Non-objective painting is a puzzle to many people, even to those who say they like modern art in general, meaning works that are not photographically realistic or are made with odd materials or are obvious spectacles like Christo’s fabric gates temporarily set up in New York’s Central Park in 2005.
Somehow collages and mixed-media assemblages or austere sculptural presentations or installations featuring sound or video as atmosphere and polemic are met with greater indulgence that is the case with straightforward abstraction in oil, acrylic, or enamel on canvas. Actually seeing and enjoying the intense beauty of a Jackson Pollock action painting or admitting the spiritual satisfaction encountered when visiting a Mark Rothko chapel–these are still not the average responses for educated and cultured people willing to make an effort where art is concerned.
Abstract art is widely considered difficult and often either too intellectual or too outrageous. Something about works showing flat fields of color, or structured grids, or messy slabs of paint cut with jagged lines irritates viewers who say they would much rather look at simple landscapes, recognizable portraits, or figurative illustrations. This pronounced difference of opinion, as well as the notable tension between easy-on-the-eyes realism and possibly headache-inducing non-representational expressionism, enlivens modern art for both artists and potential art watchers.
Among the best known abstract paintings are grid pieces in black, white, and primary colors by Piet Mondrian. This Dutch native found inspiration in New York’s skyscrapers for his later and most popular paintings. Another Dutch transplant and more controversial artist, Willem de Kooning produced wildly gestural works which still elicit strong responses. American born painters as diverse as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat have been inspired by graffiti in large-scale works welcomed in museums and by collectors. Subtle and atmospheric abstractions by Helen Frankenthaler and Agnes Martin demonstrate additional possibilities for art that is apparently free of objective specificity but still rich in formal content.
Exposure to abstract art is somewhat limited for many people. Magazine layouts, movie and TV scenes, or brief glimpses into urban gallery windows may be the sum total experience for them, as regular museum attendance is rather pricey and gallery openings cater to a particular crowd or subculture. As a result, claims of elitism or suspicions of subversive intent are only to be expected on a broad front, no matter the efforts of educators, public television, critics, and cultural commentators. The commonplace remark, “My child can do that and do it better,” with regard to an example of non-objective painting, is not likely to fade from ordinary parlance any time soon.
Reproductions and prints make fine art accessible and affordable for ordinary people, even ones not drawn to or inspired by high-maintenance decorative schemes. Daring to choose an abstract work to display over the living room sofa instead of an interesting seascape is still a novel lifestyle commitment. Such is modern life, lagging modern art by decades.
“Christo: The Gates, Central Park, New York”, Wired New York
“Jackson Pollock Web Feature Painting”, National Gallery of Art
“The Rothko Chapel”, official site
“Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow”, Harvard Art Museums Web Feature
Robert Storr, “A Painter’s Testament”, Museum of Modern Art (about De Kooning)
“Cy Twombly in Depth”, The Menil Collection
“Exhibitions: Basquiat”, The Brooklyn Museum
William C. Agee, “Frankenthaler’s New Way of Making Art”, Wall Street Journal
“Agnes Martin: Friendship, 1963”, Museum of Modern Art Collection