How Art Arrived At Jackson Pollock


[music] When should you start the story of this painting? Here in 1910 or here in 1844? Maybe here in Cezanne’s studio
at the close of the 19th century, or maybe the only place you can
really find the genesis of this canvas is in Jackson Pollock’s mind the day he began to drip. I’m drawn to ask these questions because this painting, “One: Number 13 [31], 1950”
is the only abstract work of art that has ever floored me in person. As soon as my eyes caught it,
it made me feel something. I don’t know that I could describe the feeling, but
I didn’t have to go searching for it either, a problem I often have with non-figurative paintings, where I’m standing in front of a canvas,
trying to figure out the reaction I’m having to it, feeling guilty because nothing’s coming. I don’t think the power of this Pollock
depends on its place in the history of art. Its style, its use of color, its hyperactivity
are intrinsic qualities. But I do think the history of art has
a lot to say through Pollock’s drip paintings which he’d been making
by this point for about four years. In many ways, they’re
the culmination of something that has a foggy beginning about a century or two before, with the gradual end of
church and noble patronage of the Arts and the dawn of painters painting
what was important to them. There’s no fixed point where you
could mark the beginning of modern art. Some find it in this painting by Manet from 1863 with its flattened image and scandalous subject
that flouted the values of the Paris salon. And I think it’s as good a moment as any. That year, fully 2/3 of
submissions to the salon were rejected, and after a public outcry, Emperor Napoleon the third authorized a second salon to feature them called, appropriately, the “Exhibition of Rejects”. It was a massively popular event. And though these paintings were
criticized as much as they were praised, it marked a moment of legitimacy for art
that stood outside the Academy’s hierarchy of quality. Once the cat was out of the bag,
things started moving very quickly. Less than ten years later, Claude Monet
and his compatriots launched into impressionism. Concerning themselves not with the objects
they see in the world, but how the light plays off them. Impressionism in turn starts
a chain reaction of, well, reaction. The post-impressionists begin to dispense
with the effects of light and the reality of color, and paint according to
subjective experience and emotional vision Then the fauvists take the
arbitrariness of color to kaleidoscopic extremes in the first decade of the 20th century. I mean, just look at the transformation
that’s happened to painting in just 40 short years. Art has unravelled.
Its centuries long aim of reproducing the physical world in perspective, color, and form
is rapidly being abandoned. Wassily Kandinsky, influenced by
the impressionists, by the fauvists, by music, and by the geometric spirituality of theosophy
starts pulling away from representation entirely. In a groundbreaking book, he writes, “The more abstract is form,
the more clear and direct its appeal.” And in 1910, he paints this, in which
no objects from our world can be recognized at all. It’s the first fully abstract painting. Except it turns out that Hilma af Clint was actually painting abstracts at least three years prior to this but no one knew that until many years later. Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque
were shaking up painting in their own way, by formalizing Cezanne’s
experiments with multiple perspectives into “cubism”. The Cubists used geometry to
show reality from many angles simultaneously. Kandinsky takes inspiration from this,
but is more interested in abstracting geometry from its representational source. The sparks that fly from these
investigations create several other movements: “Futurism” in Italy, “De Stijl” in the Netherlands, “Suprematism”, then “Constructivism” in Russia, “Dada” in Switzerland, and eventually “Surrealism” in the 1920s and 1930s. A key aspect of the surrealist manifesto
is the focus on automatic creation: writing or speaking without forethought
as a way to access the unconscious mind. Painters like Andre Masson
applied this to the visual arts, letting ink run free across paper
creating fluid dreamlike drawings prefiguring the work of Jackson Pollock. As World War Two ravaged Europe,
several of the Surrealists and other European artists escaped to New York City and began to
mix with a new school of American painters. The Americans synthesized and
reacted to all the various European styles. The “Abstract Expressionists”,
as they were called, made work that was deeply personal, formally inventive, and confrontational. Exiled surrealist Wolfgang Paalen put it best: Pollock’s drip paintings push
abstraction to its furthest limit. Even in Kandinsky, lines still bound recognizable shapes. In Pollock, there are no shapes; no suggestions to grab onto. The line itself dancing across the canvas is set free, containing nothing, separating nothing. There is no inside, no outside,
nowhere for your eyes to rest. All that remains is energy. Wild, emotional energy that peers into you, not the other way around. I think that’s why I
reacted so strongly to this painting in person. I could feel it looking at me. You know, like I said before these
drip paintings have intrinsic value. But I also think they
speak to something deep in human nature, that we are…obsessive. In the same way that we won’t
stop until we’re flying among the stars, it took less than a hundred years for this to become this. A fast changing world contributed hugely, of course. But beyond that I do believe there’s a drive in us,
to take things as far as they can go, and this century of modern art
is an exhilarating example of that. It’s just inspiring how
irrepressible human creativity can be. [ending music] Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching. This episode was brought to you by Squarespace. If you don’t know you can use Squarespace
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