Responding To Abstract Art

Many art lovers of today say that they only respond to abstract art and yet others prefer to appreciate the obvious skill and technical prowess that realism conveys.

You may have heard or been involved in conversations about all things abstract and even the word itself has many definitions . Many people find the whole domain of abstract art convoluted, misleading and even at times a superficial, deceptive and even bogus. (“my grandchild could do that”, if I had a dollar…..)

If we take a very simplified, concise view back through modern art history, the gradual path to where abstract art is at today becomes more evident and self-explanatory.

Representation Art (Realism)

Until the late 1800s, almost all western art was intended as a representation of a real subject, styles, themes and techniques slowly evolving. Religion played the largest part in defining the subjects and funding the ateliers historically. Depicting non-religious or mythical characters, allegory(metaphor) has been used widely throughout history in all forms of art, mainly because it can readily illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.

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.


The name for this radically new movement first came from an insult to Claude Monet, during one of the group's first exhibitions, questioning the skill level as only capable of a mere “impression” of a sunrise. The artists clearly loved the label and it stuck. Impressionism is recognised as one of the first movements away from pure realism. Artists like Monet, Renior, Degas, and Seurat concentrated on the importance of the artist’s way of seeing colour and light, moving away from a strictly representational depiction of a subject.


Finding it’s roots in Germany in around 1919, with artists from various countries including Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee began infusing their paintings with explicit moods and emotions. The goal of painting became to depict the raw mind-set of the artist at the time of painting a scene, sometimes completely separated from reality. There was an emphasis on spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creation.

This term, which had first been used in the early 1900s in Berlin, was used again in the 1940s, with the American surge of expressionism. The common definition of expressionism implies to the use of abstract art to express feelings, emotions, what is within the artist, and not that which stands without. Rather than a single style, it was a climate that affected not only the fine arts but also dance, cinema, literature and the theatre from the early part of the century and across many continents.

Post-Impressionism & Cubism

Post-Impressionist painters eg. Paul Cezanne took the ideas of his Impressionist colleagues a little further toward abstraction, by distorting the colors and shapes to show their own perception of they workd around them.

As the 20th century progressed, the inclusion of the artist’s perspective and alternative ways of seeing led to other movements such as Cubism( founded by Pablo Picasso) .  A cubist painting does not represent an object or person at only one angle, but as as series of planes, combined into a single view, a consistently moving whole. 


(1920-30 )As artists continued to develop different means of perception and portrayal  in representation, further movements sprung up throughout the early to middle of the 20th century. Surrealism was an important movement in modern art.  Both a literary and visual art movement, it was dedicated to expressing the imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and convention(the hyper-real). Surrealism inherited its anti-rationalist sensibility from Dada (1915-22), but was lighter in spirit than that movement.(which was confronting the carnage of World War One, and their irreverence was later to influence Pop art)

Abstract Expressionism

Later on in the 20th century, art was evolving and transforming rapidly. Now artists were considering the paint itself as their subject (eg.Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, Marc Rothko). Think “action painting”,  colour fields, etc. At times bordering on performance art, the canvas was meant to be simply the final result of an artist’s specific interaction with their materials

Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, & 21st Century Pluralism

Many art movements have followed on from abstract expressionis. Minimalism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and Performance Art brought in new themes such as consumerism and politics 

Which brings us to the art world today where there are artists working in approaches that take from all or any of the above movements, a state of pluralism.


You could ask yourself “what am I looking at?”, but in the case of abstract art, that could be a rhetoriocal question! People often ask me at the gallery stockrooms…”What is this piece about”.

Sometimes I can share with them the throughts and intentions of the artist but mostly I ask the viewer to answer the same question, “what is it about for you”, because that is all that matters in

the end.

 “What is the artist’s message if any? “

Does the painting portray some kind of feeling or mood for you?

What does it inspire you to think about?…the shapes…the colours…any other elements that grab

your interest

You dont need to feel like you’re trying to solve a mystery that has only one correct answer! A

work of art can be felt and interpreted in many ways, not all need to be in keeping with the

artist’s original vision, after all, the viewer has a unique perspective which is not right or wrong

just different or similar.

One of the fascinating advantages of owning abstract art is that it it can mean something to you that no one else sees.

In your home or work space, you buy furntiure to be physical comfortable and to build an aesthetic.

The art works that you choose for your spaces are more about your mental comfort, so it is worth

choosing piece that do give you a response that you enjoy, a feeling that you are comfortable with

  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 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!

 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!

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