Gray’s Auction Update: The Results May Surprise You…


My earlier report on the auction held at Gray’s yesterday anticipated a hubbub over the two excellent examples of Jackson Pollock’s printmaking in the sale (Lots 72, 73) – and while they did sell, they surprisingly did not reach estimate ($4000-6000) – they went to a phone buyer for only $3200 each. A steal! The Frank Stella (Lot 71) went over estimate, selling at $5600, and the large Jim Dine woodcut (Lot 70) reached the top of the estimate at $6000.

But in a way, Pollock still managed to steal the show, as one of the two photographs of the artist working on an action painting went far above estimate ($700-900), selling for $1600!

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This photograph was shot by Hans Namuth in 1950, but printed later (by the photographer himself in 1989, a year before his death), and is numbered 4/50. Housed in a lovely custom wood frame, it is signed by the renowned photographer, and measures 17″ H x 13″ W. And while it is an excellent document of Pollock at work, the fact that a photograph of the artist did better than a work by the artist himself reinforces something I have always thought about the somewhat mythic status given to images of this “genius” artist.

As critic Sarah Boxer pointed out in 1998 on the occasion of a Pollock retrospective at the MoMA, “The figure of Jackson Pollock — action painter, dancing dripper, sullen rebel — was formed in Hans Namuth’s camera. Namuth’s camera helped make Pollock famous, and Namuth’s camera was blamed for Pollock’s demise …”. At the end of the lengthy shoot in which the image above was shot, the two men came in from the cold of the barn, and Pollock began to drink. What was going to be a celebratory dinner ended with Pollock up-ending the table for the photographer’s benefit, shouting ”’Should I do it now?’ to Namuth. ‘Now?’ Then he turned over the whole table, plates, glasses, meat, gravy and all.” Apparently the artist had tired of performing for the camera. Pollock never stopped drinking from that night on, and eventually drove his car into a tree, ending his life. Some have blamed these photo-sessions for Pollock’s downward spiral, or at the very least, triggering some seriously bad behavior.

But Boxer also points out what I have observed about Pollock – the man himself seems to be synonymous with his work, at times maybe even surpassing the work in importance:

“Articles on Pollock were often illustrated with Namuth’s photographs rather than the paintings. Why? It was Namuth’s images more than Pollock’s paintings that grabbed the public’s imagination…A rhetoric developed around them, a language of trances and rituals, boxing and dancing, rhythm and randomness. Even the critics based their theories on the photos. Harold Rosenberg’s famous 1952 essay in Art News, ‘The American Action Painters,’ was not about painting at all…Rosenberg ‘was describing Namuth’s photographs of Pollock.'”

Namuth’s iconic image of the abstract expressionist painter reinforces the “artistic genius” persona that the public clearly still associates with Pollock – when looking at the photograph from this angle, one easily see that its art historical value is quite high – and its monetary value, well, the sky’s the limit.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.