In September 1973 the sale of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles to the National Gallery of Australia for US$2,000,000 was announced—the highest price at the time for any contemporary American painting. Its American owner Ben Heller, then in his nineties, told me in a telephone interview that he ‘got an approach for Blue Poles’ from Max Hutchinson, an Australian art dealer in New York. The National Gallery of Australia says on its website
‘In May 1973, (director-designate James) Mollison received a letter from art dealer Max Hutchinson, casually [emphasis added] mentioning Blue poles was for sale.’
A few weeks after the sale a meeting was convened in Washington to verify—or not—the provenance of the painting.
The meeting was triggered by the consternation among some Australians (and others) about the US$2,000,000 paid for what some were saying were joint works that Pollock and two friends, Tony Smith and Barnett Newman, began in drunken experimentation with painting techniques.
An article on the website of the National Gallery of Australia is headed Painted by drunks! But it tells us that these accusations
‘were quickly cut down by Pollock experts. Before its journey from New York to Australia, the painting was meticulously inspected at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The examination revealed that any marks made on the canvas by Smith or Newman played no part in the painting that became Pollock’s Blue Poles.’
Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner attended the meeting as did then the director of the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase New York, the young London gallerist Bryan Robertson, who had promoted both Krasner and Pollock with exhibitions at the trend-setting Whitechapel Gallery in London in the 1950s and 1960s. Krasner denied emphatically (but carefully) that any other artist ‘participated in the creation of this painting as it looks today.’
Robertson was a booster for Pollock in general and Blue Poles in particular from the mid 1950s. He gave Pollock, who died in 1956, his first British retrospective in 1958. In his 1960 book on Pollock (dedicated to Krasner), Robertson devoted several pages to Blue Poles with its
‘spattered paint swiftly flicked from a loaded brush.’
This, he wrote,
‘is painting by remote control’
‘no brush or intermediary tool of any kind acts as a barrier between the spectator and the convolutions of the paint. Immediacy and fastidiously contrived spontaneity reign supreme.’
Which is somewhat at odds with the statement on the NGA website that
Although Pollock’s canvas looks spontaneous and effortless, art critic Thomas B Hess explains its frenzied splashes and splatters are carefully composed. Appraising the long and exacting process required to create this extraordinary painting, Hess bluntly states, ‘Blue poles is entirely the work of Jackson Pollock.’
Robertson also gave Lee Krasner a retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel, in 1965. He wrote the preface to the exhibition catalogue, quoting a prominent American art who commented that Krasner was often credited—not quite a decade after her husband’s death in a drunken car accident in 1956—‘with having almost single-handedly forced up prices for contemporary American art after the death.’
But not totally single-handedly. Bryan Robertson also wrote in the Krasner catalogue that:
‘I attended some conferences involving disposition of the Pollock estate. Along with others I advised Lee to release the paintings in a slow but regular manner.’
Which is to say, he advised that the drip paintings should be dripped onto the market. There were rather a lot of them, such that most were numbered rather than named.
But in 1969 Robertson was out of the Whitechapel and in 1971 took up the directorship of the Neuberger Museum of Art being built at the State University of New York’s new Arts campus at Purchase, 30 miles out from New York City.
Financier Roy R. Neuberger said in his memoirs that he had recruited ‘the noted critic and curator’ as the first director of the museum because
‘He had been the influential director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, where he was the first to introduce Jackson Pollock and other contemporary American painters to British art lovers. It was said that Robertson taught Britain to love modern art.’
Robertson was now in striking distance of both New York city and Lee Krasner who lived on Long Island and whom he had often visited in New York over the years, sometimes in the company of Australian artist Lawrence Daws.
In his 1965 Preface to Krasner’s retrospective at the Whitechapel Robertson Robertson also included Harold Rosenberg’s comment on the artist’s widow who
‘stands partway between artists and patron-collectors. As well as usually controlling the deceased artist’s ‘unsold production’ … she is courted and her views heeded by dealers, collectors, curators, historians, publishers, to say nothing of lawyers and tax specialists. It is hard to think of anyone in the Establishment who exceeds the widow in the number of powers concentrated in the hands of a single person.’
So Bryan Robertson probably wasn’t surprised when he was asked to attend a meeting in Washington in January 1974 a few weeks after the Australian Government bought Blue Poles to be the wow factor of its planned National Gallery.
The NGA website elaborates:
‘In May 1973, (director-designate James) Mollison received a letter from art dealer Max Hutchinson, casually [emphasis added] mentioning Blue poles was for sale. Mollison and his Acquisitions Committee agreed the painting was a ‘masterpiece’, while Whitechapel Gallery director Bryan Robertson prophesied, ‘The presence of Blue poles in Australia will inevitably change the course of Australian history, because it will affect the developing imagination and awareness of successive generations of Australians… It will become a talisman of a great nation.’
James Mollison had been an employee of Max Hutchinson in his Sydney gallery. Hutchinson opened London galleries in the 1960s and in the 1970s he had two galleries in New York. In 1973 Bryan Robertson, by then based at Purchase, wrote the catalogue introduction to an exhibition of the work of the Australian sculptor Clement Meadmore at the Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York.
Robertson left the Neuberger Museum shortly after its opening in 1974, not long after the Washington provenance meeting.
Roberston himself was a protege of Sir Kenneth Clark, who visit Australia in early 1949 and claimed to have discovered Sidney Nolan, Robertson’s exhibitions at the Whitechapel were pivotal to the Australian Art Bubble of the 1950s and 1960s in London. Robertson exhibited John Brack, Arthur Boyd, Lawrence Daws, William Dobell, Ian Fairweather, John Percival, Clifton Pugh, Albert Tucker and Fred Williams. He had travelled to Australia to select paintings.
In 1975 Robertson enlisted Sir Kenneth’s help to be offered the Associate Directorship of the National Gallery of Victoria. Clark gave him a glowing reference, saying Robertson had for fifteen years given
‘a series of exhibitions of modern painting which were much the most important and influential to be shown in England. ‘
‘the most gifted gallery director (next to Sir John Pope-Hennessy) who has been produced in England since the war.’
Clark said he would have liked to see him direct the Tate. Victoria would be lucky to get him.
But Robertson eventually declined the Australian post because, he apologised to Clark, of ‘Dread, really. Of going off to the other side of the world’.