November 04, 2020

Recently, I was asked ‘what are the best examples of abstract art, of all time?

Woof! Discussing abstract art under any circumstances is not a simple subject. But, I gave it a go.

Firstly, in art terms, abstract art is a relatively newcomer on the scene. But that said, its points of reference are as old as time itself. What I mean by this is all sentient creatures see the world from all manner of perspectives. Ants and giraffes, fish and birds. The lens of a cats eye is a different shape to that of a dog; creating different visual interpretations of form and distance. Both cats and dogs see a very limited spectrum of colour, with red not being seen at all; which might explain why cats and dogs aren’t Mark Rothko’s biggest fans. I jest.

Rothko style art

So, putting it subjectively regarding colour, all species see things from just the one point of view; our own. most creatures have things in their eyes called cones. Cone process colour. The more cones you have, the more colour you see. The Skate (a fish) has no cones at all, and only sees in black and white. Conversely, another sea creature the Mantic Shrimp has 16 colour receptive cones, more than any other known life form. We can only imagine what a colourful world it shares with the poor old monochromatic Skate.

We humans, as usually, always measure the world from ‘our normal’. And we have three conic optical receptors. And since the first cave markings were made, Man has sought to make his mark. At first with what could be found close by; chalk, charcoal (from burnt trees, struck by lightning), and soil and soft rock mixed with animal fat to make ochres.

Abstraction occurred from the eye of the beholder, how skill or unskilled an artist the beholder was, and how the materials behaved; which depended on how liquid it was, how porous the painted surface was, and the ambient temperature. All these elements conspire to change the artists intent. And, at some point, the representational image become distorted or obscured to the point that it loses it literal meaning. Abstraction takes over.

Now, that kind of serendipity is not the sole source of abstraction in art. Think about it, if you look at anything from an unusual angle, perspective or distance, the viewed subject matter loses its literal characteristics and takes on different visual qualities. Shapes and forms drawn from the normal (as we see it) can be interpreted completely differently. Abstractly.

Conversely, we ‘see’ stuff in an abstract image that the artist or nature had no intention of representing. As an abstract artist, I often have client say things like, “I love the painting with the leaping dolphin.” And, in my head I’m screaming, “What leaping dolphin?”

Rorschach test

You may be familiar with visual aid once popular among psychologist, The Rorschach test. This is a psychological test in which subjects' perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person's personality characteristics and emotional functioning.
It was the advent of the study of psychology that moved the art world from symbolism to abstraction in its current understanding of the art form. Freud and Jung open the discussion up to all of us and we embraced it like gossip-hungry fishwives.

Humankinds awareness of the ‘ulterior motive’ had artists abandoning literal or symbolic imagery for blobs, slashes and splodges of paint and other materials.
Great artists and draughtsmen like Picasso, who could draw anything with sublime ease and purpose, began distorting recognised forms. His Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was received in Paris with shock and alarm. It has no perspective, the female forms are broken-down into angular shapes. But was it ‘abstract’? Could it be that it was ‘symbolism’? Or a kind of surreal symbolism  that Hieronymus Bosch challenged viewers of his work?


It is at this point, I am obliged to express my own belief of what abstract art is.

It is my contention that for an artwork to be regarded as ‘abstract art’, it cannot include any shape or form that appears to be drawn from a readily recognisable reference point; literal shapes, objects, words or physiology. A complete absence of semiotics.

Therefore, for me to answer the question at the top of this essay, I need to exclude all art that has a literal image within it; be it distorted or obscured by the artists own hand.

So, for me, the best abstract art of all time can begin with artists like Mark Rothko, who dug deep into the subconscious, into his soul to create paintings which were to be experienced, felt, not seen and understood. To evoke primal sensations that are allowed to be beyond expression and articulation.

Of course, it is nigh on impossible to put any shape on a canvas without it having some characteristic of sorts. The geometry of nature has formed our thinking and visual interpretation of just about anything.

The apparent random pouring, flicking and splashing of paint as pioneered by Jackson Pollock is not without natural symmetries and repetition. Photographic analysis of Pollock’s work has revealed rhythms and patterns amidst the painter’s intended chaos. Advances in the world of science have enable us to measure things to which, until recently, we were oblivious.

Jackson Pollock

“There’s a rhythm and a vibration in everything.” So whether Pollock intended to create them, his work reveals them. Fractals formed by physical responses to environmental influences.

For example, if you hang a tin of paint on a long piece of string from the ceiling, pierce a hole in its base, then release it to swing about in a random movement, it will begin to draw repetitive shapes on the floor. There is a randomness to the act, but the result reveal patterns which are created by the sheer ‘physics’ going on around it. The length of the string, the size of the the hole you punched, how hard you pushed it to get it to swing. Amidst the apparent chaos is mathematics. All events in nature are ruled by these inevitable, equations, rhythms and vibrations.

So when the analysed Pollock dripping of paint on a canvas the discovered shapes and rhythms that were determined by whether he was using his left or his right hand; whether he was standing up or crouching down. Most likely, Pollock was totally unaware of what he was doing, not just because he was a chronic alcoholic, but because despite it was a n unconscious act, it was ruled by his own physicality, the physical properties of the paint, his brush and whether the canvas was perfectly horizontal to the perpendicular or not.
Believe it or not, I have not deviated from my subject. This is all relevant. Because, to my mind an abstract artwork is one that invites no interpretation or or understanding, because from a conscious point of view, it doesn’t need one. We have evolved to acknowledge the esoteric happening all around us without response. That is nature. Great abstract art vibrates and hums like a tree on a windless day. Somewhere deep inside we feel it, know it.

Now then, you ask, “What is the best abstract art, ever?”
My answer is this, any art that, without symbols or visual narratives, creates palpable feeling within you; be it visceral or emotional, or both.
Some will say Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is an abstract painting. In my view, that is inaccurate. The artist gave it a title that highlighted it inspiration (the bombing of a Spanish town). It has many recognisable images within it; a bull, a horse, a light bulb within an eye. Acutely symbolic.

picasso guernica

Conversely, Mark Rothko’s most important works were largely untitled or prosaic descriptions, (‘Red and Blue’). Or numbered. No clues from him to the viewer; only an invitation to feel without explanation. Inarticulate yet emotionally eloquent.
To varying degrees other artists achieve this. Some dip in and out.
A great abstract work will draw you into discovering how you, not the artist, feels.

rothko stamp


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.