Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

By Elise Nakhnikian

What is a painting worth?

Whatever someone will pay for it.

Like a Zen koan, the more you think about that answer, the harder it is to understand. How can a piece of art be worthless if it’s by an unknown artist but priceless if it was painted by an anointed master? Who does that anointing, anyhow? Does the price of a painting have any relation at all to how good it is?

The growing chasm between the ultra-rich and the rest of us has made the relationship between the price of a painting and its artistic merit more tenuous than ever. Using art to invest – and flaunt – their money, the superrich have driven prices for name-brand works into the stratosphere over the past few years. So the time is right for Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006), the true story of a bullheaded, dumpster-diving, 70-something truck driver named Teri Horton and the splatter-painted canvas she bought for $5 at a thrift shop.

Horton got the unsigned painting as a kind of joke to cheer up a depressed friend. “It was ugly,” she says. “There was nothing to it – it was just all these different colors all over a canvas.”

Her friend didn’t want it either, so Horton tried to sell it – until a local art teacher told her it might be a Pollock. “Who the fuck Is Jackson Pollock?” Horton asked. When she learned that his paintings sold for millions, she tried to find someone to tell her if hers was the real thing.

But the art dealers she contacted were so certain that a Pollock could not have eluded the grasp of collectors for half a century and then fall into the callused hands of a thrift store shopper with an eighth-grade education that they froze her out without even looking at the painting.

Outraged by their disrespect, Horton vowed to get her answer. “I thought, who in the hell do these people think they are?” she says. “What if this thing is really real? It became a challenge for me.”

Writer-director Harry Moses tries to remain neutral on the question of whether the painting is a knock-off, but his sympathies clearly lie with Horton. Shooting her in the cab of her truck, at home in her trailer park, or drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with her friends at a scruffy VFW bar, he portrays her as a plain-spoken working-class heroine taking on an art-world elite.

Some of the art experts he interviews are open-minded and appealingly humble, but others seem to wield “artistic integrity” as a sword to protect their turf and keep the hoi polloi at bay. Thomas Hoving, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, comes off worst. Blinded by a patrician sense of entitlement, he insists that Horton has no right to feel bitter about her treatment by the art world. “She knows nothing,” he sniffs. “I’m an expert.” Moses and cinematographer William Cassara feed our alienation from Hoving by letting us watch him contort himself like a flamingo as he examines the painting, then shooting him from close up with a wide-angle lens that exaggerates his florid hand movements.

Facing off against the art elite is Paul Biro, the equally smug forensic scientist Horton eventually hires to authenticate her painting. Biro prides himself on working like a detective, and a partial fingerprint he found on the back of the canvas forms the bedrock of his claim that the painting is a Pollock. But the art world is suspicious of his methods, convinced that the best way to judge a painting’s authorship is by assessing its aesthetic merits and technique, not analyzing fingerprints or paint chips.

We see just enough of the rich clients who buy multi-million-dollar art – mostly unprepossessing-looking men with heavily Botoxed and bejeweled wives and girlfriends – to get a sense of what drives their decisions. Hearing a potential “investor” from Bear Stearns patiently explain that you can’t expect people to pay millions of dollars for a painting unless it comes with the right paperwork gives you a new appreciation for Hoving, who at least talks about a painting’s soul rather than its pedigree.

Ironically, the director’s own voice-over commentary can be almost as off-putting as Hoving’s pompous pronouncements (he sounds a lot like John Lithgow.) But that’s mostly counterbalanced by Terence Blanchard’s energetic soundtrack and by the often engrossing interviews that make up most of the movie’s 114-minute running time.

Moses has a knack for getting his subjects to open up on camera. The stories they tell and the opinions they express are entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, and the moral is clear: Question authority, no matter how cocksure it may be.

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