Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles unveiled after restoration following coronavirus shutdown

National Gallery of Australia conservator David Wise works on restoration of the Blue Poles artwork. Picture: Karleen Minney
National Gallery of Australia conservator David Wise works on restoration of the Blue Poles artwork. Picture: Karleen Minney

When Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles was covered with black cloth to protect it from dust during the COVID-19 shutdown, it was one of the sure signs that life as we knew it had changed.

But it was also an opportunity for conservators at the National Gallery of Australia to undertake the first in-depth conservation project on the painting since it was acquired in 1973.

It may have caused an outcry when then prime minister Gough Whitlam authorised the gallery to buy it for $1.3 million, but 47 years later, Blue Poles is one of the national collection's most popular pieces, and is rarely taken off display.

Senior paintings conservator David Wise said the chance to examine the painting in detail was a career highlight.

"It's a project we've wanted to do for a long time because the information we gather will allow us to know how to preserve it the best way we can," he said.

"While we couldn't have visitors in the gallery, we've learned more about the painting such as the artistic techniques used and which layers were painted first and how much time was between them."

Mr Wise uses technology such as surface microscopes and ultraviolet and infrared light to see elements of the painting that are invisible to the naked eye.

"The work we're carrying out now hasn't been done previously because as the technology evolves, we get better tools to look more closely at artworks and we'll pass this new information to the next generation of conservators," Mr Wise said.

The vast size of Blue Poles was one of the challenges conservators previously faced, but the gallery's closure meant conservators could work on the painting in the gallery space instead of in the conservator's laboratory.

"Using different light sources has revealed more layers to the painting and we've learned that what was once thought to have been painted in one moment was done over a much longer time period," Mr Wise said.

Now that restrictions on public gatherings have eased, the gallery is open again and from July 8 visitors will be able to see Mr Wise at work on Blue Poles, presenting a unique opportunity for art lovers to learn more about the project.

"It's been in the collection for so long and people have a very deep connection to it and want to know what's happening so I'll continue to work on the painting in the gallery space and we'll be able to have a chat and I'll answer questions about its progress," Mr Wise said.

This story Pollock's Blue Poles much more than meets the eye first appeared on The Canberra Times.