Falling in love again – with ‘Blue poles’

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“WE never damaged a single piece of art,” Patti Adler told a small crowd at the National Gallery of Australia today as she spoke about growing up with “Blue poles” as a child.

Happy reunion, l to r, Gerard Vaughan, Patti Adler and Peter Adler
Happy reunion, l to r, Gerard Vaughan, Patti Adler and Peter Adler

Adler, a noted sociologist and daughter of the New York art collector Ben Heller who had bought the Jackson Pollock’s famous painting in 1957 for A$45,000 and sold it to the NGA in 1973 for A$1.3m, had lived with the work from the age of 6.

Referring to the painting as “our old friend,” she said, “nothing pained us worse than ‘Blue poles’ leaving the house… as a child you think, this is ours.”

‘Blue poles’ being lowered out of former owner Ben Heller's apartment in New York City, 1974
‘Blue poles’ being lowered out of former owner Ben Heller’s apartment in New York City, 1974

It was a morning of reminiscence about just one work. “I can well remember the day that my family all gathered together in our living room to say goodbye to ‘Blue poles’,” Adler said. “The Seven Santini Brothers took the canvas off of its stretcher and boxed it, then removed the entire wall from our 10th floor apartment and, using a set of pulleys and ropes, hoisted the huge box out of the window and down onto the street below…It was sad for us all to say goodbye to something that had become a part of us all. I have not seen the painting since that day.”

At the time, she reflected, she and her brother were oblivious to controversy surrounding the purchase approved by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam amidst blazing headlines like, “Drunks did it”.

Blue poles inspected at the NGA's Fyshwick store in 1975
Blue poles inspected at the NGA’s Fyshwick store in 1975

Now hanging in the newly refurbished International Galleries at the gallery, “Blue poles”, priceless these days, has been visited by millions since it went on display in 1982 – and is generally regarded as one of the greatest American paintings of the 20th century. Heller, now 90, considers it “Pollock’s last great work.”

The NGA Director Gerard Vaughan, in welcome Adler and her husband Peter to the NGA,   told those present that “Blue poles” had never left the country since 1998 where it was a part of the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but that it would travel to London, as an important inclusion in “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy in 2016.

If you look at some other Pollocks, they don’t have the depth of ‘Blue Poles,’” Adler summed up, “It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this and not falling in love with it.”

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Helen Musa
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