Blue Poles – Asset or Liability?

Published April 2020

Sue Rabbitt Roff

Despite the gift by Sunday and John Reed of Sidney Nolan’s first Ned Kelly series and the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for a record breaking US$2 million in 1973, the National Gallery of Australia has always had fewer visitors than the National Gallery of Victoria, which is now the 16th most visited art museum in the world.

Forty five years ago the NGA was a gleam in the eye of Australian Prime Ministers and its acting Director James Mollinson, who had previously worked for Max Hutchinson at his Gallery A in Melbourne. By 1973 Hutchinson was based in New York and from there he wrote to Mollison telling him that Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles was for sale. Although Gough Whitlam told Parliament in April 1975 that the dealer’s commission was usually ‘a private matter’ between the gallery and the seller, in this case the Australian government paid Hutchinson’s fee of US$100,000 when New York property mogul Ben Heller sold it to the NGA for US$1,900,000 which in those days was worth only Aust$1,300,000.

The purchase of the abstract expressionist painting at the highest price ever paid till then for an American art work was justified by Mollinson and his political supporters because they said the NGA’s collection of Australian art was almost complete and this work would put Australia on the international art map. It could be thought of as the moment Australia transferred its cultural cringe from Britain to the USA, mirroring the changing defence alliances in the wake of the British withdrawal east of Suez.

I asked the now 92 year old Ben Heller in August 2018 why he sold the painting to Australia. “There’s never a simple answer” he told me. “I was very close to Jackson and out of the blue I got an approach from Max Hutchinson for Blue Poles. I was in possession of knowledge where other things might be going, where the major Pollocks were. This was different and would appeal to Jackson [who had died in 1956] because he had his daring side. How many fakes were there in Japan? The idea then became this place was new, different, not likely to have a Pollock. I had a certain caring about where things were going to be.”

An added attraction was that the purchasers were willing to leave the painting on Heller’s apartment wall in New York until the NGA building was built. But this proved impossible for insurance reasons. Another attraction may well have been that the price Heller was asking doubled during negotiations with the Australians.

Mr Heller is also convinced that “This was a very right thing to do, opening up the country in a spectacular way for Pollock and for art. This sounds like a crazy idea but that’s exactly the point.” Mr Heller also understood that “No child would be allowed to graduate from the country’s high schools without going to Canberra to see Blue Poles. It is a mark of Australia joining Western culture. Imagine being told you can’t graduate without seeing Blue Poles!”

Be that as it may, Blue Poles has progressively increased in reputed monetary value over the past 45 years, being recently reported to be worth Aust$350,000,000 at least for insurance purposes. This is often held to justify the purchase even if the aesthetics offend some and the provenance as a painting solely by Jackson Pollock has been questioned from the outset.

In 1974 a meeting was convened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington to explore whether Pollock’s mates Tony Smith and Barnett Newman had helped to squeeze paint onto the canvas that became Blue Poles. It included Pollock’s widow Lee Krasner and Bryan Robertson, who had given both Pollock and Krasner their first major showings in London and was now at the Art Museum of the State University of New York at Purchase, thirty miles from New York.

As the NGA website carefully puts it ‘ The examination revealed that any marks made on the canvas’ by other than Pollock ‘played no part’ in the painting that became Blue Poles.

Robertson had mounted the 1958 Pollock exhibition and Krasner’s 1965 show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. He published an enthusiastic book about Jackson Pollock in 1960. In 1973 he wrote the catalogue introduction to an exhibition of the work of the Australian sculptor Clement Meadmore at the Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York,

When he was not reappointed at Purchase in 1974 Robertson enlisted the help of Sir Kenneth Clark to be offered the Associate Directorship of the NG Victoria, though he eventually declined it because he couldn’t face leaving the northern hemisphere art scene. He had, along with Sir Kenneth, been a major orchestrator of the Australian art bubble in London in the 1950s and 1960s.

It has been suggested that if Blue Poles is worth $350 million dollars it should be sold to reduce the national debt in Australia. But an accountant points out to me that insurance value can be a far cry from market and book value and that insurance is a contract of indemnity, not profit, for the insured and would only be paid out in relation to a replacement object, and that on a verified valuation. Moreover the cost of insurance and security must be escalating along with the estimated market value, which have caused more than one art collector to have to sell.

I asked Ben Heller what he thought of the sums being put on the painting he sold for US$1,900,000 45 years ago. He roared with laughter. “It’s so expensive I don’t want to discuss it.’

Blue poles infinitely winding, as I write, as I write

Patti Smith