“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 colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”
It’s a bewildering time for the art viewer. Abstract art is a mystery, certainly, but it can also be an electrifying experience. When you see paint that is boldly applied to a canvas with confidence and authority, by the likes of Joan Mitchell or Jackson Pollock, it doesn’t matter that you don’t ‘understand’ what it means. In fact, what it means fades into the background because the work speaks. It sings out and touches you personally. It may not do the same for your partner or best friend. But that is the beauty of art. It is your own personal relationship with a work of art that is what matters; it is an intimate and private affair.
Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker art critic, said, “Painting today is not dead but it has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.” This is the difficulty. We are over-populated with art because, well, there is over-population. So many people. So much art. So much money for art. Recently, at Christies, Barnett Newman’s abstract painting, Black Fire I, sold for $84.2 million, while Mark Rothko’s Untitled fetched $66.2 million. Andy Warhol’s Race Riot went for $62.8 million and Monet’s water lilies painting, Nympheas, for $27 million. Picasso’s Le Sauvetage, sold for $31.5 million. The art market has moved far beyond borders and become global. Asian countries are now dominant players, particularly in contemporary art sales.
Those are only a few examples of the prices being paid for abstract art these days. So what do we make of all this? Not much. The realm of the art market is quite different from the inner world of the art observer. A world inhabited by those of us who gravitate to paintings and sculpture because we gather much joy in absorbing art. We have an emotional response to the work that often we can’t explain. And it doesn’t need explaining. What one is drawn to in art is often inexplicable, sometimes complex, and deeply personal. Our love for a work of art is an intimate affair, which is why we long to own the work so we can live with it- touch it, move it around, and have it as our own. When the work is abstract, there are endless reasons for our attraction.
Abstract art is an abstraction. It does not represent anything. It is nonobjective. Instead of depicting what we recognize in the world of objects, people and nature, abstract art is concerned with color, line, form, and texture. It is not reality-based but emotionally-based. It is expressive and gestural. When an artist paints or sculpts, they are driven to express what they see and feel. And because no two artists see or feel in the same way, we have a broad spectrum of presentation. Couple that with the viewer and alchemy takes place. The emotion in the art synergizes with the evoked emotion of the viewer and voilá, you love the work, hate it, or remain cold. When viewing the work, you may feel dreamy, or hyper tense, float with a buttery pattern, or grow dizzy in a geometric structure. Clean lines, drips, swathes of color, loaded canvases, arched steel, holes in stone, towering monoliths of brass or tiny boxes painted in colored grids; the range of abstraction is infinite.
Picasso said, “There is no abstract art. One always has to begin with something. One can then remove all appearance of reality; one runs no risk, for the idea of the object has left an ineffaceable imprint. It is the thing that aroused the artist, stimulated his ideas, stirred his emotions.”
How can we possibly know the heartbeat of the painter, the angle of their body when they work, the tension they feel, the anxiety in their actions, the months it took to make that particular piece of art? Everything goes into a painting. Every thought, emotion and experience is in that stone, carved out of the sweat of the sculptor for us to see and touch.
It is not easy to paint abstractly. It takes years of learning the craft before an artist can let go of the “real” world and be free enough to allow their whole self to enter that canvas and paint what is inside of them. The arc of steel or the hole in the stone isn’t necessarily about anything we know in the world, but it is certainly inside that sculptor. It is their expression in material form. Heart and soul, anxiety and love- it’s all there.
The range of abstraction in art is wide. From the impressionists giving impressions of things, such as Cezanne and Van Gogh; to the Fauvre painters, like Matisse, those “wild beasts” with their radical use of color (so unrealistic!); to Picasso and cubism that saw the world from many different view points; to abstract expressionism with the action paintings of Jackson Pollack and the color field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko – all these so-called movements were breaking the rules of what came before. But really, at the root, they are the dance of the artist with his or her medium. Picasso said that when cubism was invented, the participating artists had no intention of inventing cubism. “We were simply expressing what was within us.”
Whether it be canvas, felt, stone or steel; whether oil paint or water, ochre or red, big or small, encaustic or monoprint, bronze or wood, etching or gold leaf; the artist finds and manipulates the materials to express his or her self, to find their own language.
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”
That about sums up a work of art as well. Any art, be it abstract or representational: it is all about the being behind the brush, the soul behind the steel. And the only way to get to the crux of it is for us to spend time, alone, taking it in, absorbing it emotionally to get to the truth of what went into it. And don’t even try to name it.