Painted by drunks!

Before its star turn in American Masters, discover the true story behind the NGA’s most famous work of art

In 1973, former NGA Director James Mollison shook Australia by purchasing one of the most outrageous paintings of the era: Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles.

Even though the NGA was yet to be built, in 1971 Mollison had access to one of the largest acquisitions budgets of his time. Energetic and confident, Mollison famously stated, ‘We are only interested in acquiring masterpieces’. Thanks to Mollison’s insatiable appetite for ‘everything of real consequence’, the NGA boasts one of the world’s most extraordinary collections of post-war American art in the world outside of the US.

Jackson Pollock,, ‘Blue poles’ 1952, oil, enamel, aluminium paint, glass on canvas, National Gallery of Australia © Pollock-Krasner Foundation, ARS/Copyright Agency

The NGA’s exhibition, American Masters 19401980, captures Mollison’s passion for the big, the bold and the important, including one of the Gallery’s most controversial works of art — the dynamic abstract painting created by Pollock in 1952.

In May 1973, Mollison received a letter from art dealer Max Hutchinson, casually 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.’

With an asking price of $1.3million Australian dollars, this acquisition set a record for the most expensive American painting ever sold. Having ‘captured’ Pollock’s last major drip painting, the NGA’s emerging collection hit global headlines.

Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock 1950, gelatin silver photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gift of James Mollison 1987

Blue poles travelled to Australia on a tidal wave of rumours. New York Magazine’s Stanley P Friedman claimed the painting had been created in the throes of a Bacchanalian rampage by Pollock and his artist friends Tony Smith and Barnett Newman, with Pollock and Smith furiously splashing paint as Newman slashed the canvas with its iconic blue poles. Other publications echoed this salacious gossip. ‘Painting Produced in Drunken Orgy?’ asked one tabloid headline. ‘DRUNKS DID IT!’ screamed another.

Friedman’s 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.

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.’

With Government support, Mollison proudly defended his decision to acquire Pollock’s masterpiece: ‘Criticism of expensive acquisitions is always a probability — particularly if the art is recent or contemporary and is foreign.’

‘But if the Gallery fails to seek the best it is unlikely to develop a distinctive character and style, its role as an educator and developer of standards of taste and appreciation will very likely be diminished as well as its prospects of achieving a stature to command national interest and pride, and international regard.’

Today, Blue poles stands as a symbol of bravery, integrity and trail-blazing forward thinking. Experience this radical painting, along with many other ground-breaking 20th century masterpieces, in American Masters 1940–1980.