The MoMA Teaches You How to Paint Like Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning & Other Abstract Painters

Some may find her insuf­fer­able, but most read­ers adore her: the insou­ciant lit­tle pig Olivia—New York­er, art lover, and Calde­cott Medal winner—has for­ev­er embed­ded her­self in children’s lit­er­ary cul­ture as an arche­type of child­hood curios­i­ty and self-con­fi­dence, espe­cial­ly in scenes like that of the first book of the series, in which the fear­less piglet pro­duces her own drip paint­ing on the wall of the family’s Upper East Side apart­ment after puz­zling over Jack­son Pollock’s work at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. (Olivia also admires Degas, aspires to the bal­let, and dreams of being Maria Callas.)

Olivia’s head­strong chal­lenge to Pol­lock is infec­tious, and enacts a notion com­mon among ama­teur view­ers of Abstract Expres­sion­ism—“I could do that.” Her “Jack­son Piglet Wall Paint­ing” fea­tures in a book that gives chil­dren their own set of instruc­tions for mak­ing a pseu­do-Pol­lock (on paper, of course). As you will see, how­ev­er, in the video above—a guide for grown-ups who may wish to do the same—Pollock’s process is not so eas­i­ly dupli­cat­ed, and can­not be done on the wall. As the Ed Har­ris-star­ring biopic dra­ma­tized, Pol­lock made his huge can­vass­es on the floor—drawing the lines and ges­tur­al fig­ures in the air rather than on the can­vas.

In these videos from the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s upcom­ing free online course on Post­war paint­ing, edu­ca­tor and inde­pen­dent con­ser­va­tor Corey D’Augustine demon­strates that, we can, with some degree of sta­mi­na and ath­leti­cism, approx­i­mate Pollock’s tech­nique. We can­not, how­ev­er, recre­ate his tem­pera­ment and emo­tion­al state. And, as view­ers of the film based on his life will know, we would not want to. Pol­lock was a vio­lent­ly abu­sive, depres­sive alco­holic, and while there may be no nec­es­sary rela­tion to cre­ativ­i­ty and suf­fer­ing, New York Abstract Expres­sion­ists seemed to wrest the inten­si­ty of their work from wells of per­son­al pain.

It is no won­der that the longest video in D’Augustine’s series cov­ers the meth­ods of Agnes Mar­tin. The enig­mat­ic Mar­tin used her work as a dis­ci­pline that took her beyond despair and defeat. Like Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beck­ett, she insist­ed that art, though a form of self-expres­sion, must emerge imper­son­al­ly, such that the artist “can take no cred­it for its sud­den appear­ance.” On the oth­er side of failure—she told her audi­ence in a poignant and pow­er­ful 1973 speech called “On the Per­fec­tion Under­ly­ing Life”—“we still go on with­out hope or desire or dreams or any­thing. Just going on with almost no mem­o­ry of hav­ing done any­thing.”

The atti­tude, Mar­tin said, is a dis­ci­pline, the dis­ci­pline of art—one that saw her through a life­long strug­gle with schiz­o­phre­nia. Inspired by Tao­ism and Zen Bud­dhism, Martin’s “lumi­nous, silent” paint­ings are stud­ies in patience and delib­er­a­tion. We see a very dif­fer­ent tech­nique in the ges­tur­al paint­ing of Willem de Koon­ing—anoth­er Abstract Expres­sion­ist with a seri­ous drink­ing prob­lem. Do these bio­graph­i­cal issues mat­ter? While it may do Martin’s work a dis­ser­vice to reduce it to “the prod­ucts of a per­son com­pelled by men­tal ill­ness,” as Zoe Pil­ger writes at The Inde­pen­dent, de Koon­ing’s even­tu­al sobri­ety led to a “dra­mat­ic shift,” Susan Cheev­er notes, “in the way he saw and paint­ed the world in his last decade or so.”

We need not psy­chol­o­gize the work of any of these artists, includ­ing that of the bipo­lar Mark Rothko, above, to learn from their tech­niques. And yet it remains the case that—even were we to dupli­cate Pol­lock, Mar­tin, de Koon­ing, or Rothko on can­vas, we would nev­er be able to imbue it with their pecu­liar per­son­al­i­ties, pains, and move­ments, with the depth and inten­si­ty each artist brought to their work. Great art does not require suf­fer­ing, but many artists have poured their suf­fer­ing into art that only they could make.

But mim­ic­ry is not the goal of MoMA’s class. Instead “In the Stu­dio: Post­war Abstract Paint­ing” intends to give stu­dents “a deep­er under­stand­ing of what a stu­dio prac­tice means and how ideas devel­op from close look­ing. They’ll also “gain a sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the phys­i­cal qual­i­ties of paint,” a key fea­ture of this mate­r­i­al and tex­ture-obsessed group, and the course will exam­ine the “broad­er cul­tur­al, intel­lec­tu­al, and his­tor­i­cal con­text about the decades after World War II, when these artists were active.”

The eight-week course cov­ers sev­en artists, includ­ing those above and Ad Rein­hardt, Yay­oi Kusama, and Bar­nett New­man. Stu­dents are free to do quizzes and writ­ten assign­ments only, or to par­tic­i­pate in the option­al stu­dio exer­cis­es, pro­vid­ed they have the space and the mate­ri­als. (For those stu­dio prac­ti­tion­ers, D’Augustine offers brief tuto­ri­als on tools like the palette knife and mate­ri­als like stains.) Watch the trail­er for D’Augustine’s course above. Like the irre­press­ible Olivia, stu­dents will be encour­aged “to exper­i­ment quite wild­ly” with what they might learn.

“In the Stu­dio: Post­war Abstract Paint­ing” has been added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jack­son Pol­lock 51: Short Film Cap­tures the Painter Cre­at­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ist Art

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

MoMA Puts Pol­lock, Rothko & de Koon­ing on Your iPad

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (4)
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  • Bill W. says:

    How to paint like Pol­lock? A: 1.) Get drunk 2.) Go into your garage and find old cans of house-paint 3.) Start splashing/drizzling it over a can­vas until you think it looks like ‘art’ 4.) Sell the work to clue­less Hip­sters for $$$! 5.) Enjoy a cel­e­bra­to­ry beverage(s), repeat process.

  • Karla Forgaard-Pullen says:

    ‘the bipo­lar Mark Rothko’????? One could much more rea­son­ably say ‘Mark Rothko who was diag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der’. To call any­one by such a label is to invite com­par­i­son — ‘the insen­si­tive Josh Jones’ or ‘the ill-informed Josh Jones’.….

  • jane chandler says:

    When I saw an exhi­bi­tion of The Abstract Expres­sion­ists I felt that every­thing that could be said in art was done.There was noth­ing there left to say.Javkson Pol­lock drip­ping his way to jazz music deKoon­ing his angry nudes and women. No doubt show­ing his own mis­oge­ny. These artists were pre­mot­ed by thhe CIA includ­ing them into Amer­i­can cul­ture to ward off­break­away suber­sives influ­ences. Remem­ber the cold war and the Mcarthy anti com­mu­nists witch hunts.So we are taught they are great artists, Are They?

  • Timothy says:


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