Written By Lesley M. M. Blume and Originally Published in Vanity Fair on September 2012
Jackson Pollock’s mistress Ruth Kligman said she watched him paint it, as a love token, just before his fatal 1956 car crash. But the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board, whose members were close with Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, have questioned its authenticity. Pollock, Kligman, and Krasner are all now dead, but as Red, Black & Silver heads to auction, on the 100th anniversary of Pollock’s birth, Lesley M. M. Blume chronicles the dramatic ongoing battle over what may have been an American master’s last canvas.
The imagery on the canvas is relatively spare: a black oblong shape resides at the picture’s center, encircled by a loose knot of swirling red lines. It’s a small painting, just 24 by 20 inches. There is nothing to indicate that this unassuming, unsigned work has been the subject of an explosive, decades-long battle, a saga that has drawn in some of America’s best-known artists and the power brokers of the art world.
Red, Black & Silver is the last painting ever created by Jackson Pollock. That is, if Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress during the last year of the artist’s life, is to be believed. Famous in art circles—or notorious, depending on whom you ask—Kligman claimed that Pollock created the small canvas as a love gift to her just weeks before the car crash that killed him, in 1956. Kligman had been in the car, too; she was the accident’s sole survivor. The nickname “death-car girl,” bestowed upon her by poet Frank O’Hara, haunted her for the rest of her life.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Pollock’s birth. It has been a good decade for Pollock prices: this spring, one of his paintings sold at a Christie’s auction for $23 million. In 2006, Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 reportedly sold via private sale at Sotheby’s for $140 million, which was said at the time to be the highest price ever paid for a painting.
On September 20, Red, Black & Silver is scheduled to go to auction in New York City courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company, with a price-estimate range available upon request from the auction house. The painting is said to have never changed hands before; it remained in Kligman’s possession until her death, in 2010. Rather than occupying a place of honor on a living-room or museum wall, it has spent much of its life in secrecy, stashed away in closets or hidden behind other paintings. As the possession of Pollock’s lover, Red, Black & Silver is expected to generate a great deal of attention and curiosity when it goes on the block. The tale of the artist’s death is closely associated with the work. “It’s really one of the most mythic moments in the entirety of art history,” says Zach Miner, head of evening sales of contemporary art at Phillips de Pury. “It’s such a compelling and almost classically tragic story that it has resonance for the ages, and it’s inextricable from the object itself.”
For potential buyers, however, there is one small catch: Phillips is billing the painting as “Attributed to Jackson Pollock”—a far cry from “By Jackson Pollock.” For not everyone is convinced that Red, Black & Silver is definitively the last Jackson Pollock—or even a Pollock at all. And the principal detractors are the powerful onetime members of the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board. In their eyes, Red, Black & Silver is a work plagued by incongruity, peddled by a self-interested party whose account of the painting’s creation could not be adequately corroborated.
To the trustees of a trust in Kligman’s name and other longtime Kligman supporters, on the other hand, the painting is a national treasure long denied its proper place in the cultural landscape by an elite art-world clique honoring a personal vendetta against Kligman on behalf of Pollock’s wife, artist Lee Krasner.
With the public debut of Red, Black & Silver drawing closer, Kligman’s executor and trustees gave Vanity Fair exclusive access to Kligman’s document archive, revealing details of the painting’s fraught biography and its owner’s quarter-century quest to prove its legitimacy.
“Show Me How You Make a Painting”
In 1956, Kligman was a 26-year-old art student, working at a minor Midtown Manhattan gallery. A voluptuous former Seventh Avenue model, she was said to strongly resemble screen sirens Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth. Pollock biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith state in Jackson Pollock: An American Saga that Kligman, as a child, had fantasized about becoming a great artist—and, just as frequently, about being “the wife or mistress of a genius.” Artist Audrey Flack recalls that in early 1956 Kligman befriended her and asked her to explain the nuances of the New York art scene.
