The musings of a landscape painter, art teacher, and art history lover
Just What is Abstract Art Anyway?
Is abstract art any good? Does it mean anything? Read on and I will hopefully give you a little more insight into this type of art form. You may even find that you love it!
A lot of people find abstract painting to be difficult to understand. They don't know what they are supposed to think about it or don't have any context to understand it. Many feel that they are simply being duped by the art world into believing that something is there when it is not. Let's take a look at the origins of abstract art and see if we can't find some clarity.
Abstract Art: In its most basic sense, this is an art form that does not seek to duplicate the visual world. Rather, abstract artists use the visual elements (line, shape, color, form, texture, space, and value) to create works that stand alone as unique creations. These artworks can represent nature in its essence, internal thoughts or feelings, music, or nothing at all.
Similar terms you may hear are: non-figurative art, non-objective art and non-representational art. (Wikipedia)
It all really began with an apple. No, I am not talking about Adam and Eve! I'm talking about an artist named Cezanne (1839-1906)
Cezanne was a French painter who was associated with the Impressionist artists in the late 1800s. He was a bit of a reclusive and strange man, who was not known for his good manners or his personal hygiene. However, he did create an all new style of painting that changed the way we look at paintings.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”- Degas
If you look at Cezanne's painting, "The Basket of Apples," you will notice that things look a little off. The perspective is just a little wrong and the table edge does not seem to continue accurately through the drapery. The bottle seems to lean a bit to the left and the basket tilts up. Yet, the painting holds together.
What Cezanne was essentially doing, was saying look, a painting is canvas and paint, it is not reality or nature itself. The artist can make changes to the painting according to the needs of the composition. What he actually said was, "Art is a harmony running parallel to nature." But, you get the point.
Back then, in the late 1800s, that was a shocking statement. Up to that point, painters were just trying to duplicate what they saw as reality. They were trying to duplicate nature. However, with a few paintings of apples, Cezanne opened the door for artists to begin to experiment with what paintings were and could be. The post impressionists, like Vincent van Gogh, began to use colors to convey their emotions and artists, like Pablo Picasso, began to reduce images into their basic cube shapes and to paint them from multiple angles at once. This was called cubism. At the turn of the century there was an explosion of creativity amongst European artists who were experimenting with many forms of creativity.
Gradually, this experimentation lead to abstract painting.
Enter Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Kandinsky was one of the first artists to paint in an entirely nonobjective or abstract manner. That is, painting without a specific narrative or subject that is not attached to the forms of the observed world. In other words, he began making paintings that were not meant to represent anything specific or to tell a specific story.
Kandinsky is said to have been influenced by the dissolving world of Monet's water lily paintings and the way that the Impressionists allowed their subject to evaporate. He was also influenced by music and titled his paintings as compositions similar to that of music. He wanted his paintings to have a spiritual quality about them and felt that the only way to really express that spiritual feeling was through pure color, shapes, and lines.
He once said, "Painting is a thundering collision of different worlds, intended to create a new world in and from the struggle with one another, a new world which is the work of art." With this statement, he is really ushering in the age of abstraction. He is giving artists permission to invent their own worlds, and to use painting as a means of pure creativity and inventiveness unrestricted by the known world.
Fun fact about Kandinsky: He had a condition called synesthesia that allowed him to see color when he heard sounds. So, he was literally painting what the music sounded (looked) like.
A good way to understand abstract art is to compare it to music.
Think about Kandinsky listening to a symphony and trying to paint that experience. Is there any way he could convey that energy with realistic imagery? Symphonic music is itself an abstract experience. There are no words or storylines, there is just the listening experience and the feelings that come with it.
Building on Kandinsky’s experiments, Artists like Piet Mondrian began to use abstraction to create very analytical and geometrical type paintings. These paintings seem to reference logic, order, and precision.
On the other hand, in the 1950s the abstract expressionists began to paint large emotional paintings. These artists included such people as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. They were exploring abstraction by allowing the paint to drip and behave as it naturally does with a minimum of technical manipulation by the artist. They made broad, exaggerated marks that conveyed lots of emotion and expression. Hence, the term abstract expressionism.
The Art critic, Clement Greenberg, championed this movement, seeing it as the future of art. Greenberg once stated, "Where the Old Master created the illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye." He was also interested in how the artists broke their paintings down into their raw materials, allowing them to do what they would naturally. For example, allowing paint to drip or the under canvas to show through. To him, this referenced the very nature of painting and its components. This, he called medium specificity, and he proposed the idea that each Modern art form should look towards what makes it unique.
Today, abstract art is widely accepted, and artists approach this art form from different perspectives and with different goals. However, at its heart, abstraction remains an attempt by artists to get at that which cannot be easily explained or represented. Artists are trying to convey what it means to be alive and conscious on a level that goes well beyond a simple depiction of the visible world.
I hope to write more about the origins of abstract art in future articles. For now, consider looking at a piece of abstract art with an impartial gaze. Just look at it for a while and try not to judge its merits. Rather, see where your eye goes on the painting. Do the colors and shapes bring up any memories for you? How does the painting feel? Is it chaotic and aggressive or peaceful and introspective? Look at it for a while and see where your own thoughts and imagination take you.
Finally, consider Andy Warhol's words- "Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it." Some things take time for us to develop an appreciation for. If there is a type of art that you don't appreciate yet, keep coming back to it. You may discover yet untapped depths within your spirit.
Bruce Black is a professional artist and art teacher. You can find examples of his abstract paintings HERE.
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Author: Bruce Black
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