10 Abstract Facts About Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948

It’s easy to dismiss Jackson Pollock's No. 5, 1948 as a senseless splatter of paint—but even if you can’t appreciate its aesthetic, this piece has a history that’s worth its weight in house paint and stacks of cash. Here are 10 facts about the late artist's masterpiece, on what would have been his 106th birthday.

1. IT'S A KEY WORK IN THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST MOVEMENT.

In the wake of World War II, New York City artists like Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning began pushing the boundaries of their paintings in a direction that would be dubbed "Abstract Expressionism" by art critic Robert Coates in 1946. This wave of modern art made New York the center of the art world, thanks in part to the movement's embrace by esteemed collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim. Pollock's contribution was his drip paintings, of which No. 5, 1948 is his most famous.

2. POLLOCK USED A UNIQUE METHOD TO MAKE HIS DRIPS.

Rather than working from an easel, Pollock would place his canvas on the ground and pace around it, applying paint by dripping it from hardened brushes, sticks, and basting syringes. Pollock had only begun experimenting in this form the year before No. 5, 1948's creation, but his style soon became so signature he was dubbed "Jack the Dripper." 

In 1947, he told the magazine Possibilities, “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides, and literally be in the painting.” 

3. NO. 5, 1948 IS A MARKER OF THE BIRTH OF "ACTION PAINTING."

Drip painting came to seen as a form of "action painting," which American art critic Harold Rosenberg defined in a 1952 essay, declaring, "Action Painting has to do with self-creation or self-definition or self-transcendence; but this dissociates it from self-expression, which assumes the acceptance of the ego as it is, with its wound and its magic." 

4. POLLOCK DIDN'T DO ANY SKETCHES OR PRE-PLANNING FOR NO. 5, 1948.

Pollock's works were revolutionary on several levels. For centuries, artists had sketched out or test-run their large-scale paintings. But not Pollock, who was instead guided by emotion and intuition as he wove around his fiberboard base, dropping and flinging paint as his muse demanded. He abandoned brushstrokes in favor of drips and splashes, and set the art world on fire with his impromptu masterworks. 

5. HE USED UNCONVENTIONAL PAINTS FOR NO. 5, 1948

An important element of the drip method was paint with a fluid viscosity that would allow for smooth pouring. This requirement meant traditional oil paints and watercolors were out. Instead, Pollock began experimenting with synthetic gloss enamel paints that were making old-school, oil-based house paints obsolete. Though this clever innovation was praised, Pollock shrugged it off as “a natural growth out of a need.” 

6. FOR A TIME, NO. 5, 1948 WAS THE WORLD'S MOST EXPENSIVE PAINTING.

On June 18, 2006, Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I sold for $135 million, making it the highest priced painting in the world. Less than five months later, No. 5, 1948 fetched $140 million. In 2011, this title was snatched by one of Paul Cézanne's Card Players, with a price tag of $250 million. 

7. IT'S A MASSIVE WORK.

No. 5, 1948 measures in at 8 feet by 4 feet. The Guardian notes that this means each square foot is worth over $4 million.

8. NO. 5, 1948 WAS POSSIBLY SOLD TO FUND A BID FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.

The New York Times reported entertainment tycoon David Geffen may have unloaded No. 5, 1948 in that 2006 sale, along with pieces by Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning, in an effort to pull together enough capital to purchase the established newspaper. The sale of these three paintings netted $283.5 million. Yet Geffen never did buy the LA Times, even though he tried repeatedly. Once, he even offered $2 billion. In cash.

9. NO. 5, 1948 WASN'T POLLOCK'S ONLY RECORD BREAKER.

In 1973, Pollock’s 1952 piece Blue Poles sold for $2 million. While nowhere near as expensive as No. 5, 1948, that figure was enough to make it the highest price paid for a contemporary American work at that time. Sadly, Pollock never saw either of his pieces make art history—a car accident on August 11, 1956, cut his life painfully short. 

10. NO. 5, 1948 AND ITS SIBLINGS STILL MYSTIFY A LOT OF VIEWERS.

While the art critics gush and collectors lay down millions for an auctioned Pollock piece, a good portion of the public is still confounded by the artist's output 60-plus years later. Every time one of his paintings sells for millions, articles pop up asking why. The short answer is, though his drip paintings may not be accessible, they were seminal, changing the way we think of art itself. They may not be traditionally pretty. But they are both art and art history.

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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