Abstract art as a symphonic experience: This is the first article in a series of articles that will seek to plainly explain abstract and contemporary art in an effort make these art forms more broadly understood.
People can be turned off by abstract and contemporary art due to the feeling that they just don't get it. They feel duped or possibly left out from an inside joke. They don't see the talent or the use of techniques that indicate a work of art is good. What's more, there is often no narrative to follow and no discernible meaning. Understandably, they decide they don't like it and turn their attention elsewhere. What makes matters worse, is that the art world often tries to explain art through the use of complicated philosophies and technical art-speak. They try to make it exclusive and important by wrapping it in a shroud of esoteric mumbo jumbo.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Art is inherently understandable because beauty does not need to be understood. It is enough to simply experience it. When philosophers speak of beauty, they are not referring to something that is intangible or simply pretty, they are speaking of something that is itself true and profoundly good, and that is what art is. However, if a thing is truly beautiful then it is always so, no matter who is experiencing it. That means that if you are listening to a symphony by Beethoven and you don't like it, it is still beautiful. You just might not be ready or able to receive that beauty. It's the same with contemporary art. If the work of art is truly and profoundly beautiful, then it is up to the viewer to discover it. Yes, it takes a little work, but the rewards are well worth it. Therefore, my goal in writing this article is to explain, in plain English, a few ways that anyone can access contemporary art and see its beauty.
First, there are many ways to approach a work of art in order to understand its meaning, and no way is better or more correct than another. Artists don't expect viewers to have one set experience. They want you to bring your own spirit and imagination to the work.
A symphonic experience for the eyes
The first way that you might think of an abstract painting, is as a symphonic experience. Let's go back to that beautiful symphony by Beethoven. Say for example, you are listening to Beethoven's celebrated fifth symphony. All the world loves this symphony. Those first four notes soar into your brain, and you are taken on a listening journey that tugs at your emotions on every level. However, at no moment during this symphony does anyone bother to ask what it is about. No one feels duped because they don't understand it or because there is no specific story line. People just listen and experience the music. In this sense, symphonic music is purely abstract.
Now, think of a great abstract painting. As you stand before this painting, there is nothing to understand that you don't already know. There is nothing you are missing. Just stand in front of the image and let the shapes and colors dance before your eyes. It's a visual symphony that tugs on your emotional strings just as a Beethoven symphony does. The only real difference is that while a composer has to marry such musical elements as rhythm, melody, and harmony, the artist must marry the visual elements of form, line, shape, etc. So the next time you find yourself standing in front of a painting you don't understand, try just experiencing it as you would a symphony and let your eyes feast.
Above is a painting by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Kandinsky had a condition known as synesthesia. This meant that as he heard sounds, his brain would create colors that floated before his eyes. Think of it as an additional sense. Some people with synesthesia get a certain taste in their mouth when they hear sounds, and people with this condition don’t' consider it a handicap, but actually tend to feel a little bit sorry for the rest of us, who only have the usual senses.
Kandinsky used this condition, along with his great artistic skills, to create abstract paintings based off of the music. These paintings are freed from any outward representation of reality and are a true expression of how the music felt to him. At the top of this article is the painting, "Impression III-Concert (1911). This was based off of a concert he heard by the composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1974-1951).
As you look at this painting, remember that there is nothing you are missing or have to figure out. It is an image that you are meant to explore with your eyes, without prejudice or the desire for it to be anything other than what it is. Think of it as a concert for your eyes and simply enjoy.
You are going to love this amazing short clip of an artist recreating Starry Night in a bowl of ink!
Here are five famous and living abstract painters that you should know. These guys are already in the history books and are just warming up. They are sure to inspire your own creativity and motivate you to make some art of your own. Let me know what you think.
Brice Marden (born October 15, 1938) is generally considered a minimalist abstract painter. In the 60's and 70's Marden worked on large monochromatic canvases that he placed in conjunction with each other. The images are meditative and quiet, with generally muted tones. During the 80's Marden began to experiment with linear mark making, referencing Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. His empty canvases soon filled with scrawling black lines that somehow contained themselves within the rectangle. Those lines then began to be more standardized into even lines that swirl and intertwine around the canvas. Brice Marden gives himself rules as a means of restricting his paintings to really get at a subject.
Lately, he has gone back to his monochromatic roots with a series of paintings based on nature and landscape, called "Terre Verte." The paintings have a Zen-like minimalist quality about them and speak of moss, air, and earth. One must sit quietly in front of them to feel their pull on your spirit. These deceptively simply paintings are all made with the color terre verte, which has been used for centuries and each paining is exactly eight feet by six feet. They each consist of a large square in the upper portion and a smaller rectangle in the bottom. They speak of the process and history of painting, while remaining firmly grounded in the present.
I have been an admirer of Marden's paintings for a long time and love to watch old interviews with him on YouTube. The way he discusses painting and his philosophy of art, is captivating. He has recently changed galleries and is now at the Gagosian gallery in New York.
Terry Winters (born 1949, Brooklyn, NY) is considered a painter's painter. He is an artist that I was inspired by, as an art student. His dreamy and nebulous worlds caught my attention as young man, and I have followed his work since.
