When art is non-representational, it can feel hard for many to connect with what you are looking at. Unlike the likes of portraiture, still lives or narrative paintings, there is not always a clear answer to what an abstract work is “meant to be”. Plus, the terms that surround these types of works; conceptual, minimalist, expressionist, can be equally as ambiguous and vague. When a composition looks random, strange or even downright simple, it can be easy to disregard it as an elevated work of high art that doesn’t speak to the average person.
However, the enigma that surrounds abstract work is exactly what makes it so exciting. Such art opens the door for manifold questions and interpretations. Essentially, experiencing abstract art is an immersive process. The viewer decides what they see and how the feel, and they are thus an active participant. For these reasons and more, many contemporary artists are grasping just how effectively abstraction can be used as tool to create innovative and impactful art. Here, we will explore highlight the diverse and multitudinous ways abstract work can prove to be just as technical, compelling, or enlightening as figurative art. For one, abstraction is a unique way to capture the feeling of a thing or a place without having to perfectly replicate it. Abstract art demonstrates the power of color, texture and form to evoke particular vibes and immerse us into scenes.
Take a look at American painter Jennifer Guidi, for example. She is best known for using acrylic, sand, and imprints to create abstracted landscapes on shaped canvases. Her painting, Lunar Sunrise, Lunar Sunset, is a contemporary take on a diptych (typically, a painting consisting of two panels to create a single work, presented side-by-side). Here, Guidi alternatively places the two canvases above and below one another—and replacing the traditional rectangular panels, her canvases are instead a circle atop an isosceles triangle.
In lieu of painting out a landscape, the very form and placement of the canvases evoke natural elements: the mountains, the horizon, the moon. The textured application of sand immediately recalls a natural terrain and a connection to land. The colours also work to enhance the submersion into this conceptual vista: The warm corals and oranges slowly blending upwards into a white summit elicit images of desert mountainsides, while the black and navy circle and its glowing red halo give a celestial lunar effect, hinting towards an approaching night time and the vast and endless cosmos that lies beyond.
Another one of her compositions, As I look Into you I begin to see myself (2019), demonstrates similar philosophies of abstraction. Here, Guidi uses a canvas that is heavily horizontally-emphasized. The width of the painting immediately absorbs a viewer, as if they were standing foreshore, looking directly into the ocean. The pleasant blending of pastels and sunny hues capture the energy of a radiating sunset while the dark band of black-blue in the foreground denotes an expansive body of water, its obscurity representing a sublime unknown. While the visual results of her works are often dreamlike and sensual, Guidi’s sand-filled imprints are a reminder of the very human and earthly aspects of her compositions. The size, configuration, and hues of her works encourage contemplation, arguably as abstract scenes of pilgrimage.
This sense of escape into another world—perhaps an unknown land, outer space, or maybe into a kaleidoscopic plane—is just one unique ability of abstract art. Not knowing precisely what you are looking at can stir the imagination, allowing viewers to conceptualize universes based on what they are seeing. Creatives such as German visual artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans attempt exactly this. He creates large-scale abstract works using photographic methods. His Freischwimmer series (2003-) is an iconic example of abstract experimentation. Tillmans uses photographic paper as his canvas, and manipulates light in order to imprint images onto paper. Essentially, light becomes the paint of this series. Using a light pen, Tillmans traces a subject, then allows the developing process to chance—often creating unintended forms and unexpected visual results. The final composition is thus a combination of both intentional technique and uncontrolled spontaneity. There is a deliberate subliminal aspect to his work, the dreamlike compositions posing as contemporary Rorschach tests. He says they are meant to “evoke all sorts of associations, like skin, or astronomy, or chemicals dissolving, and it’s all done by the brain…It’s what your ‘brain association tool’ creates.”
Another recurring phenomenon with abstract art is the unexpected and innovative use of techniques a materials. The no-rules approach of abstract art fosters a spirit of experimentation that results in never-before-seen compositions. Even returning to Tillman’s work, we can see how he is particularly interested in experimental photography, with the goal of pushing the medium beyond indexing. Essentially, he blurs the line between mediums. Though photography is a mechanical process, the result is a surreal and fluid work of art. He simultaneously displays how abstraction not only highlights the inherent psychology of images but also challenges the binaries of modern artistic methods.
The use of abstraction to present concepts of cultural identity has particular momentum currently. Rather than attempting to narrowly define aspects of national heritage or concretely labelling ethnic traditions, abstract art can allow for freer and more subjective representation and interpretation. If themes of identity (personal and cultural) are complex and ever-evolving, the ambiguity of abstraction can thus be the most effective way to display those sentiments. Consider the work of artist Tomm El-Saeh, who can can be considered a quintessential global citizen: born in Haiti, half-Palestinian, and raised in Miami—his work is an amalgamation of his diverse upbringing and experiences. El-Saeh paints dynamic compositions fusing modernist abstraction with motifs and patterns of traditional Haitian Vodou art. He is significantly inspired by popular subjects in figurative Haitian art: marketplace scenes, naïve landscapes, voodoo ceremonies. However, he interprets them non-representationally. He simplifies shapes, emphasizes color as an expression of energy, and uses gesture and pattern as a form of visual language.
His painting, Song and Dance (2018) displays pronounced influence from traditional Haitian voodoo music, where small shapes overlap streams of color in a rhythmic depiction of patterns that evoke a visual symphony of percussion, vibration, and fluid movement. Another work, Solar (2018), features geometric patterns recalling vevès, voodoo line drawings used during ceremonies to call upon spirits. These religious symbols often incorporate stars, crosses, and shapes such as hearts and diamonds. El-Saeh subtly infuses the composition with similar forms all across the canvas. His vibrant color palette is similar to that of the earlier figurative Haitian naif painters that emerged during the 1950s, but his contemporary process depicts scenes of cultural identity