AS EXECUTIVE vice president of Azusa Pacific University, David Bixby fields lots of calls. But one that came through last March was a stunner. Howard Kazanjian, a film producer and university trustee, had come across a trove of paintings by a giant of 20th century art that might be donated to the evangelical Christian university.
The good news was that the works were said to have been made by Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist known for his "drip and splash" style. The bad news: This was yet another batch of undocumented paintings attributed to the artist.
The paintings belong to Erich Gabor Neumeth, 89, who lives in a rural area near Lodi. Kazanjian and a colleague, documentary filmmaker Russ Turner, learned about the artworks while trying to develop a film about Neumeth and help him with his memoirs. Neumeth, a German Luftwaffe pilot in World War II who changed sides and became a British and American intelligence agent, says that he eventually established himself as an art restorer in New York and that he received a group of paintings ascribed to Pollock in the 1960s as payment of a debt.
Neumeth makes no claims about the authenticity of the artworks and declines to say precisely how many came into his possession. But after decades of keeping the paintings in storage and selling a few privately, he wants to put some of them out in the world for the public to see and for experts to judge. He also wants to sell them, partly to finance his book and the proposed movie.
"I'm not a dealer. I'm not a collector. I'm a victim," Neumeth said in heavily accented English -- one of his many languages -- during a conversation in his living room,decorated with figurative works he has painted and a large abstraction attributed to Pollock.A colorful character who looks younger than his years but complains about his bad back, he squirms in a big leather chair while responding to questions. "People ask me, do I believe these are Pollocks? I believe things when I prove them. But whoever painted these -- Pollock or Mickey Mouse -- this is as close as it gets to Pollock."
After Bixby got the call from Kazanjian, he knew he had lots to learn about Pollock. Charged with raising awareness of and funds for a university dedicated to putting "God first," he's no art expert. But almost immediately he saw an opportunity.
And the suggestion of donated artworks that might be sold, with proceeds divided between the donor and the university, evolved into plans for a full exhibition.
"It's a great educational opportunity for our students," Bixby said. "It could be a beautiful thing." And, of course, an exhibition itself could bring in money. Pollock's finest paintings have been sold for up to $140 million apiece, but the market for undocumented works ascribed to the artist is shaky if not nonexistent. Still, Neumeth was willing to give the university a portion of sales proceeds. What would they have to lose?
To become involved with paintings that may or not be Pollocks is to enter the uncertain territory of modern and contemporary art imitations and forgeries. Unlike the Andy Warhol Foundation, which has established the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board to weed out pretenders, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (named for Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner) is primarily a grant-making organization and does not authenticate works of art. The International Foundation for Art Research in New York offers authentication services accepted by Pollock authorities, such as New York art dealer Joan Washburn, but the process is costly and highly selective.
And Pollock problems abound. In 2003, the discovery of 32 small paintings labeled as Pollock experiments and put in storage by the artist's friend, Herbert Matter, who died in 1984, led to a fierce debate about their authenticity. With experts firmly pitted against each other, the issue may never be resolved.
And "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?" -- a 2006 film about a truck driver's quest to prove that a painting she bought for $5 in a San Bernardino thrift shop is a Pollock -- has added a popular sideshow to the scholarly drama.
For Bixby, however, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. So the first person he called was Azusa Pacific President Jon R. Wallace, who oversees a university with a broad academic program, about 8,100 students and an expansive campus 26 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. "I said, 'I just want you to know I'm going down this road,' " Bixby recalled. "And he said, 'I trust you. Go for it.' "
Six months later, the university is gearing up for "Revisiting Pollock," an exhibition of 17 paintings attributed to the artist. And "attributed" is the key word to an exhibition with a conundrum at its core.
The show, at the university's Duke Art Gallery from Saturday to Oct. 11, will feature one 4-foot, 5-inch by 10-foot, 6-inch canvas, two 2-foot by 6-foot, 5-inch canvases and 14 28-by-40-inch works on paper. All are executed in the artist's trademark style, with pigment poured and dripped in irregular, overall patterns. The largest piece is densely worked; the smaller paintings are airier.
Adding heft to the show, the university is publishing a 40-page illustrated catalog. Videos about Pollock and Neumeth will be screened near the paintings. At the opening celebration, visitors may make their own "Pollocks" in wet chalk on paper or as computer printouts; check out Pollock-style vehicles, a 1953 Chevy pickup truck and coupe; and listen to a jazz band playing Pollock- period music.
Not exactly business as usual at Azusa Pacific, but the Pollock project has been an adventure for all concerned. Thomas Andrews, who became a research historian at the university's Special Collections Library after retiring as executive director of the Historical Society of Southern California, has been thrust into unfamiliar territory while coordinating the program.
Art historian G. James Daichendt, a new faculty member and organizer of the exhibition, has not taken a public stand as to whether the paintings are Pollocks. In his catalog essay he grapples with issues of authenticity, attribution and provenance as well as providing information about the life and work of the artist who was born in Cody, Wyo., in 1912 and died in a drunken car crash in 1956, a few years after hitting his peak.
The object of all this attention is a group of artworks that the owner says he received from an art world colleague and long lost friend, Armin Hershkowish. According to Neumeth, they met in New York while scouring antique shops for valuable objects that poured out of Europe after World War II. When Hershkowish gave him the paintings, he said that he had purchased them from Pollock's mistress, artist Ruth Kligman, Neumeth says.
But Kligman, a survivor of the accident that killed Pollock, dismisses that account of the paintings' provenance.
"I do not know or have I ever met either gentleman nor did I ever have the seventeen paintings in question to sell to anyone," Kligman wrote in an e-mail response to questions from The Times. "As far as I am concerned it is a total fabrication."
Allowing that his friend may not have told the truth, Neumeth bases his hopes for validation of Pollock's authorship on efforts of unnamed associates over the last few years.
He proudly shares a 2004 report from University of Oregon physics professor Richard Taylor, who is an expert in analyzing complex patterns, or fractals, in Pollock's paintings. Taylor analyzed four of the paintings, including the largest one in the upcoming exhibition, and concluded that the works are "composed of the specific form of fractals found in Pollock's poured paintings" and "represent a rare and fascinating finding for researchers interested in Pollock's work."
Neumeth also has collected other bits of evidence but nothing conclusively proving that the paintings are -- or are not -- made by Pollock.
"We need to have overwhelming proof," Neumeth says. "I'm hoping with the exhibition something will come out, whatever it is. But I think it will forever be a question mark."
suzanne.muchnic @latimes.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times