For a long time I thought that people don’t like the art I make. Sit with that for a minute. I’m not trying to turn this into a pity party, since I get to do what I absolutely love with my whole heart every day, but I also want you to know going into this essay that while I spend my time doing what I love, I know that not many people love it back.
Why would I think that people don’t love it? Well, they don’t comment on it and shuffle off without making eye contact. I see you trying to be invisible as you sidle away.
This is separate from people being interested in me being an artist. People are very interested in that. They want to know what I make and where they might see it. I always end up giving an elevator pitch on what “mixed media” means. People at parties laugh when I say I glue paper together professionally. They are impressed when I say I have a show at a smallish venue one town over and another one next year at a larger local art venue. People like the cachet of knowing an artist, particularly when I’m at one of my partner’s work functions and I’m the one artist in a veritable sea of engineers and business professionals. The working artist as an entertaining party trick.
And while it’s definitely true that some folks don’t like my work (everyone has, and is very welcome to, their own taste), I’ve started to wonder if people actually might like my work but are afraid to say so because it’s abstract and they think that they don’t know enough to SAY they like it. In thinking about that, I realized that I could easily give people some tips so they would feel more comfortable when they encountered abstract art. Hopefully by the end of this, you’ll be able to ask a few thoughtful questions and feel more confident with a small bit of knowledge for when you encounter an abstract artist, or, say, a Misty, at your next corporate meet-and-greet.
A good deal of abstract art is about evoking emotion.
Mark Rothko, a mid-20th century abstract expressionist, said,
“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
Emotion is nearly always the driving force behind what I’m doing. If you’re looking at something I made and it’s making you feel some kinda way, I want to know that even if what you are feeling is confusion. Even confusion is a starting place! You can say things like: “This makes me feel _______.” or “This makes me think of a childhood memory about __________.” or “You really seem to like blue. What does blue mean for you?” (Also, I really do love blue, so that’s always a good place to start with me.)
Look for the thread of an emotional connection with the work. It’ll take some practice. You’ll have to spend time staring at the work. Seeing it from this side or that side. Maybe walking out the room and then back in so you can catch it in the act of being just so dang wild you maybe don’t have the vocabulary to say anything about it. And that’s ok. Art is visceral and sometimes so totally outside of language as to be nearly otherworldly. That’s usually when it’s being its best self. All you can do is hope to hang on to that feeling for more than a few minutes, because it’s so bright and ecstatic that it feels like the first time you saw your newborn child, you traced the whorls of seeds in a sunflower’s center, or you experienced a sunset at the beach.
The practice of looking at abstract art will be a meditation, one where you look for the mystery. It may gut punch you, or it may reveal itself slowly. Meditation will allow you the space to connect with that emotion. Going to a museum is a lot like going to church for me. There’s wonder and mystery and connection to God through the community of artists and their works. It’s as emotion-packed as the Psalms. I leave sometimes overwhelmed with joy or flattened by sorrow.
Abstract art is about line, motion, color, texture, scale, and balance.
All of the things you are instinctively evaluating in a picture of a concrete object are also available in more abstract works. You just might need to be a bit more mindful of individual elements so you can piece together your response to abstract work.
Do you respond to the scale of the piece? Is it giant and imposing? Is is tiny and doll-like?
Are the lines jagged and full of barely suppressed rock-n’-roll rage? Or are they smooth ripples like a peaceful pond?
Do the pieces of the work fit together in a way that makes you feel balanced, a sigh of relief working through your chest? Or are the pieces stacked on top of each other like tottering plates, making you feel a sense of urgency over the instability of it all?
Do the colors make you feel happy, sad, worried, anxious, at peace, energetic?
Is the focal point large and in charge, or is it subtle and distant? Does the work invite you closer so you can study its depths, or does it demand that you be on your way, preferably sooner rather than later?
Is the work textured in any way? Does it appear smooth and shiny and machine-made? Is it spiky and off-putting? Does it seem like something cozy that you might want to sink into? Are you having to remind yourself not to touch it?
But what is its capital-M Meaning?
Sometimes abstract art is just about those things I’ve touched on above. They are line for line’s sake. Shape for the exploration of shape. Color for the evocation of mood. Texture to remind us of the skins we occupy every day. A visual reminder to be fully present in the bodies we are given right at this very moment in time.
Sometimes there’s even more.
Think of these pieces above as puzzle pieces to ponder. Maybe they are supposed to fit together; maybe they aren’t. Additionally, if there’s a word or a sentence in the work or if you can read the title, sometimes that gives you a new clue to work with. The artist has left you a bread crumb trail.
If the artist is available, ask about the materials they used, what the inspiration for the piece was, or what the most important thing to know about the piece is. And sometimes if you are very lucky, the artist will say, “This is about when my Aunt died and I just needed to let go of the grief.” And you can consider the case closed.
But if you think there might still be more to the story and the artist isn’t eagerly hanging out hoping to answer your questions, you could be called on to do some additional detective work. Look and see what year the piece was created. Was there a major world event that year (or decade) that you can remember? Many artists are in conversation with current events or music or writers of their time. Even if you don’t know art history, if you know something about the time period you might be able to connect something from the time period to the piece. Which leads straight into:
Maybe you are starting to wonder if the piece you are looking at is political in any way.
Is it about the human condition and our shared life together? Then, yes, the art you are looking at is political.
Whole swaths of my work are about how women are treated in our society. That’s political as hell. If art is the mirror we hold up to the world to see what reflects back at us, then it’s almost always going to form some sort of image of how we are (or are not) in community with each other. If you’re worried that you won’t like what you see reflected back at you, maybe it will inspire you to make changes in yourself and in your community.
If something I’ve made makes you think about things in a new way and you start adjusting your behavior in light of that, then I’ve done my job. You don’t have to like it or think it’s pretty or even want it hanging in your house for that to happen. You just have to see something new and start to think about how you can make a change.
Choosing to engage with abstract art is leveling up.
Abstract art isn’t something you can look at quickly and sum up neatly. As there’s often little to no representation of concrete objects, you have to dig into your own experience more than you do with representational art to connect it to something meaningful for yourself. Honestly, it’s just more work to connect with abstract art than it is to connect with pictures of flowers or people or oceans or landscapes or birds. But for me, that’s the existential beauty of it. You and the artist are working together to create a tailor-made experience just for you.
The works that have stayed with me longest and affected me most deeply are the ones I’ve looked at and thought about and walked away from and returned to again and again. I wrestle with the deep well of emotion of Rothko’s giant color fields. I mourn our nation’s white supremacist history with Mark Bradford’s Picket’s Charge. I celebrate the independence Georgia O’Keefe eked out of her restrictive time period to travel and live in the American West to make art on her terms.
Maybe these thoughts help you find a handle to grab on to when you are examining abstract art. Maybe you caught a glimpse inside my world and you find you understand it a bit better today than yesterday. I hope the next piece of art that you encounter fills you with a spark of wonder that you carry with you for days. Sharing this magic with you is one of the major themes of my life. May it be more fulfilling than my party tricks.