E.A. Carmean, the National Gallery's curator of 20th-century art, who has detected crucifixions, lamentations and other religious images in black and white paintings by Jackson Pollock, has been publicly contradicted by the artist's widow, Lee Krasner, who says, "They are not there."
Carmean's findings have been published twice--first in his introductory essay for the current Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and later in an article he wrote for The Washington Post. Reacting to both, Krasner shot off a cable to the Pompidou Centre's director, Dominique Bozo, calling Carmean's conclusions "irresponsible hagiography."
"It doesn't hold up. I'm sorry," Krasner said yesterday. "I lived with that man for many years, and if he'd painted a crucifixion he would have said so. There is a tendency for art historians to find meaning in things that are not there . . . Pollock shouted loudly enough that painting is not illustration. So it is not likely that he painted a crucifixion . . . Good Lord," she continued, "it is infuriating to misunderstand painting to that degree."
Carmean, in arguing his thesis, offers as evidence Pollock drawings from 1951 which show what seem to be figures with outstretched arms. He says he came to his conclusions after learning that Pollock had considered making paintings for a never-constructed church designed by architect-sculptor Tony Smith, and after noting similarities between certain Pollock drawings and a Picasso crucifixion. "The argument is a question of methodology--the sort of thing curators discuss over lunch," said Carmean. "It is surprising that such an issue has become newsworthy."
Other scholars--among them Rosalind Krauss, a professor of art history at the City University of New York and a former fellow at the National Gallery's Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, and William Lieberman of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art--have joined Krasner in disputing Carmean's findings.
"I do not buy E.A.'s argument, and I intend to say why," said Krauss, who is preparing a "closely argued" rebuttal for the June issue of Art in America magazine. Her article will be paired with one by Carmean. "I don't like pitting scholars against each other," Krauss said. "E.A. and I are friends, and would like to have this conducted at some level of decorum and dignity, rather than in the newspapers. I respect E.A. I think he is a fine and conscientious scholar."
Lieberman told a reporter for Newsday that "I did the biggest Pollock show that's ever been done the 1967 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art , and I never saw any Christian iconography having anything to do with the crucifixion."
Carmean, reached yesterday in Paris where he is viewing the Pollock exhibition and researching the collages of Georges Braque, said, "This discussion--on how to interpret Pollock--has been going on for some time. In Pollock's black and white paintings there is figuration. And, in some of them, it appears to be Christian. Rather than account for that figuration in psychological terms, I prefer to relate it to the church he had worked on.
"This whole issue began with my seeing a drawing Pollock made in 1951 which I consider to be a version of a Picasso crucifixion of 1930," he continued. "This is my own view. But side-by-side comparison leaves few doubts . . . A second Pollock drawing, used as a poster for his exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951, also has a cruciform figure," he said. "All I'm saying is that aspects of these drawings appear in a few--underline 'few'--of the approximately 40 black and white paintings Pollock made between June 1951 and August 1952. What I have tried to do in the Paris essay is relate those few pictures--which I believe have religious images--to the idea of the church Pollock was working on with Tony Smith."
Carmean's writings on Pollock offer the latest in a series of discoveries that have earned him the reputation of being something of an art historical sleuth. He previously found two "missing" Mondrian "Diamond" paintings (which the artist had overpainted), and two "missing" Picassos (which he discovered under the surface of the National Gallery's "Saltimbanques").
He was asked yesterday whether he had made any discoveries about Braque during his current trip to Paris. "You will have to wait and see," he said. He couldn't resist adding: "But there are some."