Jackson Pollock's painting Number 1, 1949, is a swirl of multi-colored, spaghettied paint, dripped, flung and slung across a 5-by-8-foot canvas. It's a textured work — including nails and a bee (we'll get to that later) — and in the nearly 70 years since its creation, it's attracted a fair bit of dust, dirt and grime.
That's where conservator Chris Stavroudis comes in: His job is to clean the painting using swabs, solvents, and tiny brushes. For the last several months, he's been hard at work, once a week, in full view of the public, in a gallery at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Pollock used all sorts of paints — oil paint, house paint, car paint, radiator paint — and they all aged and got dirty in different ways. Working with the Getty Conservation Institute, Stavroudis did tests to see what kind of cleaning was needed.
Stavroudis suspects the bee was unintentional (it probably just flew into the wet canvas as Pollock painted), but the nails weren't. Pollock added them for texture. Art conservation is as much detective work as aesthetic exercise — and a nail that fell out of the painting gave clues to Pollock's thinking. In the tiny indentation where a nail had been, Stavroudis saw a hairline of bright orange, under many dribbles of white.
"Everyone always thinks of him as just slopping paint around," Stavroudis says, "but he looked at it, decided the orange was too bright, and took it down."
Some high school students watch Stavroudis wield his swabs — they have to make their own Pollocks for school, and want to know how he painted.
"The canvas was put on the floor and dribbled on," Stavroudis explains. "He used sticks and dipped them into house paint, enamel paint, and then dribbled the paint off the stick and onto the canvas."
Rather than the floor, Stavroudis has mounted the painting on a vertical track attached to the wall. He can slide it up and down to get to different sections. This is the first time any conservation work has been done on Number 1, 1949, and because it's a 20th century work, it's harder to conserve than, say, a Rembrandt.
"People have been working on oil paintings, traditional paintings, for a long time," Stavroudis says.
So there's lots of accumulated information. With new, 20th century materials, however, there's much less conservation scholarship; they're still in the process of learning what happens when the swab meets the paint.
When I checked in with Stavroudis the other day to see how it was going he said he recently learned about yet another material Pollock had used — tempera — what children use for finger painting.
It's just one more challenge on Stavroudis' sixth-month quest to restore Pollock's work to its original condition, dead bee and all.
"I'm nearly finished," he says. "I have to kind of slow down a little bit because I don't want to run out of painting to clean before the exhibition ends." But, he says, he's "right on schedule" to complete his work by the time the museum closes the exhibition on September 3.
By then, Stavroudis will have spent more time working on the painting than Pollock did — "by an order of magnitude."