Understanding Abstract Art
The world of art is one that is ever-changing; continuously developing as the world does. A student studying art history will find their studies reaching every time period; from pre-history all the way to the most recent artists. In earlier art history you find artists like Francisco Goya and Gustav Courbet, whose works are very much in a realistic style: their subjects discernible, needing obvious talent and work to complete. In the world of contemporary art, we find artists like Henri Matisse and Barnett Newman whose works consist of abstracted figures, blocks of solid color, and simple lines. To a viewer who has not studied these works, there is certainly a learning gap. A gap which can hinder the viewer’s ability to fully enjoy the works that deserve the same admiration as a Jan Van Eyck.
When approaching a piece which consists of color blocks, simple shapes, simplified figures, and a subjective approach to art, many viewers become closed off to the piece. It becomes difficult to see these pieces as art when the typical representation of art is what one might find in the Renaissance period. For an outsider to the world of art, one might simply walk past a Josef Albers refusing to acknowledge a piece they claim they could create themselves and appears to require no talent to produce. It is not terribly difficult to understand this stance, especially when we learn that to master art is to master realism. To be able to create a direct copy of a person or object on a canvas is the best way to receive praise from your teachers and peers.
What is Art? And What Makes it Abstract?
Understanding the different ways to approach and criticize art is important when attempting to understand abstract art. It is easy to appreciate a Van Eyck or Raphael as it takes obvious skill and mastery to take a person’s likeness and brush it perfectly on a canvas. However, in order to appreciate abstraction our focus should not be on realism rather on how successful a piece is in evoking emotion and the individual elements of art: color, shape, line, texture, space, value, etc. The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” By this definition, abstract art could be considered one of the highest forms of art.
More often than not, abstract art does not attempt to guide the viewer in any direction in terms of their response. There is no use of carefully chosen iconography that has set meanings to analyze. Abstract artists make use of the most raw elements of art and the assumption that viewers will derive their own meaning. This idea is often puzzling. For an artist to create an image which is not meant to generate a specific response can often be interpreted as lazy or depth less. This incorrect assessment hinders the viewer from exploring their personal interpretations of the art.
The Importance of Exploring Self
In order to fully understand and appreciate abstract art, a viewer must be willing to be fully absorbed by the elements of a piece and willing to explore their own psyche. To stand in front of a Rothko, surrounded by white walls, and become fully engulfed in color, line, and texture can be an emotional experience if a viewer is open. Stand in front of the piece without trying to evaluate the quality of brush stroke or trying to scrutinize what objects are attempting to be represented. When you can look at a work and allow yourself to respond emotionally to the artistic elements you can fully enjoy abstract work.
It’s all about emotion and an individualized response. One viewer may see a piece like Barnett Newman’s Cathedral Magna and feel a sense of loneliness, seeing the middle white line engulfed in a sea of dark blue hue with black beginning to seep in as a thin grey line nearly disappears to the left of the canvas. Another viewer looking at the same piece may feel an intense sensation of hope and spirituality, reading the blue hue as a calming sea brightened by a sliver of pure white growing in the middle of the canvas as the grey line (perhaps interpreted as despair) fades away. Abstract art isn’t necessarily learning about the artist, a figure, an object, or a story, its learning about oneself but can offer up information about the artist or history in some instances.
Artists like Rauschenberg and Johns create pieces that arguably have distinct meaning but also allow for interpretation. A piece like Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram is interpreted by some art historians as being related to the artist’s personal life and his sexuality as a gay man. While it has this meaning to the artist and to those who have previous knowledge of the artist, it can find completely new meaning within the interpretation of other viewers. A viewer could see this piece as commentary on the way the human race negatively affects the environment. Just as the personalities found within the human race are vast and unique, interpretations of art are vast.
The same goes for a piece like Jasper John’s 1967 Flag. One may interpret the piece as an artistic display of patriotism while another will interpret it as a display of the corruption of the original American ideals and another will see it as a display of the rough history and battles America has faced. There are no set meanings, and that makes abstract art very successful in evoking emotion. It doesn’t try to force a viewer in any direction, it allows a viewer to be led by their own psyche resulting in a more powerful and authentic response. A piece can make the viewer immensely happy, calm, dismal, offended, confused, etc. The viewer doesn’t necessarily have to enjoy a work of art so long as they have felt something as a result of being exposed to the piece.
Art doesn’t have to be realistic and it doesn’t have to be beautiful but it does need to make the viewer feel something and in order for that to happen, the viewer must be open. Enter a museum with no reservation, open-minded, and willing to explore yourself. Then you can fully experience abstract work. Whether you enjoy it or not is up to you.
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