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Understanding Abstract Art (Through the art of Mondrian)

May 1, 2010

mondrian, abstract artistI’ll be the first to admit that understanding abstract art can be challenging. Even as an abstract artist, I’ve stood in front of paintings and haven’t been able to “get it.”

The thing is, sometimes abstract art takes a little work to understand.

Realism can be more immediate. When we look at a picture and recognize it right away, we can understand it. That’s not to say that realism doesn’t  have additional layers of meaning and context beyond what is instantly visible, but that initial understanding can be a door way to a deeper understanding.

Abstracts are less immediate and less accessible.

How, then, can we understand abstract art?

There are two kinds of abstract art. There is the kind that takes an image and pushes it out of the realm of realism. The subject is still recognizable, but doesn’t look the way it would in the real world. Something, the colour, proportions, perspective, has been altered to “abstract” the image.

The other kind of abstract art has been abstracted so much that it’s no longer recognizable. This is called non-representational art because it doesn’t represent anything; it doesn’t look like anything.

abstract tree mondrian

This painting by Mondrian is both representation and abstract. We can recognize the form of a tree, but it’s not as it would be in nature.



abstract art by mondrian

This piece, also by Mondrian, is a non-representational abstraction because it doesn’t refer to any recognizable subject.



An important part of understanding abstract art is understanding the artist. Different artists use abstraction to achieve different goals. As Lori Mcnee points out, some artists express feelings and emotions through abstraction. Other artists, like myself, use abstraction to explore the formal qualities of art:  colour, texture, shape, etc.

The interesting thing about many abstract artists is that they began as representational artists, then turned to abstraction. This is true of Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse.

Take Mondrian, for example.

Take a few minutes to watch this amazing video of Mondrian’s art. This video, tweeted by @DenverArtsyGal, shows Mondrian’s work in chronological order, each piece morphing into the next. The video very clearly demonstrates how Mondrian made the transition from representational artist to non-representational artist.

When we look at his early work and compare it to the paintings he’s most famous for, it’s hard to see any commonalities. Mondrian was obsessed with purity: the purity of form, the purity of line, the purity of colour. For him, the purest colours were red, yellow and blue. The pures line was the straight line. His entire art practice was based on a search for the purest painting possible.

The video shows how Mondrian slowly eliminated elements from his art that didn’t fit with his idea of purity. We can almost see his decision making process, and the way his goal informed the direction of his art.

These kinds of insights into the artist’s intentions can help us understand abstract art. Reading an artist statement can give us many clues, but what if there is no statement? This is where the work comes in! Don’t let laziness prevent you from appreciating abstraction!

Here are some questions to ask yourself when viewing abstract art:

  1. What is my immediate response? Do I like it or not? Why?
  2. What emotions does the work evoke?
  3. What do I feel (in a physical sense)?
  4. What types of colours are used? What does this communicate?
  5. What materials are used? Why might the artist choose these materials?
  6. Are brush strokes visible? What kind? How does that affect the art?
  7. How did the artist create this? Can you tell?
  8. Does the composition draw you in, or block you out?
  9. Is the work inviting or off-putting?

By examining these elements, we can attempt to figure out what the artist is communicating. You might not be exactly right, but you will definitely gain a better understanding of what the painting means to you, and therefore a better apppreciation of the artist’s efforts.

How do you feel about abstract art? Do you get it? Is there anything to get?


From → Art General

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