“Ruth asked, Who are the best artists, who should I know, [and] in what order—one, two, and three?” Flack says. “I said, ‘Jackson Pollock, Bill de Kooning, and Franz Kline,’ and told her they all go to the Cedar Bar. She said, ‘I gotta meet Pollock.’ I took a piece of paper and drew a map. I told her, ‘This is where Pollock sits at the bar,’ and what he looked like. That night, she goes to the bar and meets him, all set for it. It was very, very pre-determined.” In her 1974 book, Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, Kligman would assert that her Cedar Bar meeting with Pollock had been coincidental, and that “he had meant so much to me for so long as a heroic figure.”
For Pollock, 1956 was a year of eclipse. To many in the art world, it appeared that the artist had passed the pinnacle of his career. The art critic Clement Greenberg—Pollock’s onetime champion—would later say that by this time “Jackson knew he’d lost the stuff” and was “never going to come back.” Pollock was drinking heavily and had fallen into an abyss of nonproductivity; he was in a “death trance,” according to another biographer friend, Jeffrey Potter.
Pollock’s marriage to Lee Krasner had dramatically unraveled. Krasner, enraged by her husband’s affair with Kligman, decamped to Europe that summer. Kligman promptly moved into the Pollock-Krasner home in the Springs, a hamlet in East Hampton—by some accounts, on the very day that Krasner boarded a transatlantic ocean liner. One source says that Kligman hung her clothes in Krasner’s closet and set up shop in her painting studio.
Kligman later recounted that she became desperate to get Pollock to start working again. In the introduction to the 1999 paperback edition of Love Affair—formatted as an open letter to Pollock—Kligman wrote that, one afternoon in July, she asked him “to show me how you make a painting.”
She continued, “I brought the canvas board to the lawn, you quickly got the paint and sticks and I watched dazzled as you created it How incredible, miraculous you were that afternoon in the sun, at the house in Springs, smiling at me … when you made the painting for me ‘Here’s your painting, your very own Pollock.’ ”
The result was “the final painting of your life, your legacy to me, silver shimmering substance of the cosmos, the red heart oval shape of love, and the black form grounds the field.” An image of the painting fills more than two-thirds of the book’s front cover; the back cover identifies the work as a painting called “Red, Black & Silver by Jackson Pollock.”
This account was not included in the original 1974 edition of Love Affair. In fact, this edition does not mention the painting once—a fact that would create a considerable challenge for Kligman in the authentication battle that lay ahead.
It appears that in the years since its purported 1956 creation Red, Black & Silver has dwelled in comparative obscurity; in various items of correspondence and affidavits, Kligman maintained that it had long been stored in her downtown-Manhattan studio. The space had previously belonged to artist Franz Kline; Kligman became its resident when Kline died, in 1962. She lived and painted there for the rest of her life. Gallerist Ronald Sosinski says that when he met Ruth, in the 1980s, she told him that Red, Black & Silver was stashed in racks built near the studio’s ceiling, “where nobody could get to them.” “She was so paranoid,” he says. “I don’t know that anybody ever saw it.” Yet Sosinski also claims that Kligman showed the painting in an East Village group show under her own name in the 1980s, and that the work attracted little attention during its “first public appearance.”
The artist Jasper Johns, with whom Kligman enjoyed a longtime friendship, says that he “saw only a photograph of it when she was trying to have it authenticated,” but adds, “I saw no reason to doubt her word.” Kligman’s former husband, artist Carlos Sansegundo, to whom she was married from the mid-1960s to the late 70s, “never heard her talk about it” nor “saw anything by Jackson Pollock” in the years they lived together, according to his subsequent wife, Sheridan Sansegundo. (Like Kligman, Carlos Sansegundo died in 2010.) Biographer Steven Naifeh says that the only Pollock-like work he ever saw in Kligman’s studio was a large drip painting that had actually been created by “appropriation” artist Mike Bidlo, to whom Kligman was close in the 1980s and who is renowned for expertly re-creating established Pollock paintings. Bidlo denies that he created Red, Black & Silver, although his presence in Kligman’s life made her future attorneys uncomfortable.
Only a single person consulted for this article says that she saw Red, Black & Silver before the 1980s. In the 1950s, Bette Waldo Benedict had been one of Kligman’s closest friends. In the 1990s, when Kligman began her bid to have Red, Black & Silver authenticated, she and Benedict contended that two days before Pollock’s death, on August 9, 1956, Kligman took a train to New York City for a brief hiatus from the Springs, toting the painting along with her. Kligman stayed at Benedict’s apartment during this visit, they said.
