Friday in the atelier: " No. 5. 1948" by Jackson Pollock

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'

- Taken from “Jabberwocky”, as written in “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll.
Welcome to the second “Friday the 13th” edition of Friday in the Atelier. As I did last Friday the 13th, I will be displaying an example of what I do not consider to be art, in my opinion.

And that of course leads to the question of, “What is art?” Honestly, I don’t have a definitive answer and I’m not sure anyone does. But I would hazard an opinion that art requires structure to lift it up from being merely an exercise in color-coordinated decoration.

That’s what I’m trying to show here by duplicating the first two verses of “Jabberwocky” from Lewis Carroll. Carroll invented words that could have been written in a sentence in an ordinary fashion, or even just scattered on a page. Instead, he placed these invented words within a very strict classical English structure that followed rhyme and meter perfectly. The nonsense words become fascinating, and the poem has become so famous that individual nonsense words have found their way from the poem to the English language.

Jackson Pollock didn’t seem to care about structure in his paintings.

I’m showing you one of Pollock’s most famous paintings, called simply, “No. 5. 1948”.

This work possibly has the distinction of being the most expensive work of art ever purchased in auction. Allegedly it was purchased for $140 million dollars. I say allegedly because there seems to be some confusion about the sale. Still, if it were sold it is likely that it would sell for that sum – Pollock’s works are popular, and unlike Picasso’s proliferation of artwork there are not that many of Pollock’s paintings left in the world. His painting, “Blue Poles” has been appraised at $148 million dollars.

I'm showing a cropped portion of "Blue Poles" to the left; click on it or the link to see the whole painting.

Pollock started his education in more traditional art. After dropping out of high school, he studied with the Art Student’s League in New York, and was taught by Thomas Hart Benton, who was classically trained in Paris at the Académie Julian. By the late 1930s Pollock was suffering from depression and alcoholism. He was also suffering under what he called the “yoke” of Thomas Benton’s influence.

He was a subsistence-level painter, cranking out a painting a month for the Works Progress Administration of 1935 before he got his first break when a wealthy heiress became his patron. His second break came soon after his marriage to his wife, Lee Krasner. From
Much influenced by [his wife’s] theories and encouragement, he began painting increasingly with drips, smears, and giant circular motions over smaller geometric shapes. This technique seemed particularly inspired by readying for an exhibit in 1947 arranged by Betty Parsons, who took over Peggy Guggenheim's Gallery. He made a transition to mural size works asserting that easel painting was a dying form. He laid canvases on the floor, where he felt nearer his work, and feeling totally into the work, likened it to Indian sand painting.

He applied paint with sticks, trowels, knives, and by dripping paint. He spoke of the painting taking on a life of its own, and a sense of pure harmony with the creation. It set a new standard in American art, especially when Pollock abandoned brushes completely for dripping and pouring paint to avoid the disruption of reloading the paint brush. He said he had a general notion of what he was about before beginning but that the painting also took on a life of its own.
He seemed to come to terms with himself for a while and even stopped drinking. But as his art gained a successful reputation he seemed to lose it – and his works became very dark while his output plummeted.

Five months before Pollock died, he met Ruth Kligman, a young artist who idolized him and became his girlfriend. According to Kingman’s book, “Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollack”, Pollack considered himself to be a phony.

Pollock died at the age of 44 while driving drunk, in a single-car accident with two passengers, Ruth Kligman and her friend, Edith Metzger. Metzger also died in the crash.

Whether or not the very tortured Jackson Pollock truly considered himself a phony may be up for debate. However I won’t hesitate to say that works like “No. 5. 1948” and “Blue Poles” are nothing more than decorative designs to me, lacking the necessary structure to hold my interest. The idea that anyone would pay a hundred million for these works seems ludicrous.

Another artist that I respect, Norman Rockwell, created the painting “Connoisseur” which by its very contrast seems to point out the absurdity of this sort of “art”. I hope Rockwell’s painting is enough to cleanse everyone’s (ahem) palette.

Next Friday I'll once again display "real" art, so everyone can rest safely until the next Friday the 13th!


Anonymous said...

What IS art? It's a difficult question, and no one on the internet has anything approaching a realistic answer, which irritates me. Here's MY definition.

Art is anything created, performed, or instigated with artistic intent.

Ah, but isn't THIS a bit weasely, you say. What's artistic intent, then? It's the intent to make art. So the definition is cyclic.

Cyclic, yes. Tautological, no. I'm not just saying art is art, I'm saying it's anything INTENDED to be art, BY whoever makes it.

It's still a fairly useless definition! But that's because it's a fairly useless word. Why do we care about the definition of a word that no one can define?

Dean Trembly once said "words are the tools of thought". The word "art" confuses us because it doesn't seem to be good for anything, yet it feels like it must be. But the truth is, it's NOT good for anything.

It's just a poorly defined category.

The problem is that people think art has some inherent magical value, that by belonging to this category their work should enjoy some special status in the eyes of civilization. But it's just not true.

If someone nails two boards together and plugs it into the wall with an extension cord, and they call it "art", it is art. But that doesn't make it worthwhile any more than the fact that it's "technology" or "solid" or "two boards nailed together plugged into the wall with an extension cord".

It's kind of like the star bellied sneetches, although I'm too lazy to find a picture.

The end.

John said...

Art is anything created, performed, or instigated with artistic intent.

I like Rudy Guiliani's definition of art "If I can do it, it isn't art."

Rather than define art, perhaps it is more helpful to define an artist. At minimum, an artist must be able to create in physical form the image within his mind. So technical skill must play some role in artistic composition. Bouguereau, if he wished, could have created a Pollock. Pollock, however, could not have in his wildest dreams created a Bouguereau. One had the technical skill to replicate the vision in his mind on canvas; the other had to tailor his vision to what he could replicate on canvas.

Having then this definition of artist, perhaps we can say that art is what an artist produces.

Calladus said...


Your definition is what I have been moving toward. My study of David Hardy's atelier has given me a little insight on this. Hardy mentions creating art by a process of "Happy Accident" versus creating art through the process of "Intent".

Your definition fits. An artist is able to create that which he or she envisions, exactly. Perhaps we need a different word for someone who creates art through a process of repetition resulting in a "happy accident".

Something else that David Hardy said - you can always leave out something that you know, but you can never put into a painting that which you do not know.

"Two boards nailed together and plugged into a wall" may be exactly what the artist in question envisioned - this does not make him a great artist, it makes him a poorly skilled artist. He has put all he knows into his masterpiece. He has not demonstrated skill.

A carpenter who builds a table that wobbles can still call himself a carpenter - but he would more correctly be known as an amateur, or unskilled carpenter. He has put all his skill and knowledge into his work, and came up lacking.

Anonymous said...

I believe if you chose to look into the Dada movements of post WWI Germany (and New York) you may change your mind as to what art is and is not. Just a thought...

Calladus said...

I'd call the Dada movement a complete waste of otherwise skilled artists. Uh, the ones that actually had skills - there were plenty who did not and just played it off.