How to Understand Abstract Art: the Opportunity of Ambiguity

We’ve all heard it before: “That looks like something my six-year-old could have painted.” If you hear (or utter) such a statement, chances are that you’re in a modern or contemporary art museum or gallery of some sort, and the painting being referenced is almost certainly a piece of abstract art

And while the hypothetical amateur critic in question is almost certainly wrong—abstract art tends to demand high levels of both technical skills and conceptual thinking—you can’t really blame them for having such an opinion.

Abstract art is inherently challenging for the viewer. It places a great deal of burden on the audience to do more than merely look and see—abstract art urges you to feel, and interpreting one’s feelings (and thereby the abstract art that elicited said feelings) can be difficult, painful, or even frightening. 

So let’s take a look at a few strategies that will assist in your understanding of an abstract art piece. But before we do so, it might be helpful to know a little bit about where abstract art came from.

A Brief History of Abstract Art

We tend to think of abstract art as a rather new occurrence, but in fact humans have been using random lines, shapes, colors, and patterns for as long as we’ve been creating art—geometric cave paintings, the Nazca Lines of Peru, 7th century Chinese splash painting, and in pottery and textiles from ancient cultures spanning the globe. 

Then in the 19th century, we began to see the early forbearers of abstract art as we know it in the Romantic, Impressionist, and Expressionist works of Turner, Corot, Gauguin, van Gogh, Seurat, Munch and so on. Rather than aiming to achieve realism, these painters were more interested in capturing subjective impressions of the outside world and intangible psychological states, and in experimenting with color and form. 

In the early 20th century, the Cubist, Fauvist, Dada, and Bauhaus movements began creating what is more recognizable as modern abstract art. The timing of this can be attributed to the rise of industrialism (which had increasingly separated humans from nature and fractured social relations), the invention of photography (why paint realistically if a photo can capture a real scene perfectly?), and as a reaction to the horrors of the First World War. Paul Klee, for example, turned to abstract painting out of a rejection of the material world following his nightmarish service for the German military.

"Insula Dulcamara" by Paul Klee, 1938

These early adopters of abstraction were largely invested in portraying intangible things that were invisible yet nevertheless “real” such as emotions, music, and ideas. Others still, like Hilma Klint, where trying to capture spiritual and mystical conceptions, as well as newly discovered energy fields like X-rays and light spectrums. 

Then as the Second World War loomed, a wave of artists escaped Europe and headed for the United States—New York in particular—where their ideas were coalesced into Abstract expressionism. For all practical purposes, this marked the official beginning of abstract art as we understand it (or don’t understand it) today. 

Reading Abstract Art

So now the question is, how do you understand it? 

Perhaps this is best explained by abstract pioneer Wassily Kandinsky. What the painting is of doesn’t really matter. More important is "what the spectator lives or feels while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture."

In other words, it’s kind of up to you. 

"Yellow-Red-Blue" by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925

If that seems overly ambiguous, I understand. It is. In fact, abstract art is by its very nature overly ambiguous. With that in mind, here are a few concrete things you can do to jangle meaning out of a challenging piece:

Consider color choices

Colors tend to evoke particular emotions, and painters know this. Red, for example, often connotes anger, violence, or lust. Green, on the other hand, brings to mind peace, nature, or vitality. Examine the artist’s color choices and how they make you feel. 

Consider the forms

Similar to color, specific forms can inspire specific impressions. Jagged, slashing lines portend violence and chaos. Boxes can represent order, stability, or control. Circles imply completeness or harmony. Triangles or pyramids are often associated with power or direction. Look at the various forms and shapes and try to interpret their potential meaning.

Consider your first impression

When it comes to abstract art, oftentimes your first impression will be the right one. Does a piece make you angry the moment you see it? Does it make you happy? Or even want to laugh? More likely than not, your initial feeling is the right one. 

Read the supplemental material (or not)

Most museums or galleries include some kind of explanation for each piece, whether it’s in a pamphlet that you pick up upon entry or on a placard alongside the piece. These will often explain very clearly what the piece is about, so this might be your best bet. Or ignore these explanations altogether and draw your own conclusions. Either way is right. 

Remember that there might be no intended meaning at all

Oftentimes an abstract artist will create a piece that is completely devoid of intended meaning. Instead, their goal is for you to project your own meaning onto the work, like with an inkblot test. So once again, rather than getting all wrapped up in what it means, pay attention to how it makes you feel.

If you can’t draw any conclusions about a piece, consider giving it another chance later. More than with any other school of art, the meaning of an abstract piece will change with the viewer’s mood, age, education level, and a million other subjective qualifications. Maybe you see Jackson Pollock's No. 5 on an empty stomach one day and it makes you feel angry and riled. You check it out again a few months later having just eaten, and its swirling collage of color seems more calming than chaotic. 

"No. 5" by Jackson Pollock, 1948

Both impressions are valid. Does that seem like a cop-out? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Maybe the point isn’t for us as viewers to agree on a meaning, but rather to get us talking. 

Nothing inspires discussion and debate like a lack of clarity, and few things present the opportunity for ambiguity like abstraction.


Article written by Nick Hilden

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