Understanding Abstract Art

What is abstract art and how do you understand it? Abstract art runs a continuum from totally abstract to representational (you can tell what things are, but they are not “naturalistic”), and it has been the most common art form throughout history. To people who are used to looking at naturalistic art, abstract art may seem hard to understand. However, this need not be the case. One way to think of it is like looking at a pleasing pattern in a carpet or glaze on a vase. In some cultures, art focuses on creating pattern – such as Islamic culture, which prohibited representations of the human form in religious art. For this reason, Islamic artists created stunning designs for things like architecture, calligraphy, ceramics – everything. The patterns in Islamic art were so numerous that the French coined a word for it: they called them “arabesques.”

Islamic Arabesques


Some people, especially non-art specialists – or where I teach, non-art majors – like to say that art is whatever you think it is. That’s ok if it helps you appreciate the piece, but there is a sense in which that is not totally accurate. You might look at an abstract painting of a man’s face and say, “Oh, look, down in the lower right corner -- that little squiggle of pigment looks like a bear.” That may be what you see, but that may not be what that painting is about. For example, Kandinsky started painting some of the first totally abstract paintings of the 20th century. If somebody walked into his studio and said, “Oh, that looks like an elephant up there,” Kandinsky would go over and paint it out. He did not want his paintings to resemble anything in the natural world. So, you can say art is whatever you think it is and that’s ok if that helps you to appreciate abstract art, but it is possible to go beyond that in your appreciation of art.

Altarbild Improvisation 9

Hilma Klimt Wassily Kandinsky


Also, the artist may have some intention of communicating something. Intention can be problematic. Previously I have said that a work is successful if it communicates what the artist intended, but a work can be successful without that, too. One thing I try to be open to as an artist are serendipitous occurrences while I’m making an artwork. These are things that happen that may or may not have anything to do with my intentions, but they are chance happenings that make the piece better. By that I mean that they balanced the composition in some way or they introduced a new element into the artwork and I try to be open to that when I’m working. You can argue that being open to those chance occurrences is part of the intention of the artist. That in a way might be a good definition of how an artwork is made.


For example, when I did After the Monsoons (right, collection of the Greenville, NC Museum of Art), I started out by painting the entire canvas a salmon color. Then I added some dark grey strokes. I decided to try scraping the whole thing with a palette knife. After I did that, I stepped back, looked at it, and realized it was done.


I have sometimes told my students in the past that when they feel like they are beginning to get close to the end of a painting, they need to start stepping back from the painting and looking at it more and more frequently. This is because very often a painting will complete itself before you thought it was going to. I’ve had students laugh at me when I’ve said that and say, “Yeah, right, a painting is not going to complete itself,” but they misunderstood what I was saying. When you’re making a painting it’s like you’re having a dialogue with it. You put a color on the canvas, stand back and look at it, and wait to see what the painting calls for next. Ideally you keep doing this until the painting completes itself. The conversation is complete.


"Very often a painting will complete itself before you thought it was going to." -- Breck Smith


"It's all in the release." Peter Agostini


Completed conversations are similar to something that my old teacher, Peter Agostini, used to talk about when he said somewhat mysteriously, “It’s all in the release.” Of course, he was talking about how you release the paint off the brush onto the canvas or how you release the clay onto the sculpture, but he was also talking about how and when you release the artwork into the world. The artwork is ready when it says it’s ready. It is unfortunately a too common occurrence for a young painter to be so intent on putting that last little detail into the painting that they thought at the outset was essential to the painting’s completion that they will totally miss the fact that the painting was actually finished about 20 minutes before that.

I think people often believe that abstract art is exotic or scary and that it is very new. The opposite is actually the case. For most cultures, even Western, the dominant art form has been abstract. If you look at Western culture, some of the prehistoric cave paintings of animals (radiocarbon dated at 30,000 years BC) are fairly naturalistic. And then you don’t get to naturalism again until you get to the Amarna period in Egyptian art, which only lasted about 10 years. (The Amarna period occurred from 1346 to 1336 BC). After this art began to get somewhat naturalistic, but it didn’t begin to get as naturalistic as we are used to now until you get to 5th century BC Greek art. Think of things like the statue of Venus and the statues of the human form that decorated temples. It remained naturalistic through the 3rd or 4th century AD under the Romans. After that it began to get somewhat abstract again and it stayed that way during the Medieval period (5th to late 15th century AD) until the Gothic period (12th to 16th century AD), when sculpture began to get more naturalistic. Painting became more naturalistic in the 15th century AD in Italy and Northern Europe. That ushered in the Renaissance, and so art was more naturalistic from the Renaissance through the late 19th cent. Hence, the dominant art form in Western art was naturalism for 500 years after the start of the Renaissance, but in the last century abstract art has again come to predominate. Andre Malraux, the French Minister of Culture under DeGaulle, computed the relative time for both Western and non-Western art. When you look at time when naturalistic vs. abstract has been the dominant form, the period of time for naturalistic is just tiny compared to time for abstract. Malraux also wrote about naturalism vs. abstraction in religious art. He said, “In all parts of the world and in every age the styles of sacred art declined to imitate life and insisted on transforming or transcending it.”


Upper Left: Lascaux Cave Painting Upper Right: Amarna Period Sculpture

Lower Left: Ancient Greek Sculpture Lower Right: Ancient Roman Sculpture: Bust

of Galerius (?)


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