It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane, no it’s Abstract Art!
A quick google search of the word “abstract” may lead you to believe it describes your feelings when looking at Abstract art; that definition: existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.
It is natural for us who live in a real physical world with definitive shapes, colour and boundaries, to be taken aback and confused when looking at abstract art. But would it surprise you to know that in fact all art is an abstraction. From the photo realism of Robert Bateman to the emotional expressionism of Jackson Pollack’s splashing of paint on a canvas. Only a photograph can really capture the true likeness of a subject (although in today’s digital world that image is still made up of marks called pixels). If all art is abstract then it becomes a matter of degree, with familiar representational art at one end and purely emotional, geometric, expressionism at the other which may or may not have a hint of physical or concrete existence.
Abstract art can be considered “avant-garde” as it defies what was conventional art that dominated the art world up until the 19th century. Art movements like Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Dada, American Modernists, Metaphysical, Surrealism and others are all forms of abstracted art. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque rejected the representation depiction of the human and natural form for geometric shapes. The effect, familiar to us today, but at the time was considered harsh and shocking. But this form of abstraction was one of many at the time and would continue to grow as artists experimented with shape, colours, size, and a variety of materials to express their vision.
The road to abstract art began with the rejection of representational art, and it is one that many an artist follows in career. Learning to draw with perspective and realism, with different media and tools, is the usual starting point for artists. But for some, having mastered the traditional depictions of imagery the desire to express the same with less and then with interpretation becomes a new challenge and natural progression. Lawren Harris, member of the Group of Seven, began with impressionist paintings, moved to what is considered his signature simplistic depictions of nature, ending his art journey absorbed with abstraction. His progression can be seen at the national Gallery of Canada.
It can be difficult to find meaning or value to abstract art especially if there is nothing familiar to help us “enter” the painting, but there are many examples which the meaning is more about the time it was created. In 1915 the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich presented the art world with his “Black Square”. It was simply a black square on a white background. Ha! That’s easy to make, I could do that, I hear you say. And well it was easy to create but terrifying to present as art in the face of centuries of representational art (in 1918 Malevich would create another signature work called White on White).
Cid Palacio, an abstract artist from Madoc, Ontario, when asked about how to interpret abstract art or make sense of a work, offers this: “To experience abstract art is like listening to music, the melody transports you to place, conjures up images and memories. We instinctively respond to a piece of music for purely subjective reasons, we don’t stop to analyse, and that is the same for abstract art too. Just experience the work as you would a piece of music.”
A truly Canadian example of abstract art, or rather the experience and reaction was Canadian and the art American was the 1990 purchase, by the National Gallery of Canada “Voice of Fire” by Barnett Newman for $1.8 million dollars! The nation went crazy. It was simply three stripes, two of the same color. What the hell? Voice of Fire was made by Newman for the US pavilion at Canada’s centennial expo67. It was staged in the beautiful Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Our outrage and the attention it created (by the way the piece was installed at the National Gallery for two years before it was purchased, and nobody paid it much attention) along with the general appreciation of art works has pushed the value of this piece to over $40 million (2014 valuation).
So the next time you are looking at abstract art, take a moment, absorb the images as if it were music. And whatever you see will be for you, the right one, as beauty, or in this case the splashing of colours and line, is in the eye of the beholder.