“When I first saw it, I thought, Oh my God—what is that?” Benedict recalls. Now 89 years old, she experiences episodic confusion about time and dates, but has a “Panavision perfect” long-term memory, according to her daughter. Benedict adds, “Even though [it] doesn’t look like a Jackson Pollock painting, it is. He did it, and I know that.” She says that Kligman asked to leave the painting in the apartment for safekeeping.
“I kept it in my closet on a shelf, in the dark,” says Benedict. “I didn’t really want to touch it.”
Two days later, Kligman returned to the Springs and asked Benedict to go with her. Benedict says that she declined, so Kligman invited Edith Metzger, a receptionist at Kligman’s regular beauty parlor. The two women set off for Long Island on a morning train.
That evening, Pollock, Kligman, and Metzger drove to a concert in Pollock’s green 1950 Oldsmobile convertible. Pollock had been drinking gin all day and lost control at a curve on a long stretch of deserted road; the car plunged into some woods at 60 or 70 miles an hour. Pollock and Metzger were killed instantly. Kligman miraculously survived.
She made it immediately clear that she had no intention of disappearing now that Pollock was gone. In Love Affair, Kligman stated that while still hospitalized after the crash she asked her twin sister, Iris, “who looked exactly like me, to put on my clothes and go in my place” to Pollock’s funeral. Iris apparently declined. Soon after, Kligman reportedly brought a $100,000 negligence action against Lee Krasner, as Pollock’s executor, seeking damages for the accident; she is said to have settled for $10,000.
The “Artist’s Widow” and the “Big Game Hunter”
Amere year after Pollock’s death, Kligman scandalized the art world by beginning an affair with artist Willem de Kooning, considered at the time to be Pollock’s chief artistic rival. (After Pollock’s 1956 funeral, de Kooning reportedly declared, “It’s over. I’m number one.”) He honored his new lover by creating a lush painting titled Ruth’s Zowie, and said of her, “She really puts lead in my pencil.” Their relationship lasted on and off for four years.
Kligman also claimed to have had an affair with Franz Kline, who referred to her as “Miss Grand Concourse.” She would boast that Jasper Johns was another conquest. In an e-mail exchange, Johns did not respond when asked whether he’d had a romance with Kligman; however, he acknowledged that “she seemed to express a genuine erotic affection for well-known artists.” Andy Warhol wrote that Kligman had kissed him on a couple of occasions. In short, when it came to art-world luminaries, Kligman was a “big game hunter,” as de Kooning biographer Mark Stevens put it.
Over the years, Krasner made little effort to hide her contempt for her husband’s former mistress. Krasner’s friend Cile Downs remembered that, on one occasion, Kligman actually called Krasner before a Pollock exhibition; the outreach was not well received. “Lee said with heavy sarcasm, ‘I suppose she thought that we would walk into that show together,’ and her voice was dripping with contempt,” says Downs. Around the time Love Affair was first published, Krasner called Kligman “pathetic and petty” in an interview. Privately, she sneered to a friend that the book should have been called “My Five Fucks with Jackson Pollock—because that’s all there were!”
Upon Pollock’s death, Lee Krasner had become the sole executor of his estate. Her masterful marketing of his work in the following years has been credited “with having almost single-handedly forced up prices for contemporary American abstract art after [Pollock’s] death,” as noted by the art critic Harold Rosenberg in a famous 1965 Esquire article describing the all-powerful “artist’s widow.” He noted that “Mrs. Jackson Pollock” was in “a position to authenticate or reject unsigned paintings or drawings in the hands of others,” and was also “the official source of the artist’s life story, as well as of his private interpretation of that story.”
