Abstract paintings, especially contemporary abstract expressionism paintings have always been the center of art criticism. In one of the Pager U videos, painter Robert Florczak showed a zoomed-in image of his studio apron to his fine-arts students, described as a Jackson Pollock painting. Not too surprisingly, the MFA students gave much positive feedback on the “piece.”
Here’s what Florczak, who revealed the embarrassing truth after his students had given “eloquent answers,” had to say about contemporary abstract art:
I don’t blame them; I would probably have done the same since it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the two (the apron and an actual abstract painting). (Florczak, 3:17)
Florczak is not the first person to say something like that, and he sure will not be the last. In the meantime, the standard of art has become truly ambiguous. However, this does not automatically speak that contemporary abstract expressionism is trash and is not art.
As a matter of fact, there are many wonderful abstract paintings out in the world that are truly admirable. So ultimately we’re down to the question: How to make good abstract art?
As a detail-focused painter, I have loathed contemporary abstract paintings for years myself. However, once I tried to explore the thought process and painting techniques behind the final outcome, I soon realized how arrogant and ignorant I was before.
Abstract painting is a thing. In fact, it takes no less skills and progressive thoughts than any other style of painting or drawing. Therefore, the key to abstract painting is the artistic process of creating, even if this process is covered up by seemingly simple, bold and unconventional outcomes.
Well, believe it or not, even the most untrained viewer could often tell the difference between a carefully crafted abstract painting and a work from “artist-wannabe.”
In an experiment done by Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner (full article here), the result proves that abstract art is not something that can be simply done by a child.
The experiment included 32 art students and 40 psychology students, who are given different pairs of images. One of the images in the pair would come from an artist, some better known and some less known, whereas the other one could be done by a child or even a monkey.
It’s imaginable that anti-abstract critics would scoff and predict that the testers will not be able to tell the difference in at least most of the paintings and the scrabbles. However, the result was quite the opposite.
Countering a previous study which labeled child work with gallery labels and found that people simply displayed more pleasure looking at the same artwork related to a gallery, Winner’s test proved an artistic integrity among the audience.
According to the new study, even the testers who were least trained in art was able to identify the professional work in most of the cases. The group of testers chose the professional painting from the two images in most of the cases (60–70%) and the result did not change much among the art students and the non-art student.
And here is what the result suggested:
People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art. (Yong, 2011)
Therefore, if someone thinks abstract painting is crap and can be done by anyone, or if someone takes abstract expressionism as the quick route to becoming an artist, the person is simply indulging him/herself with an audience that seriously lack integrity.
Now that we have broken the “even a child could paint this” myth hovering over the abstract painting world, we can truly look at what makes a magnificent piece of abstract art.
Remember: real abstract paintings are nothing easy to make.
The key here is to put an idea in a different appearance, yet still refer to the exact same core message that inspired the painting.
My expression might be a jargon. It might not give you the sense of what abstract art, especially abstract expressionism should be. But luckily, there are artists far more mature than I am who explained the essence of abstract painting much clearer.
According to Barnett Newman:
I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.
Therefore, consider the process of creating an abstract painting both articulating your thoughts and perfecting yourself. Rome is not built in one day (yep, I know, it’s cliché, but it’s still true), and self-discovery and self-exploration could be (and should be) a life-long process. In contrary, a painting might only take tens of hours, or several days to finish.
If it takes us a lifetime to find our own individuality and integrity, naturally, the task on a painter’s shoulders is heavy.
The key here, is to understand what you, as an artist, truly want to express through the blending of color, the manipulation of texture, the addition of media… and how you, as an artist, could deliver that specific message without using anything specific, but only rely on strokes, tones and washes.
You don’t want to throw the message in the audience’s faces. You don’t want to lay some bold stroke on a blank canvas and give it a big name.
Rather, take the time to think sketch, and work your way through. A decent abstract painting is not a random decision, but layers of careful adjustment that all pointing towards one goal. Although this goal might not be clear to the audience at the first glance, the audience should still be able to sense the dedication and manipulation put in by the artist.