Abstraction ranges from the meaningless abuse of paint to the most lofty and exciting of surfaces. Each effort can be a creative event — a vehicle for the mysteries of the subconscious mind and an opportunity to flirt with pure forms, symbols and metaphors. It’s an art of hiding and disclosing. More than simply playing with the materials, abstraction is a discovery of motifs that happen to be part of a painter’s personal legend. Personality counts.
Abstraction also holds the promise of dreams, fears, fetishes, fancies, intangibles and wills.
The wilful artist marches to his own drummer. As in the composing of music, in pure and practical terms, the resulting work will be the painter’s own composition.
Perhaps one of the best understandings came from Marc Chagall: “Abstraction is something which comes to life spontaneously through a gamut of contrasts, plastic as well as psychic, and pervades both the picture and the eye of the spectator with conceptions of new and unfamiliar elements.”
Abstract art has the power to show us something we may not have seen before. It implies both thought and no thought. Thriving on unconventional tools and a unique sort of energy, it’s also a collaboration of mind and spirit. As a form of wizardry and magic, an abstract may speak both to you and for you. More than anything, abstract art can be a conversation piece.
“Abstraction is an esoteric language,” said Eric Fischl. It is a language unique to the individual artist. In a way, it can be more unique than the similarly legitimate language of realistic work because no matter how realists pull Nature’s reality this way and that, they still have Nature’s reality, however nuanced. The more modern idea, however it may be seen by some as flawed, is to be the inventor, creator and patent holder of your own Nature.
Painter and art instructor David Leffel regularly asks his students a simple but profound question: “How do abstract artists know when they’re getting better?” The answer lies in whether the artist is able to express will. Artists without the ability to express will will never know.
PS: “Abstract art requires something of the viewer. It demands contemplation. Study. Flights of fancy. Feeling.” (Svante Rydberg)
Esoterica: An overview of some of the central ideas of abstraction (and realism with abstract qualities) can be found in The Creative Edge by Mary Todd Beam. This North Light book presents a series of acrylic and watercolour exercises exploring processes, tools and the kind of creative techniques that are simply fun to do. Chapters include the uses of symbolism, tactility, Nature and the soul. Mary’s book is filled with play. Serious artists will gain from it.
Sure to get a reaction
by Angel F. Matamoros, WA, USA
The quality of abstract art that I find the most powerful is how it involves the viewer. It’s almost impossible to view abstract art passively. As beautiful and awe-inspiring as great realistic work can be, it has a hard time equaling the interactive experience of the abstract piece. Whether the impression is awe or disgust, a great abstract painting is sure to get a reaction.
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Art for square heads?
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada
I have avoided abstract art because I don’t seem to get inspired to do it. I don’t exactly know how to start. I once painted a piece that consisted of squares and circles that were interconnected in red, blue and yellow. I actually did it because my husband kept saying that Germans are square heads who are mechanically inclined and sometimes unbending in their convictions. I considered other people like myself more adaptable to any situation without giving up my convictions. Could that be abstraction?
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Looking in abstract terms
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
Everything can be looked at in abstract and symbolic terms. The more I draw and paint, the more I am aware of my desire to do this kind of “relative” thinking. I like to look at physical items in terms of color, tone and form. This is abstract thinking. And when it comes to color, tone and form, my mind looks for recognizable shapes. Just like the famous Rorschach Ink-blot test, my mind always looks for forms it can recognize in anything abstract. I cannot stop this process. It is the way my mind works. Colors create feelings in me. They resonate with emotions. But colors in form go further and my mind instantly looks for connections with recognizable physical forms. In my art I have sort of created an interplay with the way my mind likes to work naturally.
Let the process guide you
by Cindy Frostad, West Vancouver, BC, Canada
Thinking in the abstract creates a certain sense of isolation. However, doing something in the abstract has brought me a sense of belonging and a certain peace. Abstract art appeared as a collaboration of mind and spirit very early on in my art making. At first, I did not control it. It led me. I let it. It came out abstract naturally. Tendencies and similarities emerged. When I started paying attention to my thought processes, I realized these abstract works were not just coincidences. I was having intellectual discussions, something my soul craved, on canvas. This discovery came with impact and release. Thinking and painting in the abstract is my spirit’s place and way of communicating. The freedom of working in the abstract goes so far beyond limits that, for me the possibilities are incontrovertibly infinite. If abstraction is the essence of expression of the creative individual, surely it exists in each of us. I concur with Eric Fischl: “Be the holder of your own Nature. It is a joyful responsibility.”
