The Canvas and the Triangle

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.

  1. 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 availab...