Concepts of Abstraction Feb. 24-25, 2024

This is an overview of abstract art – from the artist’s POV. I hope it helps artists who normally paint in a representational style take the leap to painting in abstract!

When painting realism, the ‘why’ of the painting is typically in the object: I’m painting this sunset because it is beautiful or makes me feel a certain way and I want the viewer to feel that way too. But why do abstract artists paint what they paint?

What does ‘abstract’ mean?

Let’s start off by exploring the term ‘abstract’. Most people, when they hear that term, think it means there isn’t a recognizable subject in the work. That isn’t exactly true. There is a term for a work having no recognizable subject and that is ‘non-objective’. But there can be recognizable pieces within an abstract work. Strictly speaking, the word ‘abstract’ simply means to separate or withdraw something from something else. In the case of art, it means to separate the elements of art (line, shape, texture, form, space, color, and value, with extra credit for mark-making and materiality) for the sake of exploration. Abstract art can have recognizable ‘objects’, but it isn’t entirely representative of our world.

There are two ends to the abstract spectrum:

1. Painting to express an emotion or communicate an idea, and

2. Painting to see what the paint can do.

Some abstract artists explore how to evoke ideas or feelings. Their ‘why’ is ‘I want to explore this feeling by way of paint on canvas.’ This can be easier with the utilization of recognizable objects within the work. Even if those are the elements of art (line, shape, etc) and not entirely representative, recognizable objects.

How those elements are used can easily convey meaning (Look at Frida Kahlo’s work).

Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait

Artists have always put symbolism in their work. Many of the ‘things’ in paintings had multiple meanings. For example, in 17th century Dutch art, flowers were never just flowers. Roses frequently stood for the Virgin Mary; lilies stood for purity. In every art made, there have been symbols whose meanings were known by the artist and the viewers of their time. With the creation of Abstract Art those symbols changed and expanded. Once religion wasn’t the predominant ‘why’ in art, artists were free to create their own vocabularies. And they did.

For others it is more about exploration of the actual process of painting: what they can do with the elements of art, the tools, and other supplies they are using. Their ‘why’ is ‘I want to see what I can create through the elements of art, these tools, and paints.’

Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural

But this can prove to be a challenge. How does an artist engage a viewer when their main purpose in creating is the actual exploration of process and materials (An artist to look at here is Helen Frankenthaler or even Jackson Pollack).

Helen Frankenthaler in 1956 in front her work.

Does it even matter if there is ‘meaning’ in a piece? Before modern art, most art was religious in nature. The ‘why’ was to spread the religious word. Now there isn’t that clear cut reasoning. Art is created for the sake of art. The only real reason to create art is because we can.

Most artists can be found where these two ideas meet. Some artists want you to feel a certain way, some artists just want you to feel.

Why are recognizable objects not always wanted or necessary?

Typically, it’s because recognizable objects can bog the viewer down.

1. If an artist is painting an egret and wants that egret to be what the viewer concentrates on, but gives every inch of the canvas the same attention to detail that they give to the egret, does the viewer know where to put their attention? Is the egret the star of the piece? Probably not. But if the artist abstracted the background, through simplification of form or muting the colors, it would force the viewers’ eyes on the one thing the artist wants the viewer to look at: the egret.

2. Recognizable objects must be used in very specific ways, or they aren’t seen as anything more than the ‘thing’ they are.

Art today is almost completely a reaction to what came before, abstract art is no exception. Abstract art, aside from a few isolated works, didn’t exist before the creation of photography. Once we were able to accurately portray people and places by way of photographs, artists started asking what else they could/would do.

The Isms

Impressionism was the first movement that was a direct result of the advent of photography. Rather than seeking to portray the object realistically, Impressionists explored the transience of time by painting a particular moment, an impression of a cathedral or mountain at a particular time of day. Monet, Renoir, or Degas or examples of Impressionist artists.

Next came Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and all the -isms after. Each of these -isms were reacting to the time they lived in and the art that was made before them. And with each movement, came an expansion of the rules of art. Expansion to the point where there are no real rules that must be followed; this has created is an art world where anything goes. Do you want to paint a giant soup can and call it art? Go for it. Do you want to not even put the canvas on a stretcher, but rather tack it to a wall so that it flows and drapes. Do it. Art is anything and anything is art. The art is in the exploration. What makes these divergent things art is the intent of the artist. The only limitations are that of the artist themselves, and their ability to convey meaning into seemingly meaningless things.

“My work is completed by the viewer.”

What all of this has done is force the viewer to be more of an active participant.

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares

It requires (challenges) the viewer to respond to work in a more personal and emotional way; to bring some of themselves to the table and interpret artwork through the lens of their own life’s experiences and beliefs. British artist Bridget Riley famously said, “my work is completed by the viewer.” This brings us back to why artists make abstract art to begin with. So what’s your ‘why’?

  • Kathy Smith

    I appreciate your description completely, I paint abstract and never completely had the ability to explain that to those that ask. Thank you

    1. Sunset River Gallery

      Thanks for taking the time to read this!! It is hard to describe something as ineffable as abstract art.

  • Ortrud Tyler

    For me fairly simple. The answer to your last question? Because I can.

    1. Sunset River Gallery

      That is the absolute right answer!!!

  • Rosalee Rockafellow

    Sam, in all the years of my Art appreciation.. this is the First Analysis of Art forms that fully explains the varied periods and thought processes. I am an avid Marc Chagall admirer.. but only after I acquired a piece of his work did I recognize his many hidden agendas’ in each of his pieces.
    Thank you for opening my mind to Abstract because I am one of those that appreciates the Abstract colors or sometimes non colors but have difficulty getting past that quite often

    1. Sunset River Gallery

      Thanks for reading and saying that! I really appreciate you taking the time.

  • Cathy O’Donnell

    Sam, this is a wonderfully condensed version of the meaning of abstraction, thank you. I think that we do need the viewer to complete our work; without that ebb and flow between the artist and the viewer, there is no connection — which, is what I want, personally. Looking forward to exploring abstraction and non-objective painting.