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Studying for a test? Prepare with these 2 lessons on Abstract Expressionism & the New York School.
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Sixty years later, the audacity of a painting like this, by Jackson Pollock, still has the power, I think, to astound us. You have this sense of an artist breaking out into territory that had not been tried before. What Pollock was doing was so extreme, in terms of the painting tradition, that I think even he himself felt somewhat bewildered by it. And one of my favorite Pollock stories is this: When he was at his studio in the Springs in Long Island, and asked his wife, Lee Krasner, to come look at what he had done, he asked her, "Is this a painting?" Not, "Is this a good painting?" Or, "Is this a great painting?" He wasn't even sure that what he had made, whatever it was, was a painting. The feeling of being at a dawn of a new age, the dawn of an age that followed one in which, basically, civilization had almost destroyed itself, was uppermost -- either consciously or unconsciously -- for all of these artists. The boldness of what these artists were trying to do, by transplanting the center of the Avant Garde from Paris to New York, needed to be evident in how they made their paintings. Each of them invented, essentially, a new tactic for how to make a painting. And nobody more so than Jackson Pollock, who departed from the idea of using a brush a nd making brush strokes to paint a scene -- and instead, with the wooden tip of the brush, either fling or drip or spread or ooze the painting across the canvas in these ecstatic, dramatic, slow, fast, wavy straight -- (There's no end of the adjectives you could use.) -- lines that fill it from corner to corner, from top to bottom, left to right. Another famous anecdote about Jackson Pollock concerns the time that the artist Hans Hoffman asked him if he liked to paint nature. And, supposedly, Pollack's reply to him was, "I am nature." And whereas that story may or may not be true, and certainly plays on Pollock's reputation as having been very gruff, and not a man of many words at all, it does convey something essentially true about Abstract Expressionism. That the topic that most interested these artists was themselves, and in more general terms, the human being. So the interest was the energy of a person, the psyche of a person, the values or the principles of a person, the physical presence of a person. When you look at a painting by Jackson Pollock, there's no way that you can think of it just being made by fingers and hands. Indeed, it's hard for you not to imagine your own body moving, leaping, dancing, straddling, juggling around the canvas on the floor. This energy is what sets Pollack apart from almost any other artist. It's almost hard to believe that the painting is not moving while you're looking at it. And, of course, the reason is that it's your eye -- your eye is moving -- and maybe your body is even moving too, as you go from side to side of the room to take in the full expanse of the picture. And as you try to dig in to the picture, and figure out where one line starts and stops, or which layer is on top of another, or where the blurry areas of paint get interrupted, or interrupt the lines, you also realize that there are all sorts of different kinds of paint -- some shiny, some matte, some even metallic. And in a painting such as Full Fathom Five, you realize it's not just paint, but it's things that are embedded in it, whether it's keys or coins or bits of trash. This is the world he's brought into the swirl of that surface. And the paint has the power to engulf the other materials in the atmosphere that it's creating. For all of these works, Pollack did not start out with a sketch. He did not start out with some kind of precalculated plan of where the painting would go. And in that way, we think about Pollock paintings very much as precedents to a lot of art which has since then been called 'performance art' -- because as he was making a painting, the artist was, in a sense, a performer. He was not somebody fulfilling a preconceived plan. He was somebody engaged in a spontaneous set of actions whose results would be as much a surprise to him as to anybody else.