How to Fall in Love with an Abstract Painting

“Just don’t get” abstract art? Try this…

Ignore your DNA.

Is that even possible? “Ignore” may be wrong word. Let’s say… be aware of your human nature, and don’t let it cheat you with a cheap experience. If you find yourself picking out a bird and a fire truck in the brushstrokes of an abstract painting, your DNA is probably messing with you. Humans are wired to look for the leopard hiding in the bushes for the sake of our own survival. You can’t make that go away, but you can move past it. Abstract art asks us to shut down that impulse and experience the art differently. That’s why it makes so many people uncomfortable. Instead of inspecting for forms, try following the brushstrokes with your eyes. Try figuring out how the painter was feeling while they were painting.

Feel the presence.

An abstract painting is not a 2D representation of a thing. It’s an object in its own right. It should have presence, and that presence is something you can feel and enjoy. I think one hallmark of a wonderful abstract painting is that — when it’s moved from its usual place — you deeply feel its absence.

 Look for process.

Abstract painters don’t get a comforting “how to paint a teacup in five easy steps” instruction booklet. (Sometimes we really, really wish we did.) Every single painting is uncharted territory, and you better (wo)man up. Every brushstroke you make can narrow your possibilities or make it all go wrong — or turn out to be thrillingly right. (Actually, this is true of all paintings.) There is no comfort zone of “this goes there.” We long for a path, but we’re rebellious enough to cling to chaos. So we each tend to make ourselves a process, a way of working that will lead us through the murk. See if you can figure out how a painting evolved. Artists tend to use their beloved processes over and over. Look for clues. Remember, a process can be about removing colors or elements just as much as adding them. See if you can figure it out, then ask the artist. When you find out everything he or she did to get to that final piece, you might have to take it home with you.