Winters uses the language of abstraction to discuss spatial arrangements as he mines the natural world for imagery. His earlier paintings referenced biological phenomena such as cells, cytoplasm, and other molecular structures. Those paintings feel like you are looking into a petri dish through a microscope. They are dark floating worlds that speak to our own inner spiritual selves. To me, they are quiet worlds that shut out the exterior noise of contemporary life. They are places where the imagination can swim in solitude and contemplation. Winters has a great work ethic, and he even mixes all of his own paint from scratch. Lately, he has been using bisecting lines that seem to discuss string theory and naturally occurring fractals. They invite you to look deep into the plane of the canvas to exam the depths of the images. Winters is also a superb draftsman and often displays his drawings and prints alongside of his paintings.
If you don't know this artist, he is worth a look. His artwork is collected by the world's major museums and institutions. You can fine his work at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.
Peter Halley (born September 24, 1953) is another amazing abstract painter. He became known during the 1980s as a new crop of young artists was springing forward. Halley's geometric paintings are grounded in the tradition of minimalist art, which seeks to reduce imagery to its most essential state. However, Halley's paintings are far from minimal. They are often large works filled with colorful boxes that seem to link and entwine. These bright rectilinear shapes move backward and forward, following the push and pull method established by the late Hans Hoffmann, in his abstract expressionist paintings.
Peter Halley's paintings, however, are about more than abstract painting theories. They also reference the urban environment and contemporary architecture. The images, at times, feel like informational maps or flow charts. They also resemble the clustered piling of skyscrapers and the Claustrophobia that one can feel in our overpopulated cities. And yet, they remain playful, almost lighthearted. These paintings seem designed to simultaneously call our attention to our urban plight and make us forget that it exists! I love these paintings and am always cheered when I come across one.
You can learn more about Peter Halley at: http://www.peterhalley.com/
Thomas Nozkowski (b. 1944, Teaneck, New Jersey) is another abstract artist who is known as a painter's painter. His small scale paintings are both whimsical and nuanced. Nozkowski works tirelessly to build the surfaces of his paintings. Through a process of painting in areas, and then sanding them down to partially remove them, he develops a layered painting with the history of his process immediately accessible to the viewer. The images consist of grids, swirls, drips, and doodles. These paintings seem to both reference the internal world and our external society, as they vary from dark moody images to bright and playful cartoons. The wonderful thing is, you can keep coming back to them to find new meaning depending upon your particular mood or state of mind. They are funny and serious at the same time. That's a pretty amazing trick!
Thomas Nozkowski is a lot of fun and you can find him at the Pace Gallery.
Frank Philip Stella (born May 12, 1936) may very well be the most famous American artist alive today and with good reason. He has been a major figure in the art world since the late 1950's when he began painting his black painting series. These austere paintings are minimalist in style, consisting of black paint broken only by small white lines running in patterns across the surface. They feel like dark mazes that one must follow to discover some pure truth. At the time, Stella was breaking from the traditional abstract expressionism style of the era to create paintings that were meant to be objects in their own right. That is, they did not reference anything, but rather stand alone as a new thing in the world.
Later, Stella began to add color to his work, using ribbons of line in geometrical patterns. He also began to add more physical depth to his paintings, blurring the lines between what is painting and what is sculpture. These paintings have since become increasingly dense with lines, colors, shapes, and grids. They are playful images that seem to balance between graffiti, commercial clutter, and some kind of unique language. They are hard to decipher, but they are delightful to look at and just enjoy as images. Perhaps that is what he is after, even after all these years, an object that is wonderful to look at.
In addition to painting, Frank Stella is also a sculptor, and printmaker. He has had exhibits in many of the world's great museums including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art and is collected all over the world. Stella has already made it to the history books, and I have a feeling his best is yet to come!
Frank Stella is represented by the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York.
It never fails, I will go for awhile without being in my studio, without painting. You know, life gets busy. We all have commitments and responsibilities. Then, I will finally sit down and mix some paints, set up my easel and get to work. Almost immediately, the stress in my shoulders relaxes, and I begin to feel more connected. My paintings themselves are meditations that reflect my inner world as well as the archetypes of humanity. Carl Jung is quoted as saying, "From the living fountain of instinct flows everything that is creative; hence the unconscious is not merely conditioned by history, but is the very source of the creative impulse." Jung saw art as a force of good for society, working towards educating us on the spirituality of our time. He understood how important it is to meditate, plumbing the depths of your spirit. And the need for spiritual rejuvenation is as important today as ever.
I know that you will enjoy this great article on how making art is the new meditation and I hope that you will find some time to make your own artwork soon.
These murals have such a wonderful sense of abstract design while remaining perfectly clear in their representation. They are a real tour-de-force of mural painting. I hope you enjoy these amazing paintings and are inspired to make something beautiful today. I continue to be amazed by the unending imagination and creative depths of humanity.
Author: Bruce Black
Welcome to Life Reimagined! I am a professional artist and long time art teacher, over twenty-two years teaching and still going! I have painted all my life and love to inspire others to reach their creative potential. I hope this blog brings you inspiration!