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by Mark Scaramella, May 29, 2010
Teri Horton is a 70-something retired long-haul California truck driver who purchased an abstract painting from a thrift shop for $5 as a joke-gift for a friend which, Horton soon discovered, turned out to probably be a multi-million dollar Jackson Pollack painting. But so far, despite heroic efforts, Horton has been unable to prove to the art establishment that the painting is a real Jackson Pollack.
In 2006 former "60 Minutes staffers" made a documentary out of Horton's find and her efforts to prove that it's a real Pollack. The cast of characters reminds some reviewers of a class struggle between the sharp and persistant working class gal and the effete upper class art world.
The cast of characters alone makes Harry Moses' documentary, "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?" (Horton's bleeped first reaction upon being told her painting might be a Jackson Pollack), very entertaining. The conflict between the art world and the truck driver, and the forensic investigations involved in trying to prove it's a Pollack add further interest.
To an art layperson, the documentary makes a pretty convincing case that Horton's discovery is a genuine Pollack. But the art world demands that the painting come with a "provenance" -- a history of ownership -- before they'll accept it as a Pollack. Obviously, "I bought it at a thrift store for five bucks" isn't much of a provenance.
It remains a mystery to me that Pollack's paintings are worth millions of dollars. They appear more like very well done elementary school fingerpainting rejects than "art." But I'm obviously in somewhat of a minority.
We won't summarize the extent of the proof which Horton and her allies (including the documentarians while trying to be objective) are able to marshal. But the art world's demand for a "provenance" deserves a bit more commentary.
Toward the end of the documentary, Moses presents Horton's Pollack to a famous British art forger named John Myatt who, until he joined forces with famous art fraudster John Drewe, ran a small art operation he called "Genuine Fakes." Myatt could paint realistic looking forgeries of the great masters which fooled the art world for years. In the film, Myatt takes a look at Horton's Pollack and is asked, "Could you forge this?" After a moment of staring, Myatt says, dramatically, "No."
Unfortunately, Moses doesn't provide much background on Myatt due to the obvious limitations of the documentary form. But for the even more fascinating story of Myatt and Drewe, readers might want to explore the recent book about their famous art fraud, aptly named, "Provenance."
But Myatt's declaration that he couldn’t forge the Pollack is not much proof of anything since there are other current painters who can do pretty good Pollack imitations. In fact, given a few days in a local art studio, I don't see why I couldn't do one myself.
However, to pull off the Myatt-Drewe fraud, Mr. Drewe went one step further. He actually wormed his way into famous art museums and archives and inserted his own fake "provenances" into the records so that, when the art world went to check on his fakes, they found what looked like a genuine "provenance" in the archives. Drewe sold up to 200 of Myatt's fakes this way before he got caught by Scotland Yard when Drewe’s estranged wife turned him in. To this day there are dozens of Myatt's fakes masquerading as real works of the great masters and nobody knows which ones they are, nor do they even know which ones have fake provenances. Myatt himself refuses to say, claiming that to do so would devalue what the purchasers of the fakes now own.
The art world's skepticism about Horton's find may be justified. After all, it wasn't until Professor Don Foster delved into our "Letters of Wanda Tinasky" and found out they weren't written by novelist Thomas Pynchon, as many people thought. They were written by an itinerant former San Francisco beatnik named Tom Hawkins who lived in Fort Bragg in the late 80s. After writing the wonderful, highly literate letters which he signed as Coast Bag Lady Wanda Tinasky for several years, they abruptly stopped in the late 1980s. Hawkins seems to have gone to some lengths to hint that Pynchon was the author of the Tinasky Letters. Foster discovered that a few weeks after the letters stopped, Tom Hawkins was the guy who murdered his wife and ran his car off the coastal bluffs a couple days later. (Foster laid out his discovery process in one chapter of his own very interesting book "Author Unknown.")
The point is that the literary world lost interest in the Letters of Wanda Tinasky, which I think are better than Thomas Pynchon, personally, when they discovered that the letters were not written by Pynchon. But a case can be made that, like Myatt's fakes, the imitation is better than the original, whether the original is a pure, meaningless abstraction like Pollack's drip-style, or if it's the nearly impenetrable prose of Thomas Pynchon.
Who gets to say that one is "great art" worth millions and the other is a worthless "fake"?
(Note: This stupid wordpress blogging program for some reason won't let me upload a comparable example of a real Jackson Pollack painting which is very similar to the image of Horton's Find you see below. However, if you want to see one, there are plenty of Pollack examples on the world wide web.)