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Current time:0:00Total duration:12:18

Why is that important? Looking at Jackson Pollock

Video transcript

so what are we looking at here this is a Jackson Pollock in the Museum of Modern Art number one a 1948 and it's one of his signature drip paintings it's called one AI is it his first it seems like it is based on how it was named Pollock was a little bit tricky with his naming conventions especially when he moved to numbering and so he's not all that consistent he didn't necessarily start with one and then sort of move up to two in fact I think he added the a at a later date when I said what he didn't want to confuse it with another painting that was called one I we do that ourselves with Khan Academy videos oh yeah we changed the naming you know when you look at this and I've actually seen some I don't know if I saw this exact piece they sometimes blend together a little bit but I've seen some of his paintings in real life and you know when you look at it from afar they do look like kind of just a Matt craziness but up closer there does seem to be some you know I couldn't just paint this exactly the way he did it it seems like there is some technicality to it but it does uh I guess a more general question of I mean it does just look like a random a mess or he just looks like he's throwing up paint there and and I think for a lot of people they feel so what's the big deal here you know what I feel like a lot of people could have done something like this you know I think Pollock actually would have liked the idea that we looked at it and saw a bit of a mess in fact one of the issues that he was interested in I think certainly that the Abstract Expressionists were interested in is this idea that somehow the internal self was being brought out and that might be in fact a mess you know in a lot of our conversations we've been talking about the importance of context not just looking at that piece by itself to get some context and this was done in 1948 was there other stuff like this that was done before or was he really the first to put up stuff like this he was really the first in fact one of his compatriots another Abstract Expressionists said Jackson really broke the ice this was the first painting not that was absolutely absurd act but that was what we call action painting that was a kind of almost performative action in the arena of the canvas you know Pollock didn't paint on an easel at this point he took the unstretched unprimed canvas that is literally just unrolled the cotton duck on the floor of his studio and then walked around it and painted yeah and maybe even through the paint or wood not necessarily even painting it in fact in this painting if you look at it really closely if there's a thin bead of white paint that Scrolls all over the surface and when you look at it really closely you actually see that it is a bead of paint that stands off from the surface and he actually boasted to one of his friends that he had taken a large tube of white paint he'd punctured the side of the tube and then in one movement it squeezed out the entire tube across the surface of that canvas that is for him it was almost a kind of performative act and and just going you know back we've looked at a lot of modern art and one of the things at least resonated me was when we discussed how modern art is not about creating an illusion of something else that more traditional art traditionally did modern art was really about the piece itself representing itself but before Pollock came along if I'm hearing you correctly most of the people were doing the kind of the more I guess rigid modern art or I you call me I guess careful Modern Art where was very geometric it wasn't this it wasn't this wildness or however I mean that that's what you kind of imagined what is hairiness that it comes to mind when you look at this is so that's why it was of note and once again if I were to go out get an unstressed canvas I would probably have a lot of fun doing what Pollock did but it wouldn't be as interesting to the art community he was actually really technically sophisticated within this technique and I think it's something that's easy to get lost he was a real master of paint that was being dripped it was being splattered that was being flung he understood its viscosity and he was able to control it to an extraordinary degree you can see that in photographs of his painting and especially in the films of his painting but you look at this painting really closely you'll notice that it's not just paint that has been flung look at the upper right corner and you might be able to just make out that you're seeing his handprints he took black paint and stuck his hand in it and then pressed it against the canvas now there are some reports that he had recently looked at Paleolithic cave painting where there are hand prints or more precisely there are areas where somebody put their hand against the wall and then literally spit pigment against it creating a kind of negative image of a hand and Pollock I think was fascinated by trying to retrieve not the analytic precise geometry of abstraction that you talked about a moment ago but rather going back to a kind of primal elemental human experience and I think that he's able to brilliantly collapse the thirty thousand years that separate us and the artists of the caves so I bring this up a lot in our conversations I I see what you're saying and I also actually appreciate the fact that he kind of helped redefine what art was I mean that's one thing that I've learned in our conversations that it's not the art by itself as has it pushed our thinking as to what art actually is but there's a nagging feeling me that it is over interpreting it a little bit he never explicitly said that he had visited these these cave paintings then we would just say well he put handprints there because he felt like putting handprints I mean is there something to that or am I not seeing it you know I think that the idea that we are interpreting is something that always makes us uncomfortable this isn't math and science at least this isn't arithmetic