Reflecting on abstract art after visiting the National Gallery of Art.
My family and I went to the National Gallery of Art while visiting DC for spring break. We all thoroughly enjoyed the post-modern, contemporary art of the East building. You can see from the pictures that the kids enjoyed the art as much as we did. Some of the artworks were bright and bold, but others were dark and heavy. Most were abstract, to one degree or another. My son’s favorite piece was Die by Tony Smith, a giant, rust-patinated, steel cube with oiled finish. Why was this his favorite? “Because it was the simplest thing there, and it was weird and unique. I don’t know!” It is comforting to know that art can be anything. I love having this conversation with my students at the high school level. What is art? Can anything be art?
Of course, we know that abstract art refers to imagery that is nonrepresentational, but “abstraction” is also used when describing how an artist simplifies her subject. As in design, artists often try to remove the unnecessary details of the object to reveal its essence. An example would be the way some artists like O’Keefe, Van Gogh, or Matisse rendered their flowers.
When most people discuss abstract art, they are referring to (and often complaining about) these nonrepresentational images in which the viewer can find no recognizable content. This frustrates some and offends others who offer the inevitable, “I could have done that!” Granted, smeared paint on a canvas is easily achievable and some of the contemporary images that have made it to international acclaim are so minimalist, that they could be recreated easily…
But! (you knew it was coming) I would argue that abstract art takes an amazing amount of background knowledge and a healthy dose of confidence and courage to pull off well. I have seen some bad abstract art out there on social media as well as some jaw-dropping stuff that inspires a touch of impostor syndrome in me. Check out @gregbenz and @artcarlosdelgado on Instagram, for example.
So what makes it good art? Therein lies the rub. Yes, ‘they’ could smear some paint on a canvas and call it art, but will it be appreciated by others? Does it have that certain something that makes people stop and consider? Does it have balance, harmony, rhythm or movement, contrast of textures or any of the other elements and principles of art? The who? They are the building blocks of art, the syntax and grammar rules. It is how we can compare the Frederic Edwin-Church painting of Niagara Falls with Black Popcorn by Gene Davis.
Abstract Expressionism is confidence; not pretension, but knowledgeable bravado! It is optimism and invention. It is a love of color and light and form with a minimalist look at what makes anything beautiful. It is bold strokes of passion without doubt. It is a fearless overlapping of layers to reveal a greater truth. Abstract Expressionism is an artwork by an artist who has learned all the rules but applied them with the whimsy and abandon of a two-year-old finger painting.
Jackson Pollock said, “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment.” While at the museum, we saw Pollock’s Mural. Mural is one of his earlier works, and not his fully realized style. I stared at it for so long. One line or color would lead you to the next and then on to something else completely. As an artist, I am most intrigued with works where the artist’s process is not quite clear. I found myself puzzled by the overlap of layers and the interplay of lines and shapes. Which came first? How did he start? Where did he finish? When did he switch colors and did he return to a certain color more than once? I could not tell and it was satisfying rather than frustrating. My eye could bounce around for an hour, finding little referrals and connections. No beginning or end. It just was. Complete.