Tonight I wish to digress a bit from my usual scheme and talk about an art concept that is frequently misunderstood. Yesterday I did a Google search for “abstract art” and found a surprising number of non-abstract works listed under that rubric. It seems that many people use the words “abstract” and “modern” interchangeably when discussing works of art. So I decided to get up on my high horse, or my pulpit, or whatever… and discuss what is meant by this term.

The glossary provided by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is brief but helpful when describing abstract art, or abstraction: “A term that is generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.” That means that abstract art is not a picture of anything–it can’t be tied to a representation of any recognizable object, animal, or person.

Until the early 1900’s, all art was representational. Paintings were created to represent something–a scene, a person, a bowl of fruit or flowers, or whatever. Painters were judged by their ability to realistically present things like skin tones, different types of fabrics, skies and seas, animal fur and human hair, and all manner of other things that were recognizable. However, with the advent and eventual proliferation of photography, a painting was not longer necessary to preserve history, to show how people looked or dressed, to remind the viewers of certain events from the Bible or mythology, or to demonstrate the natural beauty of mountains, seashores, plants or animals. Once that requirement was removed, artists could experiment with color, line, form, and texture, as well as various elements of classical composition and technique. The Impressionist movement gained momentum once people began to realize that the imperative for accurate representation was no longer in force, thanks to the invention of the camera.

By the early 1900’s, the fragmentation of modern society began to be felt in artistic circles, and greater levels of experimentation resulted. True abstraction was achieved when artists no longer felt compelled to show something recognizable in their work. This was off-putting to many people, and artists struggled to justify their non-representational works. The idea was to stretch the boundaries of what was considered art, but also to focus the viewer’s eye on the qualities of colors, shapes, and textures. By freeing the mind from finding any association with the outside world, abstract artists allowed the viewers to have the privilege of enjoying colors as colors, shapes as shapes, etc.

But that does not mean that art ceased to be representational, or that modern art is always abstract art. Many 20th-century artists continued to represent objects or people through their work, even if their work was extremely modern and different from what had happened before. Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean.

The Guitar Player, Johannes Vermeer (1672)

lute player

This painting by the Dutch master Vermeer is notable for its almost slavish attention to detail. The quality of the light in the painting is remarkable, especially the way the light seems to reflect from the girl’s satin skirt and yellow coat, from her string of pearls, and from the gilded frame around the painting above her head. The detail of the grill work over the instrument’s sound hole is extraordinary, and the texture of the ermine lining of the coat and the girl’s hair is almost tactile in its realism, even with the crackling of the aged canvas. This high level of technique was actually common for this time period, late Renaissance to early Baroque and beyond.

Woman Playing a Guitar, Pierre-August Renoir (1897)

renoir guitar

Here we see an almost identical subject. But in this portrait, the woman is much more casually portrayed. Renoir also captures the light–especially on her hair, her cheeks, the fretboard of the guitar, and the satin ribbons of her dress, but the effort is achieved in a more sketch-like manner. The colors are not so well blended; from a distance we see solid colors, but up close we notice a wide array of different colors, tints, and hues, even in areas meant to be solid color, such as the green wall behind the subject. Freed by the camera from giving us exactitude, Renoir gives us suggestions of color, line, and texture, but in a more modern approach.

Three Musicians, Pablo Picasso (1921)

three musicians

Only twenty-two years later, Picasso produced this painting of musicians performing, but the leap seems to be more like a couple of centuries, rather than a couple of decades. Picasso was here experimenting with the minimum amount of colors and shapes needed to represent an actually complex grouping of people and instruments. We see, from left to right, a harlequin, a Pierrot, and a monk, playing a violin, a clarinet, and some sort of small keyboard instrument, perhaps a celeste, clavier, or harpsichord. The musicians wear masks and represent three common characters from the classical Italian Commedia dell’arte style of theatrical production. If you look closely, you will also see two other faces in profile, which I believe are meant to represent the audience. The three players read from one piece of sheet music. Whether you like this style or not; whether you “get” this type of art or not, you must admit that you can see at least three people suggested, or represented, in the painting. There are faces, shoulders, hands, legs, and feet. There are instruments, or at least parts of instruments. While many people would call this an abstract painting, it is not. It is modern, surely, but not abstract. Things that are recognizable from the real world are being represented here, even if they’re not being represented realistically.

