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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.

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.

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© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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