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Why is that important? Looking at Jackson Pollock

Why is that Important?: Looking at Jackson Pollock A conversation with Sal Khan, Steven Zucker and Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Voiceover: So, what are we looking at here? Voiceover: This is a Jackson Pollock in the Museum of Modern Art, Number 1A, 1948. It's one of his signature drip paintings. Voiceover: It's called 1A? Is it his first? It seems like it is, based on how it was named. Voiceover: Pollock was a little bit tricky with his naming conventions, especially when he moved to numbering. He's not all that consistent. He didn't necessarily start with 1, and then move up to 2. Voiceover: (chuckling) I see. Voiceover: When he didn't want to confuse it with another painting that was called, "1." Voiceover: (chuckling) I see. We do that ourselves with Khan Academy videos. (laughs) We change the naming. When you look at this, and I've actually seen some of ... 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. When you look at it from afar, they do look like [a mess], a craziness, but up close, there does seem to be some ... I couldn't just paint this exactly the way he did it. It seems like there is some technicality to it. It does [unintelligible], I guess, a more general question of ... Does this look like a random mess? He just looks like he's throwing up paint there. I think, for a lot of people, they feel ... so what's the big deal here? I feel like a lot of people could have done something like this. Voiceover: 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, and I think certainly the abstract expressionists were interested in, is this idea that somehow the internal self was being brought out. That might be, in fact, a mess. Voiceover: 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. 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? Voiceover: He was really the first. In fact, one of his compatriots, another abstract expressionist said, "Jackson really broke the ice." This was the first painting, not that was absolutely abstract, but that was, what we call, "action painting," that was a kind of almost performative action in the arena of the canvas. Pollock didn't paint on an easel at this point. He took the un-stretched, un-primed canvas ... That is literally just unrolled the cotton duck on the floor of his studio, and then walked around it and painted. Voiceover: Yeah, and maybe even threw the paint, or not necessarily even painting it. Voiceover: In fact, in this painting, if you look at it really closely, there's a thin bead of white paint that scrawls all over the surface. When you look at it really closely, you actually see that it is a bead of paint that stands off from the surface. He actually boasted to one of his friends, that he had taken a large tube of white paint. He had punctured the side of the tube. Then, in one movement, had squeezed out the entire tube across the surface of that canvas. That is ... for him, it was almost a kind of performative act. Voiceover: Just going back, we've looked at a lot of modern art. One of the things that least [unintelligible] 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 more rigid modern art, or [unintelligible] [you call them], I guess, careful modern art, where it was very geometric. It wasn't this. It wasn't this wildness, or however. That's what you imagine [unintelligible], this hairiness that comes to mind when you look at this. That's why it was of note. Once again, if i were to go out, get an un-stretched canvas, I would probably have a lot of fun doing what Pollock did, but it wouldn't be as interesting to the art community. Voiceover: He was actually really technically sophisticated within this technique. I think it's something that's easy to get lost. He was a real master of paint that was being dripped, that was being splattered, that was being flung. He understood its viscosity. He was able to control it to an extraordinary degree. You can see that in the photographs of his painting, and especially in the films of his painting. If 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. You might be able to just make out that you're seeing his hand prints. 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 negative image of a hand. 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 primal, elemental human experience. I think that he's able to brilliantly collapse the 30,000 years that separated us and the artists of the caves. Voiceover: I bring this up a lot in our conversations. I see what you're saying. I also actually appreciate the fact that he helped redefine what art was. That's one thing that I've learned in our conversations, that it's not the art by itself. [It hasn't] pushed our thinking as to what art actually is, but there's a nagging feeling in me that it is overinterpreting it a little bit. You never explicitly said that he had visited these cave paintings, then we would just say, "Well, he put hand prints there, "because he felt like putting hand prints." Is there something to that, or am I not seeing it? Voiceover: 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. This is actually something that I wanted to ask you about. When you get in higher mathematics, and certainly the sciences, am I wrong that there is interpretation involved? Voiceover: I'm not sure if it's exactly the same. What you do have is, especially if you go to higher-order mathematics, or higher-order physics, you will have equations emerging. Then, those are subject to interpretation in terms of what are they telling us about reality? Here, it's a deeper form of subjectivity, I guess, for lack of a better word. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Obviously, that's what art is ... is that we subjectively have a reaction to it. I guess what I sometimes feel, and I suspect a lot of people feel, is why was this thing validated? There's so much out there. It does seem a little bit arbitrary sometimes. Do you, as an art historian, feel that sometimes? Beth: I don't think we feel that at all, actually, or 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, it would 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. We know that he was interested in psychoanalysis. We know that he was interested in delving inward. When we look at works, like "Number 1A," we can put it in that broader context of both the individual and the culture that he lived in. Voiceover: 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. I think there's a clue that Pollock is giving us. If you look at the title, "Number 1A," 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. So, what he's done, is he's borrowed a system of titling that comes from music, that comes from composers. He's doing this in order, in fact, not to prompt certain kinds of images, so that we're not looking for something specific. Voiceover: How many of these ... because the other thing that the title tells you is that it's probably not the only one like this. How many of these did he end up doing? Voiceover: 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, tak- Beth: Without a brush. Voiceover: 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's 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 artist's hand movements and body movements here. It is their dance through space that's being rendered. The artist begins to experiment with these thick [schemes] of paint that intertwine. He does that in a tentative way, still during the 2nd 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. Beth: 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 are paintings that there's a consensus are important, and that somehow that reaction that I think we all feel, that I know that 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 broaden my horizons. What the museum gives us is the final object. Voiceover: Yeah. alone on the wall. Really, we need all of these other things to come to terms with the work of art, and truly appreciate it. Voiceover: That brings up, I guess, a broader idea. Obviously, there's a very famous movie about Jackson Pollock. I remember, when seeing that, seeing the actor go through the motions of reinacting what Pollock might have done, that seemed like a form of art by itself. Some of what Steven has been talking about is what's neat about this painting is you can almost imagine the artist's motions as he went around the painting. It seems like there would have been a legitimacy to even having documenting his movements, video-taping him, whatever, pictures, whatever that might be, and even having that part of the piece, or at least context for the piece. Voiceover: 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 2 very well-known critics at this time, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Greenberg, Pollocks work really didn't become art until he picked it up off the floor. 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." Voiceover: [unintelligible] intermediary stuff was maybe these should be viewed not on the wall, but on the floor. Voiceover: Well, yeah. It's a great point. Sometimes when I'm in the museum, I have to admit, I sometimes cock 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. (piano playing)