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The term "abstract art" is like the term "modern music" in the sense that it is a very broad umbrella sheltering a wide variety of art. But like "abstract math," the general sense of the term is that it is the opposite of the concrete, or "realism." At one end of the continuum is a painting of a violin so perfectly rendered that we feel we could reach into the frame, pick up the instrument, and play it. At the other end is a canvas painted all one color. There is nothing in it to reach out and touch.
A simple, common definition of "abstract art" is "not realistic." Yet many artists who call their work abstract, actually do have a subject in mind when they paint. They take a figure or landscape and simplify it, exaggerate it, or stylize it in some way. They are not trying to imitate nature, but to use nature as a starting off point. Color, line, and form are more important to them than the details of the actual subject matter. They want to give a sense or feel for the subject rather than an exact replication.
Historically, the term "abstract" has been associated with a variety of art movements. The cubism of Picasso, Braque and Cezanne was a geometrical abstraction. In the United States , a group also known as the New York school of action painters were defined by critics as "abstract expressionists." Yet the individuals in this group varied greatly in their approaches. Jackson Pollock did overall drip paintings. Mark Rothko painted shimmering color field canvases based on a simple square pattern. Willem de Kooning did not abandon subject matter like the others, but abstracted the female figure in much of his work.
Art that has no intentional beginnings in any subject matter is sometimes referred to as "non-objective." or "non-representational." A related term is "minimalism," or the tendency to take as much away from the painterly surface of the canvas as possible. A white square painted on a white background is an example of minimalism. The end result is not so much the point as the daring it took to get there.
"Modern art" is another term commonly used to refer to abstract art, though originally this term was used to differentiate the experimenters of the twentieth century from the traditional European painters and sculptors. Thus, "modern art" began over seventy years ago, and is no longer new. Many movements in art have come and gone since then. For example, "pop art" incorporates popular culture such as comics and movie stars. Well-known artists of this genre include Andy Warhol, who painted Cambell's soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe; and Jasper Johns, who did a series of flag paintings.
"Contemporary art" is another one of those terms that covers a wide variety of art. The best definition of "contemporary" is the work of any living artist, though the term has also been used to mean art that you would hang in a contemporary home. This sense of contemporary is more like the term "modern," in that it means the opposite of "traditional." Thus, "contemporary art" is also sometimes used to mean "abstract art."
Another way to define the term "abstract art" is to enter it as a search term on Google or Yahoo and look at the results. There will be millions of them, proving that the term is used today to cover a vast amount of art. I use the term "abstract art" to define my own painting because I know that people who love my art tend to define it this way. They often find me by entering the term on Google. Others use the term "modern art" or "contemporary art" to find me.
So where does that leave us in our definition of abstract art? Like most definitions of art movements, the answer is complex. We can look at it historically from an art critic's perspective, or use it as the general public would, to mean something other than traditional realistic representation.
Keys to success are figuring out what kind of art you like, how it will fit in with the rest of your interior design plans, and how to exhibit the art to the best effect in your home. Read more.
"Just wanted to confirm paintings received. I've hung them - they are fantastic. My entire living room is 'Taetzsch'!" -- J.B., New York, NY
"Got the paintings today . . . they are gorgeous. Wow . . . very impressed with them . . . can't wait to show them off to people that come into my home. If new ones become available please keep in touch." - T.C., Nova Scotia, Canada -- more testimonials.
Visit My Studio: Call 607-273-1364 or email Lynne@ARTBYLT.COM to make an appointment to visit my studio in Ithaca, NY.
"I recently received my fourth piece from Lynne Taetzsch’s collection. I have Lynne’s paintings hung throughout my house, and wherever they are located they are the focal point of the room. The most outstanding feature of them all is color. Lynne’s sense of color is amazing; my family and friends invariably comment on how beautiful and compelling the colors are, regardless of how many times they have seen them. They brighten the room on a rainy day in Seattle!"--Susan Boyle
When I paint, I am not attempting to capture the likeness of a landscape or figure. My subject is the painting itself.
What do you actually see when you look at the painting? Color, shape, line and texture are the physical elements that combine to make up the image. A selection of dark, heavy shapes may impress you as somber; light, airy images as mystical; balanced, temperate forms as peaceful. Shape, color and form have meaning in and of themselves. We react emotionally to these elements even if they create no recognizable object for us to hang onto. Thus, a painting of ragged, angular forms in deep reds will evoke an entirely different feeling from one in soft curves of yellow and white.
The handling of space--or the illusion of space--is another element in the artist's toolbox. Are you drawn into a world of three-dimensional space stretching beyond the framework of the painting, as you might be in a landscape? Or are you kept visually taut, as a skater on a pond, skimming across a two-dimensional surface? The impression of depth, perspective, airiness, solidity, and other spatial relations are created and controlled by the artist.
The overall composition or design of a painting is what guides the viewer's eye. Have you ever looked at a painting or photograph and felt it was off balance? One of the big differences between amateur snapshots and professional photographs is the quality of the composition. In an amateur photo, perhaps all the action is centered on the left, with nothing but empty space on the right. The lopsidedness gives you a sense of unease. (Of course an artist may use this unease deliberately as well.)
Composition is one of the fundamental tools an art student is taught. The goal is to have a balance of visual elements without making the weight so balanced that the art becomes boring. If everything on the left is exactly equal to the right, and the top to the bottom, you may have balance, but you lose interest.
Getting the composition right, or balancing the elements of color, line and shape while maintaining a dynamic tension is a major preoccupation of the painter. If you add a blue brushstroke to the bottom left-hand corner, for example, you may have to change something in the top right-hand corner because of it. You can't concentrate on one section at a time, ignoring the rest of the canvas, and expect to end up with a composition that works.
Energy is the life force that is present in all good art. This is not something that is easily defined, but it is the opposite state of static flatness. It is this energy that makes a painting speak to you, and makes an artist's work original and identifiable as the work of that artist. Energy is created out of the artist's materials and tools, but the end is more than the means in the same sense that a musical composition is so much more than a collection of notes.
The next time you look at an abstract painting, or any kind of "modern art," don't begin by searching for some identifiable object from your world. Instead, try to enter the world the artist created. Relax and let your eye leisurely wander over the painting's surface. Let your heart and mind react to its colors, shapes, and textures. Let yourself be drawn into the illusion of its spaces, the action of its lines, the mood of its atmosphere.
Step back and look at the painting from a distance. What is its impact as you approach it?
Move up close and explore the intricacies of brushstrokes, paint thicknesses and compositional details. See how the parts are woven together to form the whole.
Give the painting time. No artwork can be understood and appreciated in a ten second glance. Good art should grow on you, becoming more interesting and more enjoyable to look at as you live with it.
You may still see things in abstract paintings, finding birds and trees and animals hidden in the forms. This is as natural as turning clouds into recognizable shapes. But by opening your eyes to the possibilities of the world the artist created, you may see more than you ever expected to see in abstract art.