by some, not by others, but an intrinsic element in art history in any event?
“Five million if it’s real,” Edelman said. “Maybe eight, maybe four. But in that ballpark. If nobody believes in it? Twenty thousand dollars.”
And the third option?
“I can’t answer that. I don’t have an opinion. I’ve never been in that situation.”