The greatest works explore beauty or tragedy in life. The most profound and universal of human emotions that are timeless, and could have occurred in the ancient past and will be experienced again in the distant future. The same kind of subject matter is explored by the greatest poetry, novels, and plays.
Our hopes, our dreams, our fears. Jealousy, greed, lust, ambition, traumas from prejudice, war and even just growing up.
The cruelty possible to humanity — as well as its compassion and idealism. Then take any one or more of these themes, give it expression by masterful skills forged by the finest training available, from centuries of codified knowledge of the craft.
And all unified by the perfection of composition, of design, drawing, modeling, perspective, tone, color, light, atmosphere, and paint handling. But, it is worth repeating, there are plenty of beautiful objects or scenes in nature that are aesthetic without being works of art in themselves:. Rose petals floating in a basin. Waves crashing on the shore. A drop of dew on a flower. A drop of blood on a white piece of paper might be pretty and momentarily interesting like a Rothko painting. These are all things that we might experience in reality, and that actually have an aesthetic effect.
But they are not art. Art is the selective recreation of reality for the purposes of expressing an idea.
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The artist takes elements of reality and rearranges them in such a way that he makes perceivable an idea, a concept, an impression of the world. In other words, it is the artist, a human being, who is doing the selecting — not nature and not chance. The scenes or objects mentioned above are tangible, and enjoyable in the here and now, and in recollection. But the real world or the natural world simply is. Our experiences in it can become the material of artworks when they are judiciously selected and arranged, with all the finesse and mastery of years of training, craftsmanship, and learning.
But isn't an "abstract" painting by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock tangible in a similar way to the examples above? Get close enough to a modernist painting and some patches of paint and blots of color are pretty to look at. Stare at them long enough you might even convince yourself that there is something meaningful in them, like a Rorschach ink blot test.
But neither a blob of paint nor a Rorschach test is a work of art, and neither are they truly meaningful. They aren't meant to be interpreted as selections of reality at all. Since Clement Greenburg, modernist critics have always talked about them as "bits of" reality, as if they had their own exalted aesthetic existence.
The usual description of a modern "abstract" painting is that it is "a painting about paint itself". Its subject matter is paint, or the formal principles of painting. The first claim is nonsensical: saying a painting is about paint is like saying a poem is about the alphabet. A poem uses the alphabet to represent words, which can in turn be used to convey knowledge or express ideas.
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The second claim is just as banal. A painting that is "about" its formal principles is, again, like a poem that is about rhyme, about onomatopoeia, or about iambic pentameter. In other words, it is art as a jigsaw puzzle of the lowest order. An endless pseudo-intellectual game, slightly mesmerising because of its futility — like a Rubik's cube.
Even fun to play occasionally — in jest — because it keeps the pattern-recognition parts of the brain occupied. By this definition, a Rubik's cube is probably the world's most successful work of modern art — it refers only to itself, it has the sacred cubic form, and it is covered with more colored squares than a Mondrian. If art had ever been about this kind of cerebral playing with formal principles it would have died a tedious death millenia ago.
But this is what modernist critics would have us understand is "abstract" art. Folks, I want to point out that there is more than one meaning to "abstract". The modernists have tried to collapse two important senses of the term into one, to bolster their as we saw above ludicrous claims. For modernists, "abstract" means "non-objective" or "non-representational" or "non-figurative".
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For them, abstract means that which does not have any meaning outside of itself. In a very real sense "abstract" modern art is actually meaningless. From the modern critic's point of view, the more meaningless it is the more "abstract" the better. Now, this is not to say that some "abstract" shapes or blobs of paint cannot be aesthetically pleasing. An oil slick can be pleasing to look at from the right angle — no matter whether it is in a puddle or on a prepared canvas.
But they cannot say that an "abstract" modern work is meaningful in any real sense. It is whatever it is, a blob of paint or a block of color — no more and no less. But truly, that is a fabricated meaning for the term "abstract. The word "carnation" is an abstraction for a genus of botanical objects in the real world. Other words refer to places, persons, objects, colors, textures, feelings, and ideas. But no one thinks that the printed word "carnation" is the flower carnation; or the printed word "love" is the experience called love.
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It is an abstraction in words for those things or experiences in the real world. These abstractions are potentially meaningful because they refer to things; put enough of them together in the right order and these abstractions we call words can become scientific treatises or lyrical ballads. A cubist painting does not represent an object like a violin at only one angle, but as one vibrant, constantly shifting whole.
Similarly, Post-Impressionist painters such as Paul Cezanne took the ideas of Impressionist artists one step further by moving closer to abstraction, intentionally distorting color and shape for the sake of more truthful representations of the world as they saw it. As artists continued to favour a different sense of accuracy in representation, further movements sprung up throughout the middle of the 20th century. Surrealism was an important milestone in modern art, focusing on the inclusion of random chance in artistic practice, and attempting to describe the unconscious mind in ways that were necessarily non-representational.
Choosing a place other than the real world as its subject was one of the greatest legacies left by the Surrealists to contemporary abstract art. By the second half of the 20th century, art was transforming rapidly.
A group of New York artists including Jackson Pollock, Dutch-born William de Kooning, and Franz Kline began to push the boundaries of previous movements by focusing on the paint itself as their subject. After the Abstract Expressionists stretched the properties of painting to their limits, countless waves of new movements responded to and expanded their ideas. Known as minimalism, this movement spawned other movements with influences reaching to artists today.
The Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and Performance Art movements of the latter half of the 20th century were yet other offshoots of the progression of modern art, expanding on the ideas of these abstract artists and introducing new themes such as consumerism and politics as the main tools of representation. Does the painting convey a mood-state or atmosphere, like an Expressionist painting? At times like these, a little research can always be helpful, even if that just means reading the descriptions of a piece on a museum wall or consulting a gallerist about their featured artist.
Trying to filter what you see through what you know can be a rewarding experience, but it is one that can begin to inhibit your true appreciation of a piece if you let it.
Another important thing to remember when trying to understand abstract art is that you are always in dialogue with the piece by virtue of being its viewer. The artist has probably carefully considered your role as the viewer of the painting and wants it to speak to you on some level. The other great thing about abstract art is that it can mean something to you that no one else sees. A painting with yellow tones and sharp lines might feel romantic to you for your bedroom, while grey lines convey a sense of peace for your living room: the personal interpretation involved in defining these kinds of subjective spaces makes the process that much more special.
As an added bonus, your guests will constantly find their own sense of meaning in the works that adorn your space. An abstract piece will have that unique, one-of-a-kind quality that any space can use. With this crash course, you have the tools to explore abstract art and discover what you love.