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How to Understand Abstract Art

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Published October 28, 2011 | Updated August 11, 2015

The terms abstract art and modern art are sometimes used interchangeably to describe art that doesn't depict recognizable images. Although the two forms overlap, abstract art can actually be seen throughout many different movements, including cubism and fauvism. Abstract art can provoke emotion and convey ideas, but it can also be very polarizing because it is open to interpretation. Once you know the concepts and history behind abstract art, you may have an easier time appreciating it.

Understanding Abstract Art:

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  • The History of Abstract Art

    Although abstract symbols and lines date back to prehistoric times, current abstract art really began to gain popularity in the 19th century. Artists like Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso started creating work that drew on flat shapes instead of realistic three-dimensional objects. This paved the way for well-known geometric artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian. Abstract art that is being produced today draws on the color theory of past artists, but incorporates it into many different styles.

  • Finding Meaning

    Since abstract art generally lacks any imagery that is representative of anything recognizable, the artist's intentions may not be immediately understandable. You can consider, however, that the intention was to give you a chance to stop and really think about the piece instead of seeing it, recognizing a familiar scene, and moving on. Think of the abstract art piece as a puzzle you get to solve. It can be mentally rewarding to find meaning in abstract art.

  • Contextual Clues

    Often a title can be the easiest way to gain perspective on a piece of art. Many pieces of abstract art are named after a particular place or emotion. You can also consider when the art was created. Artists in the 19th century generally tried to evoke emotion by using primal colors and lack of real shapes. In the 20th century, artists ascribed more meaning to the cube, sphere, and cone as they relate to nature. Twenty-first century abstract art is less defined and uses a mixture of both styles to make something visually appealing.

  • Take It All In

    Abstract art is meant to be viewed as parts of a whole, so the first thing you should do when viewing an abstract piece of art is let your eye wander over the entire canvas. Once you have absorbed the big picture, take a step closer to see how each paint stroke, pencil line, or pixel is used in connection with one another. Finally, focus on the emotion that the piece of art makes you feel. Art is subjective, so your response to the painting can be created from how you perceive it.