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...