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.

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

5 Weird 1960s Covers for Classic Novels

Chaloner Woods/Getty Images
Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

There are a lot of weird and bad book covers for the classics out there, and the Internet has delighted in chronicling them.

Some are designed to mimic the look of current blockbusters, like these Twilight-style covers for novels by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Others rely on bad stock photos and inept Photoshopping for classic works that have crossed into the public domain, from The Scarlet Pimpernel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The subset of covers for 1960s paperbacks is rich with particularly hideous findings, mostly from Penguin and Signet Classics. Shockingly, they're not made by untalented people who are bad at Photoshop. These covers were drawn by established, objectively talented, and sometimes famous illustrators like graphic design legend Milton Glaser. They were purposely executed in unorthodox, interpretive styles. But although they may be done by respected artists, their aesthetic value remains questionable. Take a look at some of the strangest below.

1. THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD // 1962

The Great Gatsby cover by John Sewell
Courtesy of Setana Books

In the baffling jacket for this Jazz Age classic, a man’s face is stretched bizarrely sideways. He appears to be wearing thick eyeliner and has some serious wrinkles around his eyes. But, let's back up for a minute: Who is this supposed to be? Surely not the title character; Gatsby doesn’t have a bald patch or a unibrow. One Twitter user who collects Gatsby editions considers this specimen to be the "oddest" one he owns.

The artist, John Sewell, was a British graphic designer working in the '60s whose print covers usually involved colored paper cut-outs. He did a cover in a similar style for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, but that one is a little less weird.

2. OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS // 1964

cover of Our Mutual Friend by Seymour Chwast
Courtesy of swallace99, Flickr.

The artist here is Seymour Chwast, who, along with Milton Glaser, co-founded the postmodern collective Push Pin Studios in 1954. The Push Pin style "reject[s] tradition in favor of reinvigorated interpretations of historical styles," as their website states.

And yet, the people on this cover are hideous. The eyebrows on Our Mutual Friend's Gaffer Hexam (the man in the white shirt) are at a sharp 45-degree angle, a trait rarely found in nature. Lizzie Hexam, who’s supposed to be beautiful, also looks pretty wretched.

According to the artist's biography on the Seymour Chwast Archive, "Each of his imaginary characters (even portraits of real individuals) have similar facial features—round lips, slits for eyes, bulbous noses. They never scowl, yet they are not cute." That's for sure. A quick browse through his work shows that naturalism was never his goal.

3. ADAM BEDE BY GEORGE ELIOT // 1961

Adam Bede cover by James Hill
Courtesy of swallace99, Flickr

Why is Adam Bede's hand bigger than his face? And his arm bigger than his waist? What would George Eliot think?

This one is by James Hill, the first Canadian to become a member of the American Illustrators Association. His work ranged from lurid, pulpy book covers to treatments for classics like this one to a series of paintings inspired by Anne of Green Gables.

4. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT BY FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY // 1968

Crime and Punishment cover

Courtesy of Felt Books

The 1960s produced many psychedelic book covers, and this style spilled over into reprints of the classics. On this Dostoyevsky opus, a guy's face is replaced by a groovy rainbow with a figure in a coffin inside. While the artist is unknown, the rainbow design echoes the style of several graphic designers of the 1960s.

5. HARD TIMES BY CHARLES DICKENS // 1961

Hard Times cover
Courtesy of ElwoodAnd Eloise, Etsy

This cover for Charles Dickens's grim tale of Victorian inequality was designed by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast's partner in Push Pin Studios. Glaser also designed the I Love New York logo and a Bob Dylan poster that depicts the singer with a rainbow 'fro. A versatile artist, his work includes logos, posters, interior design, magazine illustrations, and, of course, book covers. But here, the heavy cross-hatching on the figures' faces, hair, and clothes nudges them into werewolf territory. The psychedelic winged horse seems like a nod to the Summer of Love, but a tavern called the Pegasus's Arms actually figures prominently in the book.

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