What is abstract art "about"?

This is a question that comes up often in my workshops - What is abstract art about? Is it supposed to be about something? Am I missing it? Or getting it wrong? Like all art, abstraction makes us ask questions. But abstract painting challenges us further by not offering the familiarity of recognizable forms as an entry point to the work. We have only our gut reaction go on. Without the language of symbols, we must feel instead of think. Being left with our instincts can be uncomfortable, since we are used to the chatter of stories, judgements and explanations constantly running through our minds. Standing in front of an abstract painting, we get a second or two of wonder, of dwelling in the unknown, before our categorizing brain rushes to try to make sense of it all. For me, it is that pure moment of wonder that the painting is "about."


In her book, Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel talks about how artist John Graham addressed these ideas in System and Dialectics of Art, which became a sort of manifesto for Abstract Expressionist painters in New York in the 1940s...


"The abstract artist, he said, would be repeatedly challenged by skeptics asking, "What does it mean? Is it a sky, a house, a horse?" To which they should reply with confidence and honesty, "No, it is a painting.' " *


Abstraction sets painting free to exist in its own right - not as an interpretation of something else. This also frees the viewer to bring their imagination to the work.

Instead of looking for an explanation, we can allow the painting to open a space of inquiry.

For the series of paintings I will be showing over the next several weeks, I will be offering supporting materials and details about different elements of the work. However, this background information is not meant to be an explanation of what the painting is "about." Each person will have their own reactions, impressions and interpretations. Instead of telling you what the painting is about, I'm really only showing how it happened. Honestly, you don't really need this information to appreciate the work. But since you won't have the advantage of standing in the physical space of the painting, I think it's important to offer something to compensate for the shortcomings of the online viewing experience. By describing "how it happened," I am hoping to give clues to the energy of the piece that you would sense if you were to see it in person.


To read my thoughts about viewing art online and why I chose the format for this show, go to my previous post, "Your inbox as an art gallery"


If you have not yet signed up for the Inbox Art Show, you can do so here. There is no deadline. You can join any time, but the earlier you join, the more art you will see. Please send the link to anyone you think may be interested.


Thanks for your support!!


- M.E.


* Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel, Hachette Book Group, 2018, pg. 70