If you’ve ever been to a museum, a dinner party, or seen a Woody Allen movie, you’ve probably heard people discussing “abstract art”—but it seems like every time the topic comes up, it gets more convoluted. What do people really mean by this phrase? Yes, abstract means something that is not attempting to represent reality. But how can it apply to so many different things? In popular culture, the term “abstract” has become like a parody of the art world itself, usually applied when “meaningless” or “impossible to understand” is meant.
Abstract art doesn’t have to be so unclear. There is a way to “read” an abstract painting, just as there is to understand and interpret a more realistic painting. The history and progression of art through the ages illuminates the contemporary scene and provides a solid background from which to immerse yourself in seemingly incomprehensible works. And a basic understanding can take you a long way!
Walking through an extremely simplified history of modern art is a good way to gain an understanding of abstraction as a cohesive movement. Here’s about 300 years of art history crunched down into the basic facts (with obvious simplifications and omissions!):
Virtually all visual art was completely representational until the mid to late 19th century. In fact, most great painters’ ambition was to create such perfect illusions of reality that any trace of the their own work was invisible. Despite later trends toward depicting socially realistic subjects and “average” people, for the most part, painting served the purposes of religious dogma, commissioned portraiture, and historical commemorations.
Originally coined after a critic insulted Claude Monet’s skill-level as only capable of a mere “impression” of a sunrise, this was one of the first movements away from pure realism. Artists like Renior, Degas, and Seurat emphasized the importance of the artist’s way of seeing the world over a strict depiction of it, studying the effects of light, perspective, and time on a scene rather than its exact representation.
Starting in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, a set of artists around the world including Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee began infusing their paintings with explicit moods and emotions. The goal of painting became to depict mind-set of the artist at the time of painting a scene, sometimes completely separated from reality. Expressionism was one of the first iterations of a movement toward the deliberate revelation of brushstrokes and an intentionally “painterly” method.
Post-Impressionism & Cubism
As the 20th century progressed, the inclusion of the artist’s perspective and alternative ways of seeing led to movements such as Cubism, founded by Pablo Picasso as an attempt to show objects and scenes in the way that the human mind perceives them. 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 favor 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. Large-scale canvases became about the action of painting; the canvas was meant to be the remnant of an artist’s specific interaction with materials. AbEx paintings can have that “my kindergartener could have drawn that” quality to the untrained eye, but the very intentional approaches of these artists (and their tortured personal lives) reveal very real artistic contemplations.
Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, & 21st Century Pluralism
After the Abstract Expressionists stretched the properties of painting to their limits, countless waves of new movements responded to and expanded their ideas. Artists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly continued to experiment with color, but moved away from the concept of paint as the star of a work and toward a less gestural, more “hard-edged” form. 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.
Which leads us to today.
The state of 21st century abstract art is difficult to encapsulate because it’s still developing and because, in typical modern form, it defies categorization. In addition, all contemporary art is not the result of a logical progression from these art historical movements: returns to realism and myriad different styles and techniques contribute to a sense of Pluralism as the defining characteristic, if there is one, of today’s art.
Ways of Reading
With a basic idea of the history of abstract art, you can apply a method to every painting you see—so when you’re faced with a “what the heck am I looking at” piece, you’ll know where to begin.
When looking at any artwork, most people’s first question tends to be “What is this about?” That’s a good place to start, but it won’t take you very far when looking at an abstract work—unless you’re willing to think more creatively. With abstract painting, the piece can be “about” the paint on the canvas, as with Abstract Expressionism; it can be “about” the process of painting for an artist personally; it can even be about the meaning of abstract art itself! Does the painting convey a mood-state or atmosphere, like an Expressionist painting? What does it prompt you to think about? Are you confronted with a particular color or shape? How does what you’re looking at make you feel? These are all sure-fire points of excavation: begin with asking yourself these kinds of questions and you’ll find the answers a lot less mysterious.
When applying these historical and analytical methods to taking in art, lingering doubts about certainty and “doing it right” may surface. 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. It can be so interesting to know the artist’s or curator’s ideas behind a piece. Be careful, however, of over-doing it with the descriptions: don’t fall into the trap of believing that you need to do more reading than obvserving. 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. So you don’t have to feel like you’re solving a mystery that has one correct answer! Artists are often delight to hear what different viewers uncover in dialogue with their artwork, even if it's nowhere near the artist's intent. If a piece just doesn’t speak to you, that’s ok. It's probably not for you.
Abstract Art in Your Collection
As you become more adept at interpreting and appreciating abstract art, you’ll find it’s the perfect medium for any home or space in need of a burst of energy. In your home, abstract art is the solution for complementing your decor with art: without distracting images, scenes, or objects to clash or detract, there’s nothing but color and form to complement your furniture, wall-color, or whatever piece you’re working around. 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. As with almost everything relating to art, the most important thing to remember is to have fun and not to worry about whether you know what you’re supposed to. If you find yourself drawn to abstract pieces, trust your instincts and the rest will follow: becoming educated about something you’re interested in can become a hobby unto its own!