A personal response
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada
The abstract artist lays open their soul on canvas, and if they’re good enough, opens a door into that of the viewer’s as well. The beauty of abstraction is that its meaning is so very personal. The artist’s cold black vista may be the viewer’s warm enveloping cocoon. Abstraction has the ability to uncover an emotional response from viewers so that two people standing side by side see completely different things.
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The scene within the artist
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
People either love abstract art, don’t understand abstract art ( “I could do that, why pay money for it?”), or they dismiss it as total rubbish. I have seen some works that should have been thrown under the bus. Abstract art comes from within the artist. Not having a subject matter in front of them means that the artist must pull from a hidden form to bring forth what their heart is trying to convey. Abstract artists tell their stories with shapes, color, edges, movement, and value — just like when one is painting a beautiful scene. The difference is, of course, there is no scene. The scene is within the artist. I often get asked, “How do I know when I am done?” You are done when the story is told.
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Oh, what joy!
by Carol Beth Icard, Landrum, SC, USA
My need to express myself through color, line and form is made easier when I allow myself to get out of the way of judging, and let spontaneity lead me. I hold the brushes. I choose the initial colors, but I let each passage direct an ensuing exploration. At times I paint over and over and over until I feel inside that what appears satisfies some deeper part of me. Then, oh, what joy!
The expansion of ideas
by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA
Indeed. I just wrote this thought in my journal this morning: “I am so over the struggle for money; I press on, but it’s a drag. I am still into my art and music (playing and listening) ; I am still happiest doing those things; I can ride along the melody line, the guitar riffs, the singers voice, and that gives me a sense of freedom — inner freedom; In painting, I do the same, riding the paint, the lines, the sweeping motions, the expansion of ideas into abstraction, without boundaries — freedom. I listen to Peter Green’s Albatross or Supernatural, or Bill Frisell on his jazz interpretations, like Baba Drame, and that’s all it takes — I am on my way.”
by Claudia Marie Person, Sacramento, CA, USA
This may be an odd question, but just what is meant by “plastic” in reference to art works and materials? What word was used in the arts for this quality prior to the existence of the word “plastic”? (Which I am assuming came into existence when plastic itself was first made.)
(RG note) Thanks, Claudia. The word “plastic” used to bother me too, but it was around long before the stuff they make kids toys out of. In our case it means those visual arts that use materials that can be molded, modulated or pushed around in some way, like paint, clay and plaster.
Take time to look
by Dennis Marshall, Paterson, NJ, USA
Contrary to what I was told I find that abstract art is far from “child’s play.” A well executed abstract painting has a deep sense of wonder contained within. As well, a really good abstract painting has ambiguity. I can always go back and with each viewing find something new. I found those qualities while viewing the exhibition of paintings by Sean Scully at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His exhibition, Wall of Light, was very moving experience for me. What some people do not understand is that when viewing an exhibition of abstract art they need to take time for the paintings to reveal themselves.
Painting abstracts draws upon all of my skills in design and past painting experiences. When I was an undergraduate in college the class went to the Whitney Museum. Our professor stood before a Rothko mesmerized. While some of the students snickered at her behind her back I knew that there was a reason why, although at that time I could not understand it. Over the years I have come to understand why this professor, who is herself a superb abstract painter, stood before that Rothko deeply engaged. If anyone thinks that painting an abstract is about slopping paint on a canvas, they are in my opinion mistaken and misinformed. To paint an abstract is to go beyond where you have been. An artist can really get lost in painting abstracts. Painting this way challenges you differently than realistic painting. Painting in a realistic style there are always reference points to guide you. An artist can refer to the still life set-up, the model, the landscape or a sketch, but where, when painting an abstract, are those reference points?
