ABC News Online

By Siobhan Heanue

The 1973 purchase of Blue Poles for $1.3 million divided public opinion.

Four decades later, Jackson Pollock's painting still has the capacity to divide opinion, but its purchase is now regarded as a masterstroke.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA), where Blue Poles is the proud collection centrepiece, has hosted a symposium to discuss the painting's place in the wider Abstract Expressionism movement.

Together with the United States Studies Centre (USSC), the NGA has brought together eminent art historians and curators from both sides of the Pacific to tackle the question: just what is it about Blue Poles that still holds our attention?

Brave moves

The painting itself is now synonymous with the public furore it sparked.

"Never had such a picture moved and disturbed the Australian public," said renowned art historian Patrick McCaughey, one of the experts invited to address the symposium.

At the time Blue Poles was acquired for the Australian National Gallery (now the NGA) the gallery did not even have a building.

Then director James Mollison was determined to build a collection worthy of a national institution.

The gallery did not have the authority to sign off on purchases of over $1 million, so the purchase was referred to the Federal Government, and approved by then prime minister Gough Whitlam.

Going against political advice, he decided that the price paid for the artwork should be made public.

And so, a political ruckus was ignited.

'$1.3m for dribs and drabs,' raged one newspaper headline.

'Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece', read another.

Intense reaction

Interest was piqued among average Australians.

Patrick McCaughey recalled giving multiple public lectures in packed theatres about Blue Poles after it was purchased.

"The public wanted to like the painting," he said.

"But they needed to be assured the painting was not an American con job."

Indeed, the painting marks an interesting juncture in the history of US-Australian relations, according to Sean Gallagher from the USSC.

"It shows the ties between the two countries go deeper than the alliance," he said, "extending to the arts and culture."

Historical impact

While artists in New York were embracing abstract expressionism as a way to internationalise their work, Australian artists were looking to the movement to achieve their own unique style.

Abstract expressionism championed the expression of the subconscious, and the movement is associated with American painters including Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann.

In Australia, proponents included Tony Tuckson and Peter Upward.

In the 1990 film Storming the Citadel, American artist Robert Motherwell says, "in the history of all art there was never a moment as hated as abstract expressionism".

It is an observation that found truth in the Australian reaction to Blue Poles.

Both Australian and American artists were using the movement to achieve the same thing - they wanted art in their countries to blossom, and to flourish in its own way in their home countries.

Among these artists, there was an urgent need to break free from convention.

If there was fear among the Australian public that Blue Poles might be an American con job, its purchase by the new Labor regime under Gough Whitlam probably compounded that distress.

But it should be James Mollison who takes the credit for the purchase.

"It took an antipodean eye as good as James Mollison to recognise the value of the work," said Mr McCaughey.

The work is now regarded as one of, if not the best Jackson Pollock in existence.

Estimates of its current value range from $20 million to $100 million.

Modern masterpiece

The painting's political backstory - its place in Australian history - is what draws some viewers in.

For others, its value as a marker of the flourishing of the abstract expressionist movement in 1950s New York is the big drawcard.

Of course, it may just be its intrinsic appeal as a work of art.

Australian art historian and curator Anthony White told the NGA symposium that even after nearly 40 years, the piece still asks more questions than it answers.

"You have a long time to think about it and yet you're never quite done with it," he said.