Appreciating abstract art

Composition VII, Kandinsky (1913) - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

On one of my regular gallery visits, I noticed a man staring at a painting and tilting his head from side to side to make sure he was seeing the painting the right way. He then looked at me, smirked, shrugged and moved on to the next piece, as if wishing me luck understanding the painting. 

I admit comprehending abstract art does pose some difficulties to the viewer in appreciating it. The main lament on abstracts is that there is no discernable subject and therefore fails to communicate with the viewer. But this does not mean that abstract art is meaningless doodle, it’s just that one has to move away from the conventional idea of a painting – an image of something or somebody; an imitation of the real world. Understanding the idea behind abstract artworks helps one appreciate a painting for what it actually is – colour, surface, shapes and emotions on canvas.

Everyone can learn to appreciate abstract art if one knows the general objective of abstract art. Let’s start with defining abstract art: Abstract paintings primarily emphasize lines, colours, forms and surfaces in relationship to one another. This means, abstract artists believe that one does not need a definite conventional subject to create art but the colours, lines, geometrical shapes are in themselves the subject.

The general opinion that, there is more to abstract art than meets the eye is true from the perspective of an artist. Every artist’s work is influenced by his immediate surroundings, his experiences and his emotions. The complexity for the artist comes from the fact that he needs to reflect this situation onto the canvas effectively so that the final artwork stirs emotions in the viewer.

On the other hand the viewer is not expected to understand the artist’s intentions. This is practically impossible, unless one talks to the artist (which by the way is true for all kinds of art). The viewer fundamentally needs to stop trying to figure out ‘What’ it is and concentrate on ‘How’ it makes you feel. It is however critical is to switch off the right brain (logic thinking) and let the mind wander; you will see the painting talking to you. It may take sometime but keep staring.

The first abstract art was created by the modern Russian artist, Kandinsky in 1910. The creation of abstract art was accidental. The story goes that Kandinsky returned to his studio one evening and in the twilight he saw his unfinished painting propped up on an easel. From the angle he was standing at, combined with the twilight; he saw an arrangement of bright colour patches, which he thought was extremely beautiful. This realization that colours can bring out emotions irrespective of content was the beginning of Abstract Art.

This was a radical turn of events in Art History. Till then colour was just a medium to portray a subject but with the invention of Abstract art, artists began to use ‘colour’ as the ‘subject’ itself. Theo van Doesburg said ‘his art has no significance other than itself’ and stated that “nothing is more real than a line, a colour, a surface.”

To sum up, do not try to find figurative objects or meanings in abstract art. There maybe none, as the subject is the ‘colourful paint, the crooked line or the triangular shape’ arranged aesthetically to provide viewing pleasure.

Here’s an example of Abstract Art:

RB Murari, 2009, Monsoon Canvas Gallery

The painting is nothing but the glorious and harmonious intermingling of yellow, green and red. The red, yellow and green are the protagonists on a stage of somber brown. The artist has also introduced a measure of rivalry among the colours, at certain parts of the painting the yellow is dominant and at others the red. The layers of paint also bring out the tussle between the colours. This is a good example of how “the colour” is the main and only subject of the painting.

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8 Responses to “Appreciating abstract art”

  1. Carolyn Says:

    I agree with your discussion and think you have a great explanation of this subject. It does take a leap to love abstract art because so many people need to have something concrete to relate to. Even though I have collected abstracts for years and filled my house with them, I have to admit when at a gallery looking at abstract art, I always look at the title of the piece to get a clue as to what meaning the painter may have intended.

  2. Art Lab Says:

    Once I came across a photo of an abstract art piece. I didn’t understand what it was all about. I had shown it to several of my artist friends & asked whether they understood anything about it. I was disappointed when no one could help me. It would be better if artists themselves give a brief description of their works. Sometimes even titles don’t help in understanding art works. Anyway as most art collectors give importance to visual appearance – I found this in my research on art collectors – works that have good interplay of colours & light will be appreciated more than the ones that have good meaning & theme. But will they stand the test of time? Only time can tell.
    Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa

  3. Monica Melgar Says:

    Great explanation. I had never thought of explaining it that way. In addition to the colors, lines and technique, my art’s subject matter is the design itself…which is all that put together.
    Thank you!!!!

  4. John McLaughlin Says:

    Here is my comment to someone not fully understanding one of my paintings/drawings. As a way to percieve abstract art.
    I have three objects on my painting. A cut out picture of an apple from a magazine. A pencil drawing of an apple. A scribbled line made with a pen.
    The only “real” thing in the picture is the scribbled line representing itself–ink

  5. bluerabbit Says:

    A very thoughtful essay.
    Actually, it doesn’t matter what the painter intended. All that matters is whether a particular work, abstract or representational, reaches out and grabs some part of you and shakes until it refreshes or “resets” your perception.

  6. Atreides Says:

    I dare to disagree with the notion that this explains or even justifies appreciation of most of what passes for abstract art.
    Art history is replete with an effort to do “something new” and in that process to distill art to where there is less skill and effort required in order to produce the same effect.
    A sunset painstakingly rendered accurately requires much more time, effort and talent than an impressionist version which in terms requires less that an abstract version….
    Some criterion must be used to validate that this ever more laconic approach can be justifiably called art.
    E.g. If the same painter were able to paint the three versions of the aforementioned sunset and evoke with each one the same effect (which means he would have had to intend an effect) then I can see paying for this work as if it were art.
    Otherwise I would only see it as someone’s personal attempt at creativity, meaningless and valueless to others.

    • Thomas Chacko Says:

      I think it is a matter of taste. Some people prefer figurative works the subject is obvious, others like the flexibility that abstract art provides to appreciate it for the form, composition and colours.

      An abstract artist would spend the same amount of time perfecting the painting like any other representational artist / figurative artist. Infact it may even be easier to reach out to the public with artwork that is quite obvious than with abstract art. The abstract artist therefore needs to be highly skilled to be able to reach out and touch the viewers heart.

  7. How to describe a painting « Understanding Paintings Says:

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