in that there is a clear right answer and this is actually something that I wanted to ask you about when you get into higher mathematics and certainly the sciences am I wrong that there is interpretation involved I'm not sure if it's exactly the same and what you do have is especially if you go to high order mathematics or high order physics you will have equations emerging and then those are subject to interpretation in terms of what are they telling us about reality here it's I guess it's a it's a it's a deeper form of subjectivity I guess is for lack of a better word and and I think there's anything wrong with that and and you know obviously that's what art is is that we subjectively have have a reaction to it I guess what I feel and and I suspect a lot of people feel is why was this thing validated you know there's so much out there it does seem a little bit arbitrary sometimes I mean do you as an art historian feel that sometimes I don't think we feel that at all actually at least I don't I think because the question that keeps coming up for us also in these conversations of context in this case with Pollock with mean America during the post-war period it would also mean looking at Pollock's life and the kinds of things that he was interested in as an individual and we know that he was interested in psychoanalysis we know that he was interested in delving in word so when we look at works like number one a we can put it in that broader context of both the individual than the culture that he lived in it's true that all of this art and in fact the styles that are developed are very clear attempts to solve problems that these artists are engaged in in a very personal way and also in a very philosophical way and I think there's a clue that Pollock is giving us if you look at the title number one a 1948 it is Pollock's very conscious attempt and very clear signal that he doesn't want to give a narrative title to this painting he wants to leave the field open in a sense so that there is room for interpretation he doesn't want to close it down and so what he's done is he's borrowed a system of titling that comes from music that comes from composers and he's doing this in order in fact not to prompt certain kinds of images so that we're not looking for something specific how many of these because the other thing that the title tells you is that is probably not the only one like this how many of these did he end up doing it was only a few years before this that he really began to experiment with the way in which paint could be applied to a canvas this is a very radical idea take it back without a brush that's right taking the canvas off the wall putting it on the floor so that there is this very direct confrontation between the artist movement around the canvas and the actual paint itself in fact some art historians have gone so far as to say this is almost a kind of choreographic notation that we literally see the artists hand movements and body movements here it is their dance through space that's being rendered so the artist begins to experiment with these thick skins of paint that intertwine and he does that in a tentative way still during the Second World War I think in 1943 1944 pulls away from it a bit and then really dives in around 1947 and now we see in 1948 he'll continue this through the large triumphal paintings of 1950 and then he'll hit a wall now part of that had to do with his own biography but he pushed painting probably as far as he could have at that moment and then he began to explore again the figurative we're looking at a painting that is at this incredible and dynamic moment of invention and exploration I think that there's always the danger of over interpreting but that for the most part in the museum it's good to be open to the idea that the images have meaning and that for the most part what we're given our paintings that there's a consensus are important and that somehow that reaction that I think we all feel that I know I certainly still feel when I look at some works of art in galleries and museums of what is that what could that be why is that important that doesn't look like much of anything to me and to take a step back and try to learn something more try to draw it in my horizons what the museum gives us is the final object and there it is alone on the wall and really we need all of these other things to come to terms with the work of art and truly appreciate it I mean that brings up a broader idea and obviously there's a very famous movie about Jackson Pollock and I remember when seeing that seeing the actor go through the motions of reenacting what Pollock might have done that seemed like a form of art by itself and you know some of what Steven has been talking about is what's neat about this painting is you can almost imagine the artists emotions as he as he went around the painted and so it's see like there's a there would have been a legitimacy to even having documenting his movements you know videotaping him whatever pictures whatever that might be and even having that part of the piece or at least context for the piece you know what you're saying is really interesting because there was a big debate among critics of Jackson Pollock at this time trying to understand really where the art was there were two very well-known critics at this time Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and boudin Berg Pollock's work really didn't become art until he picked it up off the floor and then it joined in a sense in its verticality the history of art Harold Rosenberg took another position and said you know what when you put it on the wall it's only a fossil the real art is contained in the action itself in the risk in the energy in the dance all right I think there's an intermediary stuff was well maybe maybe these should be viewed not on the wall but on the floor well yeah it's a great point and sometimes when I'm in the museum I have to admit I sometimes [ __ ] my head at the side of the canvas and really try to reimagine what it looked like to Pollock because he didn't see it the way that we see it until he hung it on the wall until he stepped back you