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How to Understand Abstract Art

by Amanda Mears

A piece of abstract art

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:

  1. Know 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.

  2. Look for 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.

  3. Let your eye wander. 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.

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