It's almost impossible to talk about modern art without tipping your hat to these greats. Here are the masters who gave birth to the modern.

It's almost impossible to talk about modern art without tipping your hat to these greats. Here are the masters who gave birth to the modern.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Mondrian was one of the pioneers of a pure abstract art. His most recognizable works have the simplest elements: black horizontal and vertical lines, a white background and only the primary colors. His aim was to find and express a universal spiritual perfection, but his imagery had a profound influence on 20th-century commercial and architectural design and has been endlessly recycled with little or no understanding of its underlying purpose.

As a personality, he was austere and reclusive; he hated the green untidiness of nature but was addicted to jazz and dancing. Sadly, in his own lifetime he had no commercial success, but Mondrian was highly revered and tremendously influential on the movers and shakers of modern art and design.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) "Jack the Dripper" was the leading artist of the pioneer New York school. He was a tortured, monosyllabic, alcohol-dependent soul, swinging between sensitivity and machismo, elation and despair. At his best he produced magnificent work that needs to be seen on a large scale to fully appreciate the passionate, heroic and monumental nature of his achievement.

When he rolled his canvases out on the floor and stood in the middle of them with a large can of house paint, he was literally and physically part of his work, thereby achieving an integration of the artist's personality and the activity of artistic creation that had never before been realized with such expressive freedom.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Sure, Andy Warhol may have been a neurotic surrounded by drug addicts, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a key artistic figure. Warhol's work represents one of art's turning points because he changed the role model of the artist into one that all aspiring young contemporary artists now follow -- no longer the solitary genius expressing intense and personal emotion (like Pollock) but the artist as businessman. He placed artists on par with Hollywood film stars and Madison Avenue advertising executives.

He loved and exploited iconic images drawn from the world of glamour, mass media and advertising, and you can still find his Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe-themed prints everywhere. The son of Czech immigrants, Warhol acted out an oft-repeated American dream cycle -- pursuing a driving need to be famous and rich (like his subjects) but destroying himself in the process.

Adapted from Condensed Knowledge (HarperCollins), which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun, visit MentalFloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.