How to appreciate abstract art - Caroline Ashwood

July 26, 2021

To appreciate abstract art, one must first consider what abstract art sets out to achieve. This is a much discussed subject. And the answers or should I say, opinions are as infinitive in their subjective nuances, as they are in their points of agreement. 

Beyond definition or not in need of one

The most common explanation or objective given by abstract artists is 'to get a response from the observer, that is so primal, so visceral that is either beyond definition or not in need of one'. 
For example, Russian born New York based abstract artist Mark Rothko seldom elaborated upon what his art meant to him. He was more interested in how his art effected the viewer. Given Rothko's deep passion for literature, music and art that explored profound philosophical issues of mortality and existence, he was not seeking to paint anything that was representational in any form. He immersed himself into the power and effect of integrated colour, form and scale. His famous commission for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant, in the Seagrams Building, Manhattan was such an unpleasant process for him that he later revealed that he 'set out to put every last son-of-a-bitch, in that miserable joint, off their dinner'.
He ultimately bought back the collection and donated it to the Tate Gallery in London, where it remains in its own space, as defined by the artist himself. It is one of the most moving and inspiring of his works. 
The colours are sombre. The light is low. the canvases are large and, though not intimidating, they dominate and eclipse all else in one's peripheral vision. Great art has that effect. 

Visual interpretation is the all important objective

From the moment we are born, in order to develop as sentient beings, we are encourage to learn through visual and audible recognition. Touch, taste and smell also come into this, but within the parameters of this article, visual interpretation is the all important objective in the nurturing process. Shapes mean certain things. For a human child, early life is emoji after emoji. Visual short cuts and symbols that hold a certain meaning. Reading evolves out of that. 
Fast forward into a grown up world crammed with imagery and semiotic signalling; Green means WALK. Red says STOP. We read into everything, seeking meaning. It enables and assists us to communicate, and comprehend the world around us. 

 'What do you see, feel when you look at this'?

Early advances and theory in human psychology brought a process called the Rorschach Test. Design to reveal hidden traits and feelings buried deep in our minds. The patient is shown blotches of black ink literally splashed or blotched onto a piece of white paper, which is then folded to create a 'mirrored blotch' of ink. They are then asked 'what do you see, feel when you look at this'. The attending psychologist notes and interprets the patient's response. The Rorschach Test has been discontinued as a reliable method of 'reading our minds'.

Is it a bird, a plane or a dolphin?

However, people do the same with abstract art. Often when observing an abstract painting, the observer will see something they recognise that the artist had no intention or awareness of creating it. 
A bird. A dolphin. A tree. It is our compulsion to 'see things in art'. Even if they are not there. 
In direct contrast, abstract art seeks to break through that literal assumption. Semiotic recognition is neither required nor desired, of the viewer. 
Abstract is pure emotion. Not acknowledgement of the literal or familiar. 
paintings of trees

A beginners pocket guide to viewing abstract art:

  • Understanding and appreciating abstract art is something anybody can do. All you need is an open mind, a sense of acceptance and a little imagination. 
  • A very basic approach to understanding the essence of abstract art is to think of it as a visual opposite of realistic art. While realism pays attention to every tiny fold or wrinkle, abstraction gives the artist the freedom to trust their intuition to create art that is equally worthy of an audience.
Keep in mind that a piece of abstract art doesn't need to have a singular meaning.

What to look for:

  • Consistency within the painting itself as well as the consistency of an artist's portfolio
  • The use of specific elements such as colour, texture, shapes, techniques
  • Does it evoke an emotion
  • Does it hold your attention 
    • Do you sense authenticity in the artist's approach and execution
    ...if so, enjoy it. 
    However, the main rule is that there are no rules. If someone in Brazil can see The Virgin Mary in a slice of toast, forgive yourself for seeing a cat in a blob of paint. Judgement will inhibit your enjoyment and ongoing appreciation of what is probably the most popular forms of visual art.

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