Who The $#%& Is Jackson Pollock * Harry Moses * 2006
“Fairy tales start with ‘once upon a time,’ but a truck driver’s story starts with ‘you ain’t even gonna believe this shit.’”
So begins Who the $#%& Is Jackson Pollock, the story of Teri Horton, a foul-mouthed dumpster-diving grandma and former trucker, and the “ugly” painting she bought at a San Bernardino thrift store as a joke to cheer up a friend. (The asking price was $8, but Horton haggled it down to $5.) Neither she nor her friend had room to store the large painting (“We were just gonna throw darts at it”) so Horton ended up trying to sell it in a garage sale, where a local art teacher told her it resembled a Jackson Pollock painting (to which she remarked, “Who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?”) After learning how much Pollock’s paintings sold for (as much as $100,000,000) Teri decided to hold onto it, to see if anyone could tell her what she really had, thus initiating the series of events that led to the creation of a documentary film.
Since she doesn’t have a provenance, and cannot trace the painting back to Pollock through a paper trail (that and the thought of finding a Pollock painting at a thrift store seems ludicrous) no one will take Horton seriously. Those who inspect the painting turn it down immediately, saying it simply “doesn’t feel like a Pollock.” Besides, “She knows nothing. I’m an expert. She’s not,” as Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, states after examining the painting in a rather exaggerated manner, bending down and twisting his head around, finally pronouncing it “dead on arrival.” The art world wholly rebuffs Horton, which only further drives her ambition to prove its authenticity, to show these snobs that they don’t know anything either.
No one will believe the truth, so Teri, ever the character, conjures up the bizarre, incredibly far-fetched yarn that she was given the painting by “Pops,” an elderly California bar owner. According to Pops, the bar was frequented by movie stars, and one winter night, Pollock, along with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and that “interfering bitch” Joan Crawford, were snowed in during a blizzard and all decided to paint pictures to pass the time. (According to Teri, Pollock signed the painting with his dick, “as he often did.”) Unbelievably, people believed this story more than that of the thrift store find, one gallery owner even claiming to have known who Pops was.
The story takes an unexpected turn when Horton’s son enlists the help of renowned art world forensic expert, Peter Paul Biro, who uses a scientific approach to prove the authenticity of paintings. He discovers a fingerprint on the back of Teri’s canvas, and though Pollock did not have an official fingerprint on file, as he never served time in the army or in prison, was able to find a fingerprint embedded in a paint can on display inside Pollock’s Long Island studio, to which even his wife, Lee Krasner, had limited access. The two fingerprints were exact matches. Upon further inspection, Biro found that the microscopic gold particles (from a can of spraypaint used on another Pollock painting) found on the floor of Pollock’s studio also appeared on Teri’s painting. Finally, Biro compares a swatch from an official Pollock painting, “No. 5,” to a swatch of Teri’s painting; not only are the colors a close match, but it’s hard to tell which one is the official Pollock and which is the one in question.
And yet, the response of the art dealers is to the effect of, “Science is fascinating, but in this case, it really doesn’t prove anything.” If one’s fingerprints are found all over a murder weapon, that’s enough to sentence them to a life in prison, or even death, yet not enough to secure the authenticity of a painting? It seems absurd that, despite several counts of forensic evidence, the art world is still discounting its legitimacy because, to them, it “doesn’t feel like a Pollock, doesn’t sing like a Pollock.” Can one really disregard scientific proof over gut instinct? Or, perhaps more disconcertingly, they would rather risk missing out on an important new discovery by one of the 20th century’s most influential painters than bestow upon Horton the accreditation she deserves. As the director, Harry Moses, told the New York Times, the film is “a story about class in America.”
While somewhat infuriating (not the film’s fault), Who The $#%& Is Jackson Pollock is fascinating, and at times hilarious. My only gripe (besides the soundtrack, which at times reminded me of the music they play on the Weather Channel) is the filmmaker’s attempts at comparing Horton to Pollock, which, while they both drank heavily, is kind of a stretch.
Teri’s painting, to my knowledge, is still for sale, after she turned down a $9,000,000 offer. Clearly she’s not after money, but the satisfaction of having been taken seriously by the condescending, pretentious art world elite; knowing that Pollock’s “No. 5” recently sold for $140 million, she feels that that day has not yet come. She still lives in a trailer, surviving on Social Security checks and by digging through the trash and scouring the thrift stores and garage sales for bargains, although I wonder how much her lifestyle would have changed had she taken the 9 mil. I think, or would hope, that even as a millionaire, Teri would still hang out at the local dive bar, nursing a beer with her friends under a thick haze of smoke, cursing and telling stories and laughing over that ugly painting she found.