Searching for the essence
by Vivian Kapusta, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
My work is generally realistic and often incorporates landscapes. After ‘chasing the sun’ from east to west across Canada, I found images of the sun’s energy sitting in the back of my mind. An abstract idea requires an abstract work. I wanted to illustrate energy & fire exploding in darkness. I work in fabric. I did it as a sketch and as a small project. The final project is 33 x 30 inches. Each of the three steps took the idea further. The method uses two layers of fabric, sewn together in curved and horizontal lines. I then cut out sections. I am fascinated with the shift that happens when the logic portion of the mind is taken over by the intuitive areas of the mind. I’m not sure how long the cutting took; I worked across the fabric making decisions based on how the colour shift affected the next part. When I was finished, it was done! I was satisfied with the effect and didn’t go back in to cut again. I felt as if my intuitive mind knew more about the creative process than my logic mind. Abstraction to me? Searching for the essence!
Rejecting universal symbols
by Rick Rogers, St. Albert, AB, Canada
Personally, I enjoy trying to express my own will in abstract art. I particularly enjoy when a viewer is able to identify the feeling or concept that I am trying to express. So, I guess regarding my own art, I’d agree with your answer to David Leffel’s question.
However, there are many times when I really enjoy the work of an abstract artist, but my interpretation of that work is not consistent with the artist’s intention. Yet I can still believe that their work is improving in terms of expression. So, I’d suggest that because this kind of expression is so personal, it is unreasonable to measure improvement based solely on how clearly the artist’s will is expressed to others. An artist’s point of view may be “accurately” interpreted by only a small segment of the population for cultural, educational, familial, genetic, or occupational reasons, but still resonate with a much larger segment. I’d say that a focus on expressing will in abstract art might push artists to consciously leverage many of the same archetypes, symbols, colour associations, and so on. In the end we would more easily be able to interpret abstract art, at the expense of the work being less interesting.
by Elsa Bluethner, Sunshine Hills, BC, Canada
Skill is required to do a good abstract painting. Splashing paint around, using tooth brushes, combs, rakes, straws, plastic bags, tin foil, salt, is an unskilled way of obtaining results and a complicated way of obtaining the same. Abstract paintings that employ these methods remind me of a Debbie Travis wall. I’m not knocking the decorative art thing, but I fail to see how “deep and meaningful” these processes are. Abstract art can and does convey powerful messages if thought out. Expecting the painting to lead you to a message seems a bit contrived. If an artist truly has something to say, then SAY IT! Splash paint around, but know where you are going with it. If the abstract artist’s purpose is to make an interesting eye catching piece with graphic soundness, gradations, opaques, solids to rest the eye and all of that, then please don’t put some profound title to the work. Call it Experiment #61927-12A because that’s really all it is.
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Reignat, From a Ballon, Early
oil painting. 30 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Nancy Pruden of Houston, TX, USA, who wrote, “I am trying to get mystery through simplification of shapes. Am I on the right track?”
And also Linda Murray who wrote, “Abstract art stems from the language of feeling rather than words. It comes from the deeper self, the soul, the source. If done well the viewer will recognize the language and respond to it on that deeper level.”
And also Peter Berger who wrote, “I agree with Al Capp for the most part, especially in current times. ‘Abstract art:is a product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.’ ”
And also oliver of TX, USA, who wrote, “Abstraction is an excuse to play with the tools and is the bridge between reality and chaos.”
(RG note) Thanks, oliver. Almost all of the quotable zingers like yours are permanently entered into our Resource of Art Quotations. It’s the largest collection of art quotes anywhere.
And also Katherine Chang Liu who wrote, “One of the best books on Abstraction besides Mary’s book is Pictures of Nothing: Six Lectures by Kirk Varnedoe.”
And also John Burk of Timonium, MD, USA, who wrote, “This is the first clear and intelligent assessment of what an abstraction is that I’ve ever read. I still wouldn’t know how to begin one of my own, except to do as Turner did: start with a topic and a title then paint it so it’s barely recognizable.”
And also John Nolan submitted a quote by Wassily Kandinsky: “Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”
And also Sherry Glanville of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “I am mainly interested in the process, particularly with the elements of color and texture. I often ask myself, ‘Is this something?'”
And also James Fancher of MI, USA, who wrote, “Do you know of any galleries that actually like crazy people? I mean, really. You know? I guess it’s my fault for always introducing myself whilst completely blotto. Where did I put those mushrooms anyhow?”
Enjoy the past comments below for The elements of abstraction…