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Jackson Pollock's "One (Number 31)," 1950

Art Histrionics
The Most Influential Work of Art of the Last 100 Years?

Jackson Pollock’s One (Number 31)? Apparently not. The question is posed on Newsweek’s web site. Besides mis-spelling Pollock’s name in a subhead (Newsweek was calling him “Pollack” as of 7:50 p.m. Thursday evening) there was a “click here” command for the answer, out of a multiple-choice test short-listing a century’s worth of great art to five possibilities.

When I first glimpsed the article I thought it was another one of those cheap ways to entice readers to vote for their own choice. But no, Peter Plagens comes right out and tells you which it is. We’ve had painting by numbers. Here’s criticism by numbers:

When Matisse saw Picasso's just-completed, eight-foot-square painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in the Spaniard's studio in a ramshackle Paris building nicknamed "The Laundry Boat," he was shocked at how raw, cacophonic and nasty it looked. Another modernist, André Derain, figured that Picasso had gone so far off the deep end that he'd soon commit suicide. Even Picasso's loyal patron Gertrude Stein deemed the picture a "veritable cataclysm." And you know what? It's still pretty ugly. Well, maybe not ugly-ugly, but certainly hard to take. Even with generations of artists trying mightily to out-rad it, a permanent place on the walls of the august Museum of Modern Art in New York and an entire century for art lovers to digest it—"Demoiselles" was finished exactly 100 years ago, in the summer of 1907—the painting refuses to go down smoothly. That's only one reason, though, why "Demoiselles" is the most important work of art of the last 100 years. […] What sticks in our esthetic craw, though, is Picasso's merciless mishmash of styles: a bit of Matisse (the older guy he was trying to dethrone as king of the avant-garde), some appropriation from African masks, a dash of casual realism in one of the hands and a fruit arrangement down in front, and a whole lot of cubism 1.0.

I see. What’s pretty daring about Plagen’s homage is that he never tells us exactly what mobs of critics or art lovers decided that this was it—“Les Demoiselles,” hands down, most influential work of the last century. I’m always a little suspicious of Matisse-thighed pronouncements about the best novel, the best symphony, the best composer, the best piece of art (the best piece of ass for that matter). Old E.H. Gombrich, my personal gospel so far as art criticism is concerned, doesn’t even mention “Les Demoiselles” in his history of art. H.W. Jansen’s old standard history is more blunt. After noting that the Avignon in question isn’t that of France, which figures in nursery rhymes, but of a so-named street in Barcelona, where whores gather, he writes: “When Picasso started the picture, it was to be a temptation scene in a brothel, but he ended up with a composition of five nudes and a still life. But what nudes! Matisse’s generalized figures in ‘The Joy of Life’ seem utterly innocuous compared to this savage aggressiveness.”

It is, without reflection, a fantastic picture, and if the critics deem it to be the foundation of modern art, then let it be. But it’s enough to note, from Plagen’s own pen, that Picasso kept the painting to himself for many years to realize that in art as in all other creative fields, there is never such a thing as the most influential work. It goes against the essence of creativity, which depends on its sources, its surroundings, its creator’s own influences, as much as it craves and in the most wonderful cases breaks free of that context, as Picasso so often did (the guy was so nuts that he created his own schools to break free of them; the painting is at the very end of this piece).

What were the three other choices, Pollock’s aside? “ Black Square,” by Kazimir Malevich; “Fountain,” by Marcel Duchamp; and “ Campbell’s Soup Can,” by Andy Warhol. Full confession: had my naturalization exam included a question asking me to describe the Duchamp or the Malevich (because, as we all know, the Department of Homeland Security’s naturalization test is heavily biased toward the arts and sciences), I would have failed faster than a senior art major at the Rhode Island School of Design. At any rate here they are. I’d be curious to know who, among this site’s two readers who might have made it this far, would rate what work of art at the top—among these, or from other favorites. Should there be suggestions, I’d be very happy to add the visuals here. We’ll create our own weekend museum. Here goes:

Kazimir Malevich's “Black Square” (1915)

Warhol's “Campbell's Soup Can” (1962)

Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain” (1917)

Picasso's “Les demoiselles d'Avignon” (1907)
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