That is actually the source of the confusion, I think. It seems to me that many people confuse representation with realism. The two terms are not synonymous. Something can be represented in a very unrealistic way, but still be recognizable. Finally, here’s our fourth example.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian (1943)


Mondrian is one of my favorite 20th-century artists. I love his grid=patterned, primary-colored works. Perhaps they satisfy my OCD-ness in some way. This painting is actually quite a bit more colorful than most of his paintings from the 1930s and ’40s. The title refers to a style of music common in New York in the 1940s, but there is nothing specifically recognizable in the painting itself. Many people have speculated that the grid pattern was inspired by the streets of Manhattan, and that the colored squares and rectangles might represent cars on the streets or buildings, but there is nothing specific in this painting to suggest that either of those suppositions might be based in reality. Still, the paintings seems to me to be musical. The primary colors vibrate against each other and establish a sort of visual rhythm that is hard to explain, but really easy to see, I think. Did Mondrian intend for me to think of music when I see this painting. Probably, because of his choice of title. But does that mean that this painting represents an instrument or a musician? No. It is purely form, color, and composition.

Here are a few last examples of abstract art for you to consider.

Red, Orange, Orange on Red, Mark Rothko (1962)

rothkoMark Rothko’s intention was to cause his viewers to stop and appreciate the qualities of colors. His paintings are very delicately colored, with one shade feathering into the next. The works are quite large so that you can sort of lose yourself in the contemplation of the reds or blues or greens–whatever color he has chosen to explore. In some cases, he actually used powdered pigments sprinkled into the edges of the colors to further soften the transition from one hue into another. He called these his “color field” paintings, and the only thing meant to be represented is the sensation of color.

Composition 8, Vasily Kandinsky (1923)

kandinskyKandinsky’s paintings are also about color, but there’s a lot more than simple colors to see. His best works, like this one, combine color with shapes and lines in complicated relationships to each other. Like many abstract artists, Kandinsky didn’t want to prejudice the viewer toward any particular interpretation of his works, so he gave them simple titles, like “Composition xx” to allow each person to come to the work free from any prior concept of what the painting was supposed to mean. It is not the various elements in the painting, but the interaction among the elements, that we are meant to contemplate and understand.

White Light, Jackson Pollock (1954)

pollockAs I discussed recently when reviewing the movie Pollock, Jackson Pollock’s most iconic paintings were created by dripping, splashing, and slinging paint onto a canvas lying on the floor of his workshop. His works were designed to cause his viewers to consider the texture of the paint itself, as well as the interactions of the various colors used on each canvas. The paintings were not accidental, but they were experimental, and if you look at a collection of his works, you can see the various techniques and color combinations that he tried out. His paintings are full of action and rhythm, perhaps because he often listened to jazz records while working on his compositions. His works, like those of the previous abstractionists presented here, were very controversial when they first appeared. What were they supposed to be? What were they supposed to mean? Often, however, they were just created to be appreciated for the ways that the paints, colors, shapes, and lines worked on the eyes of the viewers. They were meant to stimulate our visual senses, without reference to any external objects or meanings. That is the central purpose of abstract art: to move us away from comparing the work of art to something we know or have seen before, so that our eyes are released to enjoy the sensations created by the artists and the materials they used. When a journalist asked Pollock what his paintings were supposed to be about, he explained: “When you see a field of wildflowers you don’t wrack your brains trying to figure out what it means, you just enjoy what you see.”

Do you have favorite abstract artists or abstract paintings? Do you appreciate abstract art, or dismiss it? Let me know!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s