How to appreciate abstract impressionism?

Brought to you by Rachel Ma (ASTi1)

A visit to a contemporary museum or gallery might leave a lot of people confused. For example, abstract expressionism, one of the most long-lasting art movement with usually an extraordinarily high monetary value in the art market, is often the source of this confusion: for example, this painting by Mark Rothko “Orange, Red, Yellow”, sold on May 8, 2012 at Christie’s for $86,882,500. People might think in their head “Oh I could do that!” or “That look like child’s scrabble.”

To try to understand this confusion, first up, let us sum up a little the characteristics of abstract expressionism from an art history point of view, we see often expressions like:

  • does not depict the reRacehl article 1cognizable, visual world; no attempt to reproduce or even to suggest nature; the limitless potential of color and form divorced from representation
  • paintings explore the power of line, color, texture and form for their own sake in order to bypass literal perception and access unconscious awareness
  • not simply a new style, but a revolutionary idiom, uniquely suited to portraying their feelings, and appropriate to a new world view

It’s important to note that we didn’t just dive headlong into complete abstraction in art. From classical art to impressionism to cubism. These arts led the way to show that color, line form and texture could be a subject for a painting.

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Industrialization also had a profound effect on art, introducing new methods of reproduction and we can’t forget about the dawn of photography that certainly called into question the relevance of spending loads of time learning how to paint something realistically.

Rather than devote their lives to mastering a particular medium, some artists began to push the boundaries of those mediums, and even forego them altogether.


The answer to “I could do that” or “A kind could do that.” is

  1. You probably couldn’t do it
  2. You didn’t do it


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Assess if you really could do that, take some hard edge abstraction, like this painting by Piet Mondrian that may, at first glance, seem fairly easy to execute. But if you tried to use oil paint before you’ll know that it can be really tricky to create such smooth lines and a consistent, flat application of color. They seem easy but if you look close enough to it. It is pretty masterful handling of paint and pencil.

If you still think that you could so it. I’d say give it a try. It could be a really interesting experience to see how something is made.


It’s perfectly fine to have a preference for art that displays manual talents unavailable to most.

There is a history to artists beginning in the early 20th century who took on new approaches to material, purposefully avoiding showing off technical skill, and for lots of good reasons: to upset the dominant art trends at the time, to question the value of unique objects, to undermine the commercial system of art by creating work that is unlikely to be trophies for the rich, or to reconsider the separation of art and life.

There’s sculpture that is purposefully unmonumental, paintings purposefully non-virtuosic, drawings purposefully simple. It’s not that these things don’t take skill, they just take different kinds of skill. Research, deduction, collaboration, exploration of new materials, radical thought. Just as we value professions other than skilled labor, we should also value work by artists focused not just on craftsmanship, but on the effective execution of good ideas. It’s the thought they bring to the form, or have other bring to the form, and not just the form itself.

Knowing the characteristics of abstract art, we can see that the point is not to understand the painting, the point is to think about the painting. The goal of abstract art is not to represent any object, but to represent pure feelings.


A good piece would be able to hold a viewer’s attention and generate an emotional response.

As a viewer of abstract paintings, ask yourself the following questions

  1. Am I trying to figure out what it looks like or represents, rather than allowing something to emerge from what I see in front of me?
  2. What are the elements, colors and textures of the painting?
  3. How do these interact with each other?
  4. What emotions does the painting evoke?
  5. What is the title of the painting and how is this influencing what I see?
  6. Have I allowed enough time to make a connection with the painting?


An understanding of this historical background and criticism are important, but really appreciating abstract expressionism is not about reading a textbook, indeed, the quality can be gauged mainly by how it makes you feel.

This is, of course, true of much art. But abstract expressionism works in particular—with their intense color, large scale, and, in Pollock’s case at least, frenzied application of paint—can elicit an emotional response from viewers that requires a physical, often prolonged, encounter with them. And the more you encounter these works, the more you’re able to judge them.

So, when asking what makes a work of Abstract Expressionism good, read the wall label and the date, know a thing or two about the history, and check your own biases. But don’t forget to simply look.



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