Krasner oversaw the initial authentication committee that evaluated works purportedly created by her late husband. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, she spearheaded an ambitious effort to create a Jackson Pollock catalogue raisonné—an authoritative compendium detailing an artist’s full body of work—which was ultimately edited by the veteran art dealer Eugene V. Thaw, who declined several requests to be interviewed for this article. Thaw wrote in 1978 that he and Krasner had become “close friends” after Pollock’s death, and that, “suffering pangs of guilt and remorse that I had chosen the marketplace instead of scholarship, I myself volunteered to undertake the project.” In 1972 he enlisted the art historian Francis V. O’Connor—who also declined to be interviewed for this article—to be the catalogue’s co-editor. O’Connor had written a dissertation on Pollock’s work in the 1960s; after that, Krasner and O’Connor would work closely together on other Pollock-related research projects, and O’Connor would soon become the world’s pre-eminent Pollock scholar. Both men would henceforth play a central role in all matters pertaining to the authentication of Pollock works. When Krasner died, in 1984, Thaw was “the executor specified in her will to have authority over the art in her estate”; he also became president of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, created by Lee Krasner’s will in 1985.
The Jackson Pollock catalogue raisonné—a formidable four-volume work of scholarship—was published to acclaim in 1978. Red, Black & Silver was not included in its pages. Several Kligman friends say that she could not bring herself to present the work for evaluation by her lover’s wife. Artist and Kligman co-trustee Jonathan Cramer speculates that Krasner would have reacted with rage to Red, Black & Silver: “The last painting [Pollock] ever made was not for Lee; it was for Ruth Kligman. Because they were in love.” Others, however, say that they doubt Kligman would have been too intimidated by Krasner to show her the painting. “Being terrified of a wife—is that in [Ruth’s] character?” asks Jackson Pollock’s nephew Jason McCoy. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It Would Be Our Pleasure to Work with a Painting of Such Quality”
In the early 1990s, Kligman was in contact with Christie’s about selling Red, Black & Silver. “At that point, [the painting] was the only thing she had left of any value to save her life; Ruth was living on sardines,” Ronald Sosinski says.
Red, Black & Silver’s obscurity didn’t seem to hamper Christie’s initial enthusiasm about the work. “We would be thrilled to have the opportunity to include it in our major Contemporary Art auction scheduled for May 5,” wrote Laura Paulson, assistant vice president of contemporary art, to Kligman on February 8, 1992. “It would be our pleasure to work with a painting of such quality.” A provisional value estimate of $500,000 to $1.2 million was mentioned.
The house then apparently learned that the painting had not appeared in the Pollock catalogue raisonné. Nor did Kligman possess a certificate of authentication from the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board, created by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1990 to evaluate newly found works for an upcoming supplement to the 1978 catalogue. This board now had the official authority to authenticate purported Pollock works based on its members’ scholarly experience—or connoisseurship, as such expertise is referred to in the art world. The board’s chairman was Eugene Thaw. The other members were Francis O’Connor; Dr. Ellen G. Landau, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, who had authored a major monograph on Jackson Pollock and edited the Lee Krasner catalogue raisonné; and William S. Lieberman, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who served with Krasner, Thaw, and O’Connor on the earlier authentication committee. Lieberman died in 2005. Like Thaw and O’Connor, Landau declined several requests to be interviewed for this article.
Kligman’s auction plans came to an abrupt halt. “If the painting isn’t included in the catalogue raisonné, then scholarly opinion is against it being by Pollock,” explains Morgan Spangle, a former vice president of contemporary art at Christie’s. “So, the best we could do is put it in as ‘Attributed to Pollock,’ and it’s not going to do very well at auction. I remember talking to Kligman and saying, ‘You’ve got to talk to the Pollock-Krasner people and see if you can convince them, because that’s your best route.’ ”
Kligman submitted Red, Black & Silver to the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board for evaluation. On June 5, 1992, the board members gathered to review the painting. Soon afterward, Thaw sent a letter to Kligman, stating that Red, Black & Silver had been presented to him years earlier “without any documentation by someone else who claimed at that time to be the owner.” He added that the board had other concerns about the work: first, that it was painted on commercial canvas board (“unprecedented for Pollock”). Additionally, Thaw said, they detected the presence of a “geometric design under the present surface,” and they had concerns about the nature of the surface pigments.
The board, according to the letter from Thaw, was “unable to come to a definitive conclusion regarding its opinion about how or whether this painting fits into the known work of Jackson Pollock.”
