Your Guide to Understanding Abstract Art

Get inspired to form your own visual connections and interpretations of abstract art.

Have you ever stood in front of a painting, taken by its visual power and yet absolutely bewildered by its meaning? Is it a giant snowy mountain shining brightly under the sunlight, or is it an intimidating volcano bursting through the sky? Is it even supposed to be anything? If questions like these have ever crossed your mind while viewing a work, you’re in the right place.

Tempting Destiny by Katja Yoon

What is abstract art? Here, we discuss how to understand it and comprehend the artist’s intention. By appreciating the art form for the freedom it inspires in making individual visual connections, we’re attempting to navigate every step toward understanding abstraction.

Let’s Begin…

Understanding abstract art is fairly easy – all you need is an open mind and a wandering imagination. The first step is to prepare yourself to look beyond the things you already know or recognize.

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes… Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.”
– Arshile Gorky

Wave by Amber Warren

Abstraction finds its roots in ‘intuition’ (of the artist) and ‘freedom’ (for the artist as well as for the viewer). It is the capability of the artist to use their imagination to look beyond what we can physically see and translate intangible emotions onto the canvas. It is also the ability of the audience to then try to connect to the artist’s intention and free their own mind of visual restrictions. Historically, the abstract art movement emerged in the nineteenth century as a reaction to academic painting or realism. In fact, a very simple way to understand 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.

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There is No Code to Crack

As human beings, solving problems comes naturally to us. While this can be quite useful in most situations, it isn’t so in the case of abstract art.

Insolation by Henrik Sjöström

The most important thing to understand about abstract art is that it does NOT have to have a meaning, narrative or even a singular explanation.

The main purpose of abstraction is not to tell a story, but to encourage involvement and imagination. This art form is mostly about providing its viewers with an intangible and emotional experience – more often than not, the experience is completely different for every individual depending on their personality and state of mind.

Therefore, it is really up to the viewer to decide whether the painting in front of them has any meaning or provokes any emotion. As we mentioned, abstract art is all about freedom.

How to Look at Abstract Art

So, how do you actually look at it and understand it? Do you stand in front of it and try to find familiar figures or do you just glance at it in passing?

Euphoria by Carol Carpenter
Under the Sea by Susan Marx

Realizing that there are different ways to approach and criticize art is important when attempting to understand abstraction. It is easy to appreciate a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt, as the mastery of technique is visible. However, in order to appreciate abstraction, our focus should not be on how realistically the artist has painted something or someone but rather on how successful a piece is in evoking emotion.

Abstract paintings can also be appreciated in terms of the individual elements of art: color, shape, line, texture, space, value, etc. An abstract artist’s skills lie in his or her ability to use colors and textures to their best visual strength and to create a sound composition from these elements.

Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind:

Don’t look at the clock. There is no need to stand in front of an abstract work for hours to really understand it. Look at it for as long as you want, and for as long as it pulls you in.

Don’t talk about your five-year-old. We all know art is subjective, and sometimes there are pieces that we just can’t connect to, especially when it comes to abstract art. Nonetheless, your five-year-old can still not do that.

Don’t insult the artist’s imagination. Instead, if you really can’t seem to like a work, think about what it is that makes you feel that way.

Don’t mind the title. More often than not, abstract paintings will have an extremely vague title, like Number 4 or Black and Red. Don’t let that bother you. Most artists purposely don’t use giveaway titles because they want you to interact with the art and eventually find your own meaning. On the other hand, you don’t have to completely ignore the title; sometimes, they can be very helpful in guiding your imagination.

Do read the wall text. Speaking of guides, always read the wall text. It can give you valuable information on the artist’s background or artistic intention.

Do let the painting reach out to you. Free your mind of any other thoughts, give it a little time and simply let the painting convey its intended emotion to you. Observe the colors and textures. What do they make you feel? Jackson Pollock said, “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you.” Let the painting ask the questions instead of the other way around.

Don’t stress about feeling something. It is not necessary for an abstract painting to have a contextual side to it, and it is not necessary for you to be able to feel each and every emotion it is meant to convey. If it doesn’t do anything for you, so be it.

Don’t ask all of the questions just yet. Thinking too much about what the painting means can be disturbing or tiring. Instead, focus on how the painting makes you feel and what kind of emotions it conveys to you. Think about how the artist’s background or situation may have affected his painting. Try to work with the things you know, instead of questioning everything.

Do remember that abstraction does not have to have a meaning. While “getting” an artwork brings a momentary feeling of victory, bathing in its mystery brings enjoyment for far longer.

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