, , , , , ,


Jackson Pollock, Alchemy, 1947. Oil, aluminum (and enamel?) paint, and string on canvas, 114.6 x 221.3 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 76.2553 PG 150.

‘[Pollock was] I think by far my most honorable achievement’. (Peggy Guggenheim, Art of This Century [1979])

VENICE – 4 September 1947. Jackson Pollock wrote to his mother Stella Pollock apologizing for not returning to her a large quilting frame: he was using it to stretch a canvas on which he was working, a painting that came to be titled Alchemy. In the same year, celebrated photographs by Herbert Matter portray Pollock at work in his Long Island studio, with Alchemy attached to the quilting frame on the floor. This method of painting, with the canvas flat on the ground would mark the beginning of Pollock’s dripped or poured paintings


Jackson Pollock, Alchimia (Alchemy), 1947 (detail), olio, pittura d’alluminio (e smalto?) e spago su tela, 114,6 x 221,3 cm. Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia.

February 2015. After an absence of more than a year, and following examination, cleaning and conservation at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Alchemy returns to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to be the focus of a documentary, scientific exhibition: Alchemy by Jackson Pollock. Discovering the Artist at Work (14 February – 6 April 2015), curated by Luciano Pensabene Buemi, Conservator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and by Roberto Bellucci, a Conservator at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence.


Alchemy at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

Alchemy by Jackson Pollock. Discovering the Artist at Work is the first of three exhibitions promoted by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to celebrate both Jackson Pollock and his eldest brother Charles Pollock. From April 22 through September 14, the museum hosts Jackson Pollock’s Mural: Energy Made Visible and Charles Pollock: A Retrospective. All three exhibitions enjoy the patronage of the U.S. Mission to Italy and of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York.


Alchemy at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The exhibition will reveal to visitors an explosion of color unveiled by the long process of cleaning, which has made possible a dazzling rediscovery of this famous work. Exclusively and only for the duration of the exhibition, Alchemy will be viewable without glass or plexiglas, rendering vivid the astonishing relief-like surface of the densely worked image.


Alchemy at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The visitor will be guided through every technical aspect of the conservation project, as if moving inside the layers and materials of the painting itself, exploring Pollock’s working methods and the processes of conservation, with the aid of an enthralling multi-media installation. Video, 3D reproductions, touch-screens, interactive devices, as well as documentation and original items loaned from Pollock’s studio at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, Long Island, will bring Pollock’s masterpiece to life, with its thickly encrusted paint surface and its palette of no fewer than 19 different pigments. Thanks to a protracted and detailed study of Alchemy, the exhibition will offer new insights into Pollock and his painting, furthering our understanding of the personality of this artist who combined traditional materials and methods with original and unconventional practices.

Until now, this masterpiece was assumed to have been executed without a plan on the part of the artist, with random spatters and drops. However, the long process of study and conservatiopn has revealed a precise conpositional order, a rational plan for the laying on of the colors a system of counterpoint and symmetries, in which straight lines play off against curved, brilliant against opaque colors, black with silver, blue with red. Delicate traces of white lay out the semblance of a grid, as if Pollock had a general framework in mind from the outset, proceeding then to direct the composition like an orchestra conductor. The team involved in this highly important project was unanimous in the conviction that the successfiul outcome of this large painting would have been impossible without a guiding hand of control. A further discovery was the sheer quantity of paint deployed by Pollock: 4.6 kg of painted material is huge compared to medieval and Renaissance paintings of similar dimensions, for which 200-300 grams is normal.


Alchemy at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The exhibition is the first major result of a far-reaching study and conservation project dedicated to 10 of Pollock’s paintings executed between 1942 and 1947, all of them belonging to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. They were acquired by Peggy Guggenheim herself, Pollock’s patron, who exhibited his work on many occasions in the 1940s at her New York gallery Art of This Century. Together they represent a crucial period in Pollock’s career, during which his painting developed from relatively orthodox figurative-abstract imagery to highly original works created by pouring, flicking and dripping paint onto canvas laid flat on the ground.

Alchemy traveled in December 2013 to the painting conservation laboratories of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, for exhaustive scientific analysis and for conservation and cleaning. During 2014, a team of scholars, scientists and conservators, from a variety of Italian science organizations specialized in the conservation of cultural patrimony, examined all technical aspects of the masterpiece. The painting then underwent meticulous and painstaking cleaning, a process rendered highly complex by the rich and much stratified surface, combining enamels, alkyds, oil paint, sand and pebbles, in a dense impasto of clotted paint, splashes and drips. The primary objective of the cleaning was to remove a layer of dust and grime that had accumulated over many years which had seriously altered the appearance of the painting, dimming its colors and flattening the three-dimensional character of Pollock’s innovative painting technique.


Alchemy at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The research project, the first of its kind undertaken in Italy, was made possible thanks to a group of top scientific research institutes, coordinated by the conservation departments of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, and of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, together with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, di Firenze. The group included CNR-ISTM and the Centro di Eccellenza SMAArt of the University of Perugia, CNR-INO and INFN of the University of Florence, the Visual Computing Lab of the CNR-ISTI of Pisa, and the Chemistry Department of the University of Turin.

The project has also benefitted from the involvement of American scientists, conservators and curators who have carried out research on Pollock’s techniques in the past. Conservation was carried out by Luciano Pensabene Buemi, with the assistance of Francesca Bettini, conservator in the paintings department of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Essential contributions were made by Carol Stringari, Deputy-Director and Chief Conservator, Guggenheim Foundation, and by Gillian McMillan, Associate Chief Conservator for the Collection, Guggenheim Museum, New York, as well as by the staff of the Laboratorio Dipinti dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence.


Alchemy at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure.