Understanding Abstract Art


Abstract art has been an integral part of my artistic journey and I value its contribution to fine art as much as I value realism, abstract expressionism, mannerism, and all the other isms that comprise fine art. Since the birth of abstract art over a hundred years ago, a birth often attributed to the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky ( 1866 – 1944 ), this unique form of artistic expression has continued to divide the camp into two opposing factions to this very day. Many say “it’s not art” ( expletives deleted ) avowing to support by whatever means possible periodic revivals of realism. We are in such a period now with the advent and growing popularity of academies. Others stand by modernism in all forms of abstraction, from the absurd to the popular, pledging never to return to those staid disciplines of yesteryear. Real abstract art ( somewhat of an oxymoron ) flourishes somewhere in between. Understanding abstract art is not complicated. Once you get past the void of decorative arts and the volume of voices who claim “everyone is an artist,” you will discover a rich tapestry of emotion and thought that comprises abstract art. Realism presents the viewer an artist’s interpretation or representation of the world in its complexity and simplicity. Abstraction presents the viewer an artist’s reaction to the world in its complexity and simplicity. Realism expresses the outer world and abstract expresses the inner world. Realism mimics the outer world in a variety of styles and techniques whereas abstraction expresses the inner world in a variety of styles and techniques. Realism hopes to answer “what is it?” whereas abstraction hopes to answer “what is it saying?” To some this may be an oversimplification of our divided camp.

A great classical scholar told me many years ago that the word “abstract” simply means to “draw from”. Abstraction draws from a life’s experience of real and imaginary images, from knowledge and feelings, from emotion to devotion, the simple and the complex, and mixes it with skill, discipline and excellence, to create expression from the human spirit. When you look at abstract work, don’t clamour for an image you can identify. Wait for a moment, let the work “speak” to you and allow you a glimpse of what the artist was thinking, what he or she was feeling and what the artist wants to say. Sometimes it’s just your reaction to colours, or specific shapes, or an overall texture, that will be the voice. I believe one also can learn to acquire an understanding and appreciation of abstract art, as much as one needs to acquire understanding and appreciation of the classics.

We live in an instant cyberspace age, and if “it don’t look like an Elvis on canvas, it’s not art.” There are many times when I sit and meditate at Berry Point, a special place near my studio, where the view is a panoramic canvas of ocean, distant snow-capped mountains, vast skies, and towering trees, when I am aware I am not there just to “capture” the image. Realism or a photograph may assist in the “capture,” albeit it with an inherent failure because of the sheer size of the original. But it’s my response, my thoughts that dwell wherever my spirit takes them, my feelings, and my emotions that paint a more “real” image. Abstract art wants to express that spirit. Realism offers a ready goal to aim for and if the artist is good at it, he or she can reach that goal. Abstract art offers no ready goal and often it’s a struggle to “say what you really want to say.” I close with a thought that came to my mind as I was working on a series of abstract paintings, while that corner of the studio where I have drawn endless realism remained quiet. I haven’t lost my desire to draw realistically, but just as the weather changes consistently and often dramatically over the Pacific northwest, so the weather and seasons of my art change, sometimes dramatically. “It’s great to soar with the eagles and to fly to limits unknown, but it’s terrifying when I cannot find a place to land. And before I realize it, a ‘box’ creeps up on me trying to contain me and keep me where I land. Instead I push to fly again. The drawings and paintings I have been working on are an expression of the tension between flying and landing, between the spiritual and the natural, the eternal and the temporal, the real and the abstract.” © 2007, Gerrit Verstraete