Abstract Art: How to View It
Viewing abstract art work and interpreting it is not as hard as you think. I hear a lot of commentary in my vocation, and I wanted to talk about this in a post. You only need an open mind and an imagination. I can remember living in New York City and loving to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art -and at the end of my time in New York City, I told my husband “I am going to the MoMA this afternoon” and he said “You don’t like the things at the MoMA” to which I retorted “But I do like some of the work at the MoMA!” What changed? I did. I think my mind became more open because in the 11 years I lived there, I exposed myself to so many different things. So even if you don’t connect with abstract art now, that could change with time.
The history of abstract art is that it came about in sharp rebellion to academic art, or realism. Realism is the style of painting that shows subjects as close to their real life appearance, right down to the folds of clothing. So let’s define abstract art and look at a few quotes from some aficionados:
“Abstract art has helped us to experience the emotional power inherent in pure form.” -Anton Ehrenzweig an Austrian-born British theorist on modern art and music.
“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes… Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.”
– Arshile Gorky an Armenian-American abstract expressionist artist
Abstract art finds its voice in the intuition of the painter and the imagination of the painter as well as the viewer. The artists looks beyond what he sees and paints intangible emotions on the canvas. Abstraction gives the artist the freedom to create a piece that doesn’t have to resemble anything, but captures an emotion.
When you are looking at an abstract piece, let go of finding something recognizable, or trying to assign one emotion to it. Free yourself and just experience it. This is the single key to abstract art-you don’t have to figure out the riddle. Abstract art should inspire some sort of emotion and you are a part of it as your personality and state of mind are going to influence how you feel about the piece.
Critiquing a piece of art that is representational is rather easy as you can judge the technique and say whether the artist has created a great piece or if a piece is masterfully done. An abstract piece is criticized very differently as we are looking for it’s ability to evoke an emotion.
Abstract art can also be evaluated on its use of color, texture, shape, line, space, value, etc. The composition can be seen as compelling in how the artist uses these elements together.
Here are some guidelines:
Give it some time. There are some really good reasons why most art dealers let people try pieces on approval.You need to really see a piece at different times of day, in different light, and over a period of time to see how you feel about it.
Don’t punish yourself or the artist. Don’t beat the artist up if you can’t connect with the work; their imagination is valid. By the same token don’t beat yourself up either-ask yourself what about the piece turns you off.
Let’s leave the fact that your four year old is incredibly talented out of the conversation. OK I just drug my soapbox out, and now I am going to stand on it. Please don’t insult everyone around you by looking at an abstract and declaring that a child could have done it. I find this incredibly infuriating. Just because you can’t connect with something doesn’t inherently make it bad. And your 4 year old could not have made it, and definitely not consistently. You can measure an artist’s ability by their intent. By making a comment like this you insult the artist and their intention, and sometimes the 4 year old. (I have seen some bad art in my time.)
Forget the title. If the title throws a wrench in your enjoyment of the painting, leave it behind. Some of my artists labor over a title, because they said what they needed to say on the canvas, without words. That being said, I have had artists tell me “I love that piece! I see angels in it-” I generally police myself when I am with a client, and I listen to what they think about a piece before I inject my interpretations.
Read the wall text, or ask the art dealer. Both of these sources can give you valuable insight into the artist’s intention.
Don’t overthink it. My sister has a saying about books-“There are so many great books in the world, why would you suffer through a bad one?” Same goes for art-there are so many great pieces of art in the world, don’t get upset if you can’t connect with a particular piece. Thinking and puzzling over a piece can be tiresome. Move on.
Do remember the piece does not have to mean anything. It is very rewarding to feel like you have unlocked the meaning of a piece, but you don’t have to do that to enjoy it. You can enjoy the mystery of not knowing.
There you have it-some helpful hints the next time you find yourself in a gallery or museum and you are in front of an abstract. Thanks for your time! So until next time, buy some art for art’s sake-