“It Was an Intensely Personal Gift from Jackson to Me”
Over the next 18 months, Kligman attempted to address the board’s concerns. In a letter dated January 12, 1994, she advised the board members that “there is absolutely no room for doubt about the work’s authenticity,” and described her version of the painting’s creation in Pollock’s backyard. As for the anomalous canvas and the “geometric” design faintly visible in the top left corner of the painting, she wrote that Pollock had used “one of my canvas boards on which I had already painted a few strokes.” She said that she brought painting supplies to him from both his studio and “my own working materials.”
“I stood next to him and watched him paint it,” Kligman wrote. “It was a very joyous moment for us both. Above all, it was an intensely personal gift from Jackson to me.”
Then came the issue of the painting’s earlier submission by a different owner. The foundation had indicated that the work was submitted to Thaw in 1986 by a man named John Laubach, who mailed two black-and-white photographs and a transparency of Red, Black & Silver to Thaw’s offices with a request that the work be authenticated. No mention of Kligman’s name had been made; foundation representatives maintain that they had presumed that the work belonged to Laubach, who died early this year. Judgment had been swiftly passed on the painting: two days after Thaw received Laubach’s application, he informed Laubach by letter that the work was not legitimate, and warned that “we are retaining the photographs for our files.” The foundation now pressed Kligman to explain who Laubach was, and how he had come to possess Red, Black & Silver if she had supposedly been its sole owner since 1956.
In her January 12 letter, Kligman explained that in 1986 she had found herself “in particular financial need” and asked a gallerist friend, Ronald Sosinski, to submit the painting to the board on her behalf. Sosinski, in turn, had tapped John Laubach—a “friend of the gallery” with supposed contacts close to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation—to present the work “as a way of getting [Thaw and his team] to look at it without any prejudice,” according to Sosinski.
To prepare Red, Black & Silver for review, Sosinski took it to a restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, formerly a specialist in 19th-century and old-master paintings at the Metropolitan Museum. Modestini says she “tidied [the painting] up a bit It was very, very grimy.” Asked to speculate whether Red, Black & Silver appeared to be an older work, she says, “There could have been 20 years of dirt on the surface.” Images of the newly tidied painting had been submitted to Thaw for evaluation.
In a March 24, 1994, letter to Kligman, Thaw requested notarized affidavits from both Laubach and Sosinski, as well as others “from persons in a plausible position to testify to your personal ownership since 1956.” His letter stated that “your painting, in respect to Pollock’s total oeuvre, is stylistically anomalous, and cannot be related to his known work,” and informed her that the board would begin undertaking “its own historical investigation of this matter.”
In the following months, the discussion became framed in terms of whether Red, Black & Silverwould be included as an authenticated work in the planned supplement to the catalogue raisonné. As part of their investigation, the board members scoured Love Affair—which Thaw and O’Connor had referred to as a “fictionalized memoir” in the final pages of the catalogue raisonné. They noted that Kligman herself had acknowledged that Pollock “was not able to paint in the end,” and they wanted to know how she had managed to remove the painting from the Springs property, as she’d indicated in the book that all of her personal possessions had been “destroyed” while she was hospitalized after the car accident. Kligman responded that the creation of Red, Black & Silver had been “spur-of-the-moment,” and gave her account of bringing the painting to Bette Waldo Benedict’s apartment on August 9, 1956.
The board also asked why Red, Black & Silver was not mentioned in Love Affair: “Why was this quite significant and moving moment in her relationship not reported?” And why, they pressed, had she not presented it to the world earlier?
Here Kligman offered a handful of explanations. “In all candor, after a while, I stopped thinking about the painting. I had my own life to live … unconnected to Jackson Pollock,” she began. But she also stated, “I did not regard it in my interest to hang Jackson’s painting in my home or studio for personal reasons. Within time it became obvious that, were I to have let it be known that I had this painting … it might well have been discredited. As has been written with respect to me, ‘If she wants a Pollock, she should buy a Pollock.’ ”
Krasner had famously made this declaration to Pollock friend and biographer B. H. Friedman. Soon after Pollock’s death, Friedman went to the Pollock-Krasner home to look for a different painting, a large black-and-white drip canvas that Kligman said Pollock had given her during their summer together. “[It was] one of the best of that series, and I had chosen it among the many,” Kligman wrote in the original edition of Love Affair. Friedman looked around Pollock’s studio for the painting, but said that it had disappeared.
