Your Guide To Reading and Understanding Abstract Art

Understanding the different ways to approach, read, and criticize art is important when attempting to understand abstraction.

understanding abstract art

Have you ever stood in front of a painting, daunted by its visual power and yet absolutely bewildered with regards to 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 are just in the right place!

understanding abstract art
Knight, Monika Gloviczki

We are discussing abstract art – not only how to understand what it is but also how to really read it and comprehend the artist’s intention. From appreciating the art form for the freedom it inspires to making individual visual connections, we’re attempting to navigate every step towards understanding abstraction.

Where To Begin?

Reading and 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

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 his 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 his or her intuition to create art that is equally worthy of an audience.

understanding abstract art
Couple 4, Hanneke Kempers

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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, in the case of the world of abstract art it is not going to come in handy at all.

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 primarily focuses on providing its viewers with an intangible and emotional experience – more often than not, completely different for every individual depending on their personality and state of mind. Therefore, it is really up to the viewer himself to decide whether the painting in front of him has any meaning or provokes any emotion. Like we said, abstract art is all about freedom.

understanding abstract art
Primordial Chromatic Trail, Malvisi

How To Look At Abstract Art

But, 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 the passing?

Understanding the different ways to approach, read 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 obviously 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 is it that is making 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 the meaning. However, that does not mean you completely ignore the title. Sometimes, these 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? Like 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 affirmative statements. Think about how the painting makes you feel and what kind of emotions does it convey. 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.


Are you ready to practice? Take a look at these beautiful works of abstract art by our artists from ARTmine –

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Whether you are looking to decorate an entire home, complete a room, or add vitality and professional credibility to an office space you will find the perfect piece on ARTmine. Need help? Contact us at


  • I really am a fan of this type of painting, I really like what transmits color, I am faithful follower of Spanish painters like Gabino Amaya Cacho, Abrahan Lacalle, because they transmit life, they should follow them, they are Spanish. Ah Gabino is creator of his own technique Abstract Puntillismo

  • We would be interested in posting an interview with established artist from our gallery in Manhettan.
    How can we do it? Here is the link to the gallery
    Thanks for response.

    • Hi Antony! The interviews posted on this blog are only with the artists represented by Agora Gallery.

    this is really great,unique and very informative post, i like it. thanks

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