Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Criteria for Abstract Art: Image vs. Text, Part IV

Can we discuss abstract art without resorting to text? Is there a way to see a painting without being blinded by the artist’s biography or the work’s appraised (monetary) value? Are we able to make a fair judgment, based only on the image before us, and come to a determination about a painting’s artistic worth? 

We need to avoid some rather familiar descriptive terms; I use them, too, words like “energy” or “intrigue” or “artistic intention” or “finesse.”  But these are not objective terms, are they? One person’s “energy” is another’s “confused mess.” How can we escape the emotional and often divisive nature of subjective terminology?

There aren’t too many truths that we could all agree upon, but here are some terms that might help us avoid our tendency to become arbitrary. Let’s think about: color, line, surface texture, form(s), composition, process and method, space, symmetry (presence or absence), and, when relevant, historical context or influence (Cubism, for example, or Op Art). 

Now take the two paintings I presented you with, here, on February 26th, and we can work with each of the two, using these terms to try and investigate the work on its own terms.


 Color: prevalent, from bright yellows in the background to red, green and blue overlays. There is a softly painted, not-quite-“squared” grid painted in black, echoed by thin marker lines. Some forms have black edges. The final layer seems to be drips of color, mostly deep blues and pure white. Color is a big part of this painting.

Line: broad, soft strokes for a grid, and smaller grids in thin marker lines echo the bigger grid from center to lower right. The dripping paint forms a line with its color. Two forms upper right are outlined in black marker.  There is a kind of script or faux signature at lower left.  Except for the broad grid, line seems less important than color here.

Surface texture:  the paint seems in places to have soaked into the canvas, and there is a bit of bare canvas at bottom right.  The paint layers are thin, with the only build-up coming from a collaged typed square near the center and the poured or dripped paint lines, which appear to have been the final layer.

Forms: At top right, the grid comes over the bottom yellow layer; some thin grids follow in lower right.  There is one white triangle center left, but all the other forms (except two that are outlined, top right) are organic, rounded, with no clear outline and no apparent reference to known objects.  Or: there may be one green feather coming up from the lower left. The splatters create forms, too.  The meeting of the grid and these organic forms seems to provide most of the focus for the painting.

Composition:  this category overlaps with Forms, above, but the composition also seems to be centered in the painting’s upper two-thirds. The lower part of the painting is spare, nearly a blank canvas.  This forces the eye upwards to the yellow colored ground.

Process and Method: (see Surface Texture, above) Actual brushstrokes are not obvious, except for the soft grid. Soaking and dripping seem to dominate otherwise.

Space: (see Composition, above) Despite the heavy paint application, there is enough blank canvas and enough yellow to offer plenty of room here for the eye to move.

Symmetry (or its absence):  Generally not; the composition is off-center, the bulk of the painting moves towards the top of the work.

Historical Context or Influence: Mixed: this is a post-Pollock, post-Frankenthaler work, but seems to be in a world of its own.

Now, let’s look at the second painting:

Color:  Subtle browns and grays, with shadings of black and whites; outlining and over-lining in blacks and whites.  Color does not seem to be a major preoccupation here.

Line: Line seems dominant in this work.  Almost all of the lines curve, with only two short vertical straight lines in the right half, and many of the lines are outlines, either for painted figures or for figures not otherwise made visible.

Surface Texture: Uniform, with no apparent paint build-up or collage.

Forms: Organic, mostly, with forms that look like test tubes or glasses and bottles, and there is one possible breast and one possible bottom.  The forms overlap, and seem more in this painting than in the first to refer to real objects, but those objects have been rendered unclear and ambiguous.

Composition:  All-over. There is no concentration of images in one spot rather than another; the paint and lines are applied equally across the space. Attention is paid here (more than in the first painting) to edges; the forms here begin to fade all around the edges of the work.

Process and method: As with the first painting, the brushstrokes are not obvious here. The lines dominate.  It would appear that the colors of grays and browns were set down first, perhaps from a sketch, and then the black and white lines were applied.

Space: The forms as outlined overlap and leave very little un-painted, un-accounted for space.  The painting fills the canvas almost completely.

Symmetry:  The artist seems to be working with symmetrical forms; some of the curves echo one another or invert one another. There is almost an upper-lower, left-right symmetry, but it is just off, which means it calls attention to itself as a composition.

Historical Context or Influences:  This is a more important category for this painting than for the first. The work seems very tied to the colors and overlapping shapes of Cubism, and may also refer to the dream-like forms of Surrealism.

Overall, while these two paintings are very different, it is not possible to raise one over the other, for me, simply by concentrating on the paintings themselves.  One does not seem, even after study, to be “better than” the other. If we were to stand before the two in a gallery, questions of scale and application of paint and true color, none of which we can refer to here, might sway the balance.  But I think it is a very interesting question. I would like to know what you think. The first painting is mine, from the mid-1990’s, and the second is an early (1945) Mark Rothko, titled “The Rites of Lilith,” and it is now owned by his daughter. 

Image vs. Text. Let me know.


  1. I know exactly what your saying! However, some paintings do benifit nicley from a small amount of text, but ultimatly they should hold up on their own, without essays of supportive text. this is Philip Mount's website incase you werent already aware of him. When i met him he spoke alot about an 'abstract language' which he explores within his work, he's a very interesting chap and a great painter :)

  2. Fred,

    Thanks you for your comment! I didn't know about Philip Mount; I like his work very much, particularly the combination of line, white space, and bright color, which I am also finding in my work now.... I like what he says about "simple" abstract language. I also "found" another artist, who turns out to be rather well-known, Albert Oehlen. He says he has "rules" for his work, such as: work slower; [when in doubt] change the materials; and "no magic, no science, no excuses." Take care and thanks!

  3. Sounds like someone I shall have to put some research time into :) thank YOU! :D

  4. Also, I think, if you write about the artists you see in London who amaze you, artists who are now showing in smaller galleries, then you do us all a favor by helping us discover them... good luck with your own art this spring! And thanks for your reply...

  5. yes, its definatly helpful to explore and share other artists work, no one knows what might inspire them next! :) you too! :)