“Lee would never have destroyed a thread of canvas if it were by Jackson,” Friedman mused. “But if she ever did this could be the one.”
“Questions Remain Concerning the Precise History of This Painting”
Throughout the remainder of 1994, Kligman and her attorney Robert Blum amassed a body of evidence to present to the board. In addition to compiling affidavits and testimony from Bette Waldo Benedict, Ronald Sosinski, and John Laubach, Kligman gathered letters of support from various Pollock authorities.
Leo Castelli—widely regarded as one of America’s most influential art dealers, who’d worked closely with Pollock—wrote, “To the best of my knowledge and belief, this painting entitled, red, black and silver, is by Jackson Pollock.” In another letter, he added, “It appears that the painting was executed with skills that Jackson had. His control of the paint is evident and one can actually feel the rhythm in the painting.” Dore Ashton, a respected art critic, historian, and writer, wrote a letter to the board proclaiming, “I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this painting which, it seems to me, is utterly characteristic of Pollock.” Kligman and Blum had X-radiograph and infra-red-scan testing conducted on the painting to determine whether it might plausibly have been created in 1956. The official conclusion of Joseph Battaglia, the conservator who conducted the tests: “Nothing is inconsistent with this painting having been created in the 1950s.” Throughout the fall of 1994, Kligman’s team submitted this material to the authentication board.
On January 26, 1995, the board informed Kligman and Blum of its final decision: they offered to include Red, Black & Silver in the “Unresolved Attributions” part of the “Problems for Study” section of the supplement, which “contains works for which the Board does not believe it has sufficient evidence to attribute to the artist.” The board offered to include a color image of the work as well as a summary of Kligman’s account of its creation, and excerpts from the testimony contributed by Benedict, Castelli, and Ashton.
However, the following language would also accompany the entry: “Questions remain … concerning the precise history and actual facture of this painting which prevent the Board from resolving whether, and to what extent, this painting can be attributed to Pollock The work is stylistically and technically atypical There is also no compelling independent evidence to corroborate the owner’s otherwise plausible account of its creation.”
The final portion of the entry would advise readers that “the Board nevertheless acknowledges the possibility that this work may well be authentic, which has led to the decision [to present] it as a problem for further scholarly investigation.”
Kligman rejected their offer. Davey Frankel, the young executor of her estate, says, “The full recognition of the painting [as] the last thing he ever painted in his life—that meant more to her than compromising certain things.” Longtime Pollock-Krasner Foundation attorney Ronald Spencer says that the board members were surprised Kligman didn’t accept what they saw as a generous offer for inclusion in the supplement, “considering the painting had been rejected in the past.”
The supplement went to print that year without mention of Red, Black & Silver. The painting had officially entered the purgatory of unattributed artworks.
“Ruth’s feeling [was] that Eugene Thaw’s relationship with Lee Krasner was the end of it; he was a dear friend of Lee’s, and he thought that Ruth had harmed his friend a great deal and was a terrible person,” says Nathaniel Bickford, an attorney who would soon take over Kligman’s affairs.
Ronald Spencer dismisses this assessment as “absurd.” “By then, Lee was long dead, so there was no question of being overly respectful of Lee’s views,” he says. The board’s conclusion, he states, was entirely based on scholarly analysis. He argues that, if anything, the foundation was prejudiced in Kligman’s favor: “The only reason they paid attention to it again was because Ruth was the source. The painting standing alone without Ruth’s ownership would not have passed. Never. But never.”
“I Am an Artist and This Is Truth”
Kligman’s attorney Robert Blum recalls that “at that point my recommendation to [Ruth] was that litigation was necessary. There was nothing more to do but fuss.” However, he says, Kligman lacked the funds to underwrite such a lawsuit, and they parted ways. Davey Frankel adds that Kligman didn’t want the painting’s authenticity to be decided in court, but instead to “be brought to the world in a public way under the right circumstances.” (Kligman was not shy about lawsuits under other circumstances, however: in 2001 she filed a copyright-infringement suit against Steve Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, co-authors of Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, and another copyright-infringement suit in which she asked a federal court for an injunction barring Ed Harris’s 2000 film, Pollock, from being shown.)
Over the next year, Kligman went on a furious evidence-compiling mission. “As she went through this process, [the painting] became her cause, plus also her burden,” says Frankel, adding that the quest “consumed” her. “I am extending myself for Jackson,” Kligman later wrote in a revealing letter about Red, Black & Silver to a museum curator. “My integrity is a very large part of my existence, I am an artist and this is truth.”
She engaged a new legal team, who say they took her case on a pro bono basis. “We had to do an overkill job to make it almost impossible for [the authentication board] to deny [the painting’s] authenticity—that was the mission,” says former Kligman attorney Nathaniel Bickford.
Kligman’s team consulted with a former Christie’s executive to compile evidence for re-submission. In April 1997 they sent their new findings to the board. Bickford describes the packet as “one of the most amazing pieces of legal literature I’ve ever seen.” Among its contents: detailed comparisons between Red, Black & Silver and established Pollock works, and a new conservation report, whose authors stated that “the color and consistency of the paints found in this painting appear to be in keeping with the others used in works by Jackson Pollock.” There was a new scholarly letter of support, a report from a handwriting expert, and a gestural analysis of Red, Black & Silver based on the hand and wrist motions documented in the famous Hans Namuth films of Pollock at work. The expert’s conclusion: “This painting is an authentic Jackson Pollock painting.” Also included were the results of a polygraph test taken by Kligman, in which she was asked whether she had witnessed Pollock paint Red, Black & Silver and other related questions. She passed. The team’s spirits were high as they awaited the board’s response.
On April 30, the reply came—again, courtesy of Spencer: “The [authentication] board disbanded in early 1996 and can no longer respond to the requests for authentication.”
“An Exercise in Futility”
Kligman’s attorneys say that they were “shocked” by the “uncanny” timing of the board’s disbandment. “There was a feeling of injustice and outrage on Ruth’s part,” says Bickford. “They simply folded rather than give her what she was entitled to.” He adds that the board had reneged on its promise to Kligman to consider additional information about the work: “They said, ‘Of course, we stay open; if you have other things to tell us, please do.’ ” The Kligman team protested to the foundation. Spencer informed them via a June 16, 1997, letter that the former board members had no “everlasting obligation to evaluate additional material [Kligman] provides.”
The timing of the board’s dissolution had “nothing” to do with the submission of the new Kligman brief, according to Spencer and current Pollock-Krasner Foundation chairman and C.E.O. Charles Bergman. “We felt that after the  publication of the supplement that we had done yeoman service to the legacy of Pollock,” Bergman says. Kerrie Buitrago, the foundation’s executive vice president, adds, “There wasn’t the need” for the authentication board to stay in business, because the same paintings began being submitted repeatedly, “making a round-robin, with new owners. It became an exercise in futility.” Spencer speculates that the additional material would not have swayed the board’s stance on the painting: “Once you decide as a connoisseur that the painting is not a Pollock, what is going to convince you? Not a polygraph test.”
Kligman’s team considered their legal options. By this time, two anti-trust suits, in 1993 and 1995, respectively, had been brought against the foundation by other enraged owners of works that had not been authenticated by the board or its predecessor committee; both suits had been dismissed. Instead, Kligman’s team discussed—in consultation with the First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus—whether the foundation could be found liable for failing to express a definitive opinion about Red, Black & Silver. Ultimately the team decided that there was not enough legal precedent to pursue this “novel” strategy, as Bickford called it.
“After that, we were at loose ends,” he says. “It was just total frustration.”
“I Refuse to Get Involved Again”
Afew years later, in 2002, a filmmaker named Alex Matter, whose parents had been close with Pollock and Krasner, found more than 30 Pollock-like paintings among some family possessions. They were presented to Dr. Ellen Landau, a former member of the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board. She decreed them authentic.
This did not sit well with the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the other surviving members of the former authentication board. Thaw and O’Connor came out against the Matter works—and Landau. “If Ellen Landau’s opinion prevails, people will happily buy them and they’ll go into museums and books, but not the ones that I have anything to do with,” Thaw said at the time.
In 2006 the foundation commissioned physicist Richard P. Taylor, a pioneer in the new practice of fractal analysis, to examine the Matter paintings. Fractals, according to Taylor, are “patterns which recur at finer and finer magnifications, building up shapes of immense complexity.” Taylor said that he and his team found patterns in Pollock’s seemingly anarchic drip paintings “to have a particular fractal signature to them.” Upon examining a sampling of Matter works, Taylor reported “significant differences” between their patterns and those of authenticated Pollocks. When his findings were publicized, Ellen Landau came out swinging, calling fractal analysis a “contested” procedure. The Matter paintings have not since been authenticated by the foundation and “never will be,” Ronald Spencer and Charles Bergman say.
Kligman phoned Taylor the day the Matter results were published and asked him to evaluateRed, Black & Silver. He accepted. The painting was given an assessment of “Category A”—meaning that it bore the same fractal patterns as the established Pollock paintings Taylor had studied. Taylor says that only 8 of the 97 purported Pollocks brought to him for evaluation over the years have been given a Category A designation, but he was quick to qualify the implications of these results. “[Category A] is a good result, but it doesn’t mean it’s a Pollock,” he says. “That’s just a foot through the door.”
Armed with these new results, Kligman became determined to make her case to Thaw again. This time, she asked Santa Fe gallerist Linda Durham to be her proxy. In late 2006 and early 2007, Durham wrote two letters to Thaw, asking him to consider the new fractal evidence and authenticate the work. She received no reply after the first letter. In the second one, Durham wrote, “To have it sold—anywhere—at a proper price requires your imprimatur. You know that.” She added, “It is perplexing to me that you would engage the services (and respect the conclusions) of Professor Taylor with regard to the Matter pictures and then fail to consider his conclusions with regard to Ms. Kligman’s Pollock.”
She finally received a reply. “I’m afraid I cannot help you in the matter of Ruth Kligman’s painting,” wrote Thaw on March 13, 2007. “I’m soon to be 80 years old, completely retired from business I have kept away from matters like this and refuse to get involved again.”
“It’s Not a Question of Belief”
Kligman too would soon turn 80. Unlike Thaw, she showed no signs of weariness. She continued to approach paint experts, scholars, journalists, galleries, and auction houses about Red, Black & Silver—but without an official authentication certificate, she was unable to sell the work at what she considered an acceptable market price.
In the final years of her life, Kligman constantly teetered on the edge of penury. Kligman trustee Jonathan Cramer says she survived on welfare checks. When Kligman was out of town, she stashed Red, Black & Silver in a closet “underneath the stairs with some tattered coats” and “old alarm clocks,” according to Parker Shipp, a young artist who sublet Kligman’s studio from 2006 to 2007. The storage closet was secured only “with a flimsy hinge lock and a padlock.” However, when Kligman was in residence, she propped Red, Black & Silver up on her bedroom mantel, hiding it behind one of her own canvases when she left the studio. She died in March 2010.
And now—with the painting’s alleged artist, his wife, and his mistress all gone—Red, Black & Silver’s auction hour approaches at last. In preparation, Phillips de Pury commissioned yet another test on the work, this time conducted by Orion Analytical, a respected materials-analysis-and-consulting firm. Upon inspecting Red, Black & Silver, James Martin, the firm’s principal, reported that “examination and laboratory analyses to date … have not revealed anachronistic materials that evidently would rule out the existence of the work in 1956.”
Does Phillips de Pury believe that Red, Black & Silver is authentic? There is a long silence when this question is put to Phillips’s Zach Miner.
“I don’t think it’s a question of belief,” he finally replies. “We have no reason to believe that it’s not. The evidence is quite compelling. It is a beautiful aesthetic object; the story is deeply compelling. And I think those two things combined give this object its incredible value and its power. And we’re open to many interpretations and many beliefs.”