Defining the Abstract: It May Seem like the Antithesis of What Abstract Art Is All about. or, It Could Be That Attempts to Define the Abstract and What the Artist Intended Is Part of the Genre's Appeal

Article excerpt

What makes great abstract art great? And what makes the average person on the street naively comment, "Hey, I could do that!' when viewing this genre of art? Read on and find out what artists, publishers, and gallery owners have to say about defining and understanding abstract art.


Most experts agree that abstract art is art that does not represent specific objects in their figurative reality. "Abstract art lacks easy access to recognizable objects," according to Barbara Berlin, a Canadian abstract expressionist.

Steve Maier, director and co-owner of Fine Art Hawaii, Honolulu, says, "Abstract art is non-figurative and does not rely on objective subject matter for its being. It is a pure form of painting that requires a refined sense of composition, volume, line, color and internal dynamics. It is the very essence of art, stripped of allusions."

Jack Roberts, a Sedona, AZ, agrees, "It is art that is not representational, non-objective as described in the art schools. For me personally, it is based on imagery that I experience in the landscape, and I draw from memories of my past."

And Bernice Steinbaum, director and owner of the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami, defines abstract art this way: "Abstract art is full of color, light, lyricism, movement and mood and demands our most abstract thinking."

Breaking from Tradition

Abstract expressionism was a dramatic break from the more traditional European style of representational art that dominated through the 19th century. Daniel Deljou, president and art director of Deljou Art Group, Atlanta, explains: "Abstract art was developed as a style, perhaps, at the beginning of the 20th century. Artists were elated at the arrival of the new century and had this positive attitude and were intent on separating the old from the new. I think artists had a lot of hope in developing the 'new' and having fun in seeing where it would take them. They truly enjoyed what they were producing.

"Some artists were also intently feeding off the fields of photography and early cinematography. These endeavors truly affected how artists visualized movement in their paintings," says Deljou. "Picasso and Marcel Duchamp were excellent at this. Picasso's "Les Demoiselles des d'Avignon" and Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" are masterful abstractions of the human figure.

"Both works had their genesis in the processes of photography and cinematography," continues Deljou. "In fact, I think that in Duchamp's case, the exact photographs that inspired him to do his painting have been found and published."

Many abstract expressionists have had their beginnings in representational painting. "When I got into art school I switched to abstract. I started with representational paintings of landscapes from rural Nebraska and cityscapes from Omaha. The historical evolution of abstract art occurred through representational art," says Roberts, who adds that there are more pure abstract artists now. Roberts paints with acrylics on canvas and his pieces range in size, with a 5- x 6-feet piece selling for around $7,000. Price is proportionate to the work and larger works created for corporations easily sell for $15,000 or more. The smallest pieces are 27 x 27 inches and retail for about $2,000.

Berlin says she never was a realist in her painting. "I always liked abstract paintings and decided I couldn't afford the paintings I liked, so I was going to start making them." Berlin paints with oil on canvas and her pieces range in size from approximately 30 x 36 inches up to 76 x 63 inches, and sell for $3,500 to $8,000.

Interpretation and the Meaning of Abstract Art

Perhaps some consumers and viewers of art are intimidated by the abstract and may ask, "Are we supposed to understand the art or know what the piece is about? Does it matter?"

"Some viewers of abstract art," Steinbaum says, "are afraid that they are misinterpreting what the artist intended. …