“Composition with Masked Forms,” by Jackson Pollock, is a 1941 oil on canvas.

Colby College has acquired what its museum director describes as a “turning point” painting by Jackson Pollock, the influential American artist whose drip paintings helped lead American audiences full speed into abstract expression. Colby purchased the 1941 oil-on-canvas “Composition with Masked Forms” from a private dealer for an undisclosed price.

Pollock, who is widely considered one of the most influential painters in American art history and whose later canvases routinely sell at auction for millions of dollars, completed “Composition with Masked Forms” before his conversion to abstract expressionism. The Waterville college planned to announce its acquisition of the painting Wednesday.

The Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville has become the new home for the only significant Jackson Pollock painting in Maine. Museum officials declined to say how much they paid.

It is the first and only significant Pollock painting in Maine, and Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, called its acquisition “a real coup” by Colby. Other Pollock paintings from a similar period are on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and elsewhere.

“And here you have this piece at Colby that is absolutely parallel and of a similar rank to the masterpieces of the early period of major metropolitan museums,” Weinberg said in a phone interview Tuesday.

He continued: “Jackson Pollock was clearly one of the pivotal figures of 20th century modern art. His work in many ways changed the course of American painting, and his work is not easy to come by these days, because so much of it is either in public collections or private collections that are not easily relinquished. There is not a lot on the market.”

Colby will put it on view beginning Wednesday, in advance of its annual summer gala on Saturday, when hundreds of museum supporters from Maine and across the region are expected on campus.

“This is a turning point for Pollock,” museum director Sharon Corwin said of the painting. “He is on the cusp of drip paintings. Many people think of Pollock and think of drip paintings, which he is so rightly famous for. But to have a painting that shows a shift in his process and his thinking and the innovation that gets him to that point is a revelation. With this painting, we can see the artist working toward his mature style.”

‘WATERSHED MOMENT’ FOR POLLOCK

Corwin declined to say how much the museum paid for the painting. The Colby museum tapped several resources to complete the purchase, she said, including longtime benefactors Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation and money from the museum’s acquisition fund, as well as a gift from the previous owners of the painting, a New York family that had owned it since 1972.

Generally, oil paintings that Pollock created before his “drip” period sell for a few hundred thousand dollars, as opposed to the many millions of dollars his drip paintings command at auction. Two years ago, Pollock’s 1948 painting “Number 17A” sold for a reported $200 million. In 2006, “No. 5, 1948” for $140 million.

Paintings similar to the one Colby purchased have sold for between $200,000 and $700,000 in recent years.

Corwin said the painting represents a “watershed moment” in Pollock’s evolution. He was moving from the influences of his teacher, the regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, to a more surrealist influence, which involved becoming more aware of his unconscious. In this work, he also was influenced by Pablo Picasso and his so-called tribal paintings.

MORE THAN 4 FEET WIDE

It’s a fairly large painting – more than 4 feet wide – of Alaskan Eskimo masks, mostly in the earthy colors of brown, red, orange and a bit of blue, arranged in a jumbled format and set against a white backdrop of paint. The masks show up in several Pollock paintings from that time.

“Composition with Masked Forms” is part of a larger body of surrealist- and Native American-influenced work by Pollock that was the focus of an exhibition in Paris a decade ago. That exhibition, “Pollock and Shamanism,” included about 40 works that suggested ritual and decorative objects, including masks, a soul-catcher, a totem pole and an amulet.

The painting now owned by Colby was not part of that exhibition, but was included in a 1978 exhibition, “Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years,” organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, which traveled to the Seibu Museum of Art in Japan. More recently, it was shown in two exhibitions at the Nassau County Museum of Art on Long Island in New York, in 1996 and 2004, one dedicated to American vanguards and the other about the Works Progress Administration.

It also is included in the Pollock catalog “Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works: Volume I, Paintings 1930- 1947,” published in 1978.

‘THE INFLUENCE OF PICASSO’

Pollock was among the world’s most famous painters during his life, and was known as a recluse who struggled with addiction. He died at age 44 in an auto accident near his home in Springs, New York, a hamlet in East Hampton on Long Island. The home and studio complex that he shared with his wife, Lee Krasner, is a National Historic Landmark.

The family that sold the painting to Colby was motivated to place it in an educational institution, Corwin said, “because they had lived with it for decades and were eager to see it placed in a collection where the public can study it, view it and enjoy it.”

It was owned by the Barsalona family of New York. Frank Barsalona was a New York talent agent whom the New York Times described as “a virtual quartermaster for the British Invasion” in his obituary in 2012.

Weinberg said the Colby painting “really shows his influences from many different directions. It shows the influence of Picasso and the influences of surrealism and the influences of Native American art, and I think it shows how he took all of these different influences and he created his own particular hybrid from these things. Even in this early work, while it has resemblances of other artists, it is the unique stamp of Jackson Pollock.”

‘A DESTINATION PAINTING’

In addition to being on view to the public, the painting also will be used for educational purposes by students and art scholars, Corwin said. While ranking among the museum’s important works of contemporary art, it also fills a gap in the museum’s collection and is the latest in a series of recent museum acquisitions by David Smith, David Driskell, Alma Thomas and others.

“We’re continuing to really think about American art and the narrative we are able to tell, and expand that narrative of American art in an important way,” Corwin said. “This acquisition is part of that bigger effort, and an extraordinary piece of it.”

She described Colby’s purchase of the painting as a gift to the state.

“We saw this as an opportunity to bring a major painting to the state of Maine, and we are thrilled to be able to do so,” she said. “I think of it as a destination painting that people will want to come to Waterville to see.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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