FAA members learn about modern art 

By Page H. Gifford

This year Fluvanna Art Association began with programs online, provided by a group of docents from world-renowned D.C area museums. Dial-A-Docent has been a saving grace for artists wanting to learn more about art history and art in general. And the programs are free. 

On Friday, June 18, Nancy Hirshbein, a docent at the Hirschhorn Museum returned with a program with the intriguing title of “My Five Year Old Can Paint That (No She Can’t)” and Hirshbein proceeded to explain why. The idea for this program came to her when she witnessed visitors in the museum looking at modern art and saying the same thing. 

“We hear it all the time, my child or grandchild could paint that,” said Hirshbein who added that a child standing in front of a well-known artist’s work said, “I can paint that.” This led to the discussion and examination of the work of artist Jackson Pollock, an artist who was a sensation 70 years ago and still has some scratching their heads “What makes this art?” The same could be said of artists Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. 

When Thomas Harte Benton, Pollock’s teacher, mentor, and friend was asked about Pollock’s work, he was unable to give a definitive answer but stated his work was “absurd.” However, Benton’s rhythmical style influenced Pollock’s early work. 

Later, Pollock began studying with the Mexican muralists and his early murals depict a collage of energetic abstract figures building on what he had learned with Benton. 

“Everyone thinks his abstract expressionism random, impulsive, and accidental but there was intent underlying his work.” 

The son of an alcoholic drifter, Pollock fought alcoholism himself, and during his marriage to artist Lee Krasner, she encouraged him to seek help. He did get some psychiatric care and while going through therapy, Rorschach was an influence in his artistic thinking and creativity. 

“Art critic Clement Greenberg said Pollock was the epitome of modernism. Today, people are moving away from Greenberg’s theory of art.” Pollock’s works became larger, more unconventional and he stopped using an easel. His tools changed too with use of house paints and found objects to create patterns as well as brushes. 

“People look at his drips and scribbles and ask why is it hanging in a museum?” she said. “The difference is, a five-year-old exhibits playful expression but there is thought behind abstract expressionism.” A member challenged Hirshbein on her comparison but her point was that a child will not think or create structure and design like an adult. 

“Those who appreciate abstract paintings see designs, patterns, and structure.” 

The difficulty some may have had in understanding abstract art is that it doesn’t depict the real world as we know it. Art has gone through centuries of evolution through various movements often influenced by society. Society was changing after W.W.II and was influenced by clean, simple minimalism, as seen in every aspect of design in the 1950s and ‘60s when artists like Pollock, Lynda Benglis, and Helen Frankenthaler emerged. Splashes of bright colors in large-scale, drips, and dribbles became their signature styles of the time. 

“These were skilled artists making deliberate choices.” Donald Judd and Marcel Duchamp were completely different types of artists that became more of an acquired taste. Judd’s Cadmium Light Red board with a black enamel pipe was an expression of his philosophical thought. Judd was an art critic, writer, and philosopher who never studied art. 

“He put his intellectual power into creating his works of art. He called them “objects” and  his work was symbolic of cultural influence.” 

Marcel Duchamp was far ahead of his time when attempting to put a signed urinal in an art show in the mid-1900s. He was told it was “indecent.” 

“He didn’t mean it as a joke but was testing the limits of the art world. He then crafted one that was put in the exhibit that looked more like a fountain than a urinal. Those who viewed it thought it had beautiful lines but Duchamp said ‘I wanted to show something new.” 

Looking at abstract art can be puzzling to those looking for what is representational of reality and they may fail to see a deeper meaning. 

“What is the definition of art? Something has to be universally applied to give it meaning,” said Hirshbein. Or maybe it’s just enjoying the explosive color, drips, and dribbles in a personal way for the viewer. 

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