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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
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.
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