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May 10, 2012
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Life imitating art imitating life

By Jim Duncan

Jackson Pollock MURAL. April 5 – July 15, 2012. Des Moines Art Center. On loan from the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Mural, 1943. Oil on canvas. 8 ft. 1 ¼ in. x 19 ft. 10 in. University of Iowa Museum of Art. Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959.6. Reproduced with permission from the University of Iowa.

Sixty years ago, art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that Jackson Pollock had “transformed painting into an existential drama” in which “what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Pollock’s seminal painting “Mural” arrived in Des Moines earlier this month as both big event and existential drama in this, the 100th anniversary of Pollock’s birth.

To celebrate Iowa’s prime spot in the art world, Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) invited members to a pre-launch party for the unveiling of “Mural,” which is on sabbatical from the University of Iowa floodplain. Over 500 people returned RSVPs. Many more showed up as superstar art patrons John and Mary Pappajohn hosted the bona fide gala. Three cops patrolled the parking lots. Cars were parked all the way to the old Science Center. Shrimp were super sized, and booze was top shelf.

Pollock was an All-American cultural meteor on a crash course with destiny in real life and myth. He was born in Cody, Wyo., a town named after Buffalo Bill whose life and mythology resembled Pollock’s in many ways. Expelled from two high schools, Pollock tagged along with his father on surveying missions on Native American reservations. A long-time alcoholic, he coped with his addiction through Jungian therapy but died at age 44. Before his final fatal fling with drunken driving, Pollock also stole Abstract Expressionism from the Germans, remodeled it in epic proportions, Americanized it by synthesizing Navajo sand paintings with Jungian motifs and shifted the axis of the art world from Paris to New York City. Those are just the non-controversial highlights of his legacy.

“Mural” is usually considered the work that jump-started all that transformational art stuff. “It changed the way Americans painted pictures and in turn changed the way that western visual culture operated after World War II,” DMAC Director Jeff Fleming explained. “A part of that was in its scale. In contradiction to easel-sized painting, it was on a grand scale, full of energy, vitality and emotion. It changed what painting could be, particularly what American painting could be. And this is the painting that started all that.”

University of Iowa President Sally Mason focused on encouraging DMAC patrons to oppose any legislative moves to sell the painting to raise money for scholarships, or new buildings. “Mural” is estimated to be worth around $150 million. The proposal to sell it (publicly articulated by Michael Gartner who is a former President of the Iowa Board of Regents) has garnered enough support to worry many folks who attended the Pollock party.

Everyone speaking at the gala seemed rather passionate about keeping “Mural” in Iowa, for several reasons: The painting was given to the university, in large part, to recognize the incredible talent that made its art school famous, including Grant Wood and Philip Guston; The University pioneered the concept of making painters into teachers; Pollock’s parents grew up in Iowa; and the painting is a Hawkeye heirloom. CV

Art Touts

A retrospective of paintings by Byron Burford plays at Olson-Larsen Galleries through May 26. Burford came to the University of Iowa to study with Grant Wood. He left only to serve in World War II, teaching several generations of grateful students. Jazz and the circus motifs show off his lyrical perspective of 20th century America.

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