Understanding Abstract Art

Abstract Indonesian cave painting.
This 44,000 year old Indonesian cave painting either depicts a hunting scene or a taco salad.

Abstract art has baffled scholars and critics since Homo sapiens first drew on cave walls some 44,000 years ago.  The crude drawings have prompted art historians and anthropologists to ask, “What does the art symbolize?”  “How did their consciousness evolve?” “Did they have an agent?”

Moreover, enthusiasts of “classical art” frequently misunderstand abstract art because they are seeking to identify with a concrete image.  They’re looking for an ideal representation of life such as dogs playing poker or a Mona Lisa kitten.  

As a result, an accepted opinion of abstract art states, “My beagle could paint that using his favorite chew toy.”  However, professional abstract artists put more on the canvas than mere paint.   The art may be about the process itself, it may be about the artist processing the process or why the artist can’t order pants through the mail.

Sometimes the artist reduces the subject to its abstract core.  For example, Wassily Kandinsky’s intensely complex painting “Composition VII” centers on Kandinsky’s fear of returning a volleyball serve.    

To truly understand and appreciate abstract art, we need to consider three fundamental steps:

1.  Description:  What do you see? Is it seeable?  Did the museum pay the light bill?  State the obvious and dig deeper.  Identify the elements of design and report them to the authorities, if needed.  Is it visually balanced ?  Does it merge harmony with dissonance or does it need waterproofing? 

2.  Interpretation:  What is the art trying to say?  Is the message political, social or “Hey, there goes Edna with a saxophone!”  How does it make you feel?  If you feel nothing, you might need to consult a podiatrist.  Does the painting convey energy, or does it transmit a sense of standing next to an accountant?  Read the title of the painting.  It can give you some insight to the painting’s meaning and maybe a discount at the gift shop.

3.  Evaluation:  Does the painting work?  Would it ask for weekends off?  Do you understand the artist’s intent or do you think he should go back to dental school?  Does the art to speak to you?  Not every painting will speak to every person and some paintings don’t tip their hairdressers. 

Using this information, let’s analyze three works of art by three abstract masters. 

The first painting we’ll examine is Fritz Fitzpatrick’s “Albert Camus Denounces Pepperoni.”

Painting of brightly colored rectangles.
Fitzgerald’s “Slab” paintings incorporated several schools of thought. He was expelled from them all.

While many painters spend their careers fixated on one visual idea, Fitzpatrick straddled the line between multiple schools.  As we see here, “Camus” incorporates elements of Fauvism, Cubism and Alcoholism. Consequently, critics described Fitzpatrick’s commanding idiom as a “fat, heavy, and inarticulate surface,” which also describes Fitzpatrick.

“Camus” comes from Fitzpatrick’s later “Slab” paintings.  In preliminary studies for these paintings, Fitzpatrick would lay slabs of different flavored jello on his wife’s forehead. What makes the Slab paintings so exhilarating is that they are so gloriously, unrepentantly ugly, which also describes Fitzpatrick. 

“Camus” exemplifies the Slab paintings by incorporating brutal attention to pictorial structure and spatial misconception.  Moreover, “Camus” epitomizes the Slab paintings with its use of bold color to signal the pizza delivery person that Fitzpatrick is in the shower. 

Indeed, in “Camus,” the juxtaposition of red square over blue rectangle and blue square over red rectangle tells us that Fitzpatrick is shampooing his hair.  Furthermore, as the shapes increase in size as we move down the canvas, Fitzpatrick is letting us know that he plans to try a new conditioner. 

The second painting we’ll analyze is Franz Klifka’s “Office Chair (Gruel).”

Black lines over white background.
Klifka’s brush strokes represent hostility toward his father. Maybe.

Art historians widely believe that Klifka’s signature style came from a suggestion by his friend Willem de Kooning.  In 1948, Klifka had been painting exclusively on goat hooves.  A frustrated Klifka visited de Kooning lamenting, “My canvases either run away or kick me in the teeth.”

De Kooning suggested that Klifka switch to traditional canvasses and use paint instead of blackberry jam.  Then de Kooning went a step further and advised Klifka to apply the paint with a brush rather than using telepathy. 

Klifka was also known for avoiding giving meaning to his paintings.  He once stated, “I want to represent the nonrepresentational using inauthentic likenesses.”

Certainly, we see Klifka’s intent in “Office Chair.”  However, Klifka scholars also note that Klifka’s art also reflects his strained relationship with his father, a tyrannical furniture salesman.  The dynamic zig zag in the painting’s center right symbolizes his father’s criticism that Klifka “is best suited for rolling Easter eggs.” 

“Office Chair” also displays Kilfka’s iconic gestural technique.  These broad strokes, Klifka maintained, were “unrelated to any entity but that of their own existence. By entity I mean my uncle Julius.  And by existence I mean catching hay fever.”

The final painting we’ll interpret is Hijoshiki Inja’s “Confessions of a Monstrous Brisket.” 

Painting of green semicircles over black background.
Inja found was inspired by trauma and cured meats.

This example is part of her famed “Delicatessen Breach” series.  Inja created this expansive collection to share her intrusive thoughts about becoming a pastrami sandwich.

The critic Claire Voyant has described one of Injas’s Breach exhibits as being able to, “…transport you to a tranquil universe, to an isolated maze of throbbing light or to a detached schmear of chopped liver.”

When we examine the clean, circular brush strokes, we immediately notice Inja’s lifelong obsession with tennis elbow.  The fixation stems from a childhood trauma when her mother forced Inja to watch her father massage a tennis ball launcher. 

The repetitive nature of the painting symbolize Inja’s thoughts of self-obliteration.  On “Confessions,” Inja has said:  “When I made the painting, I felt as if I had begun to revolve in the infinity of time and space and be reduced to nothingness.  I was going to meet God.  And painting was cheaper than buying a bus ticket.” 

Since creating “Delicassten Breach” forty years ago, Inja  has voluntarily confined herself to the janitor’s closet at Yankee Stadium. 

In conclusion, most abstract art begins with a fundamental human experience, such as finding your keys.  You might have to spend some time with a painting to uncover its meaning.  Perhaps take it on a picnic or go to a thrift store together.  And no matter the path to understanding abstract art, the end goal is the same.  Wearing a really snazzy T-shirt from the museum gift shop. 

Rating: 1 out of 5.

5 thoughts on “Understanding Abstract Art

  1. Thanks for this view into art. Your examples are fascinating but unlike you I am detecting more in the way of obesity and a mistrust of smiling purple haired women. The third example definitely has notes clogged drains and a thick layer of dust on the living room end tables. While the first is more reminiscent of coffee rings on the kitchen counter.

    Laugh a while See what happens

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Spot on analysis Mr. Ohh! You’ve detected nuances and subtleties even the artists failed to consider.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well schooled analysis and spot on archery. Bravo.

    Liked by 1 person

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