Some people say that abstract painting is more or less than landscapes, or seascapes, portraits, or still life. Those later types of paintings generally fall with within the realm of representational art. A depiction of what exists in the natural world. The type of the depiction might be expressed as realistic or impressionistic. Taken to an extreme, realism diminishes the artist to copyist, stripping him of numerous artistic freedoms and confines or bases the value of his work on how perfectly his painting mirrors his subject matter.
In the realm of representational art, an artist works to capture the qualities of the scene that is before him. The scene may be a landscape, a seascape, a vase of flowers on the table, lit by sunlight streaming through a sliver of open curtain in a dark room. In any case, the subject matter, background, colors, tone, composition, light are presented to the artist, who applies his skill, stylization, methods, techniques and tools to render a painting in general conformance with what his eyes see before him.
The abstract artist comes to the blank canvas with none of those pre-established conditions. The abstract artist is given no subject matter, no background or foreground, no composition, no colors or tone. He arrives with but one thing - his imagination. And from that, the abstract artist creates his painting. The size, subject matter, background, colors, materials, composition, style, techniques, and methods he alone brings to the canvas. The abstract artist transcends the strict conformity imposed by representationalism and in doing so enters into a place which allows a creativity and capacity for expression unknown to adherents of representationalism.
To some it is freeing - to others daunting – both artists and viewers. To still others a meaningless exercise that a child is better suited to. But, abstract art is not about achieving certainty through scientific formula. Clearly abstract art has its own challenges.
With representational art we are equipped and accustomed to evaluating it on how closely the finished painting represents the scene. We know what trees look like. We can tell if this artist rendered the tree admirably or not. We know what a magnificent sunset looks like. The colors, tones and radiance can be breath taking. We all feel endowed with an innate sense of whether a painting is good or not. And we can rely on natural world guideposts to help us in that effort.
The trouble with abstract art is there seem to be no natural world guideposts to assist the viewer in his evaluation. Critics of abstract art and viewers in general often struggle to evaluate an abstract painting. We hear questions (if even privately so) such as “what is it?” And, “what was he trying to say?” Yet in subjectively ‘good’ abstracts, we intuitively form an opinion and can in general distinguish a good or great abstract from a mediocre or poor abstract.
Is the process of evaluating abstracts devoid of the entire analytical framework we employ to evaluate representational paintings? I think not. Certainly, on one level we can call upon the same tools for beginning the assessment: subject matter, composition, color, tone, and continuing through style, technique, materials and such. Some would say that abstracts don’t always have a subject. That’s debatable. But consider Gerhard Richter’s abstracts. Is there a subject in the beautiful symphony of colors? And what of the frenchman, Pierre Soulages - The Master of Black? How does one evaluate his solely black paintings within the traditional methods? In other abstracts I believe that we can say that there is a subject, always a composition, and of course colors, tones, style, technique and so on.
However, it does not adequately account for an abstract painting. The missing piece is how that painting feels to us as we view it. You see we can leave out ‘understanding’ and the painting will still deliver a powerful effect. Unlike representational art where we can see and understand the setting, and subject and other artistic elements, it is not so easy with an abstract painting.
The beauty, fascination and compelling nature of abstract art is its ability for it to take us places we don’t know, which we cannot know, but through it we are able to transcend and experience something outside of the natural world. It is at that point that the artist and the viewer arrive on common ground.
To some, the steps necessary to transcend to the abstract are insurmountable. They cannot get there. To others the struggle to understand forever blocks them. Abstract art is not about theorems to be proven or copying the seen world about us, however brilliantly executed. It is about expressing aspects of existence, and non-existence that are felt, not understood, intangible, yet marvelous and compelling.
As one beholds a great abstract work, a new world opens. What is reality? Is it what we know? What about the reality we don’t know and can’t see?
The truth is abstract art is neither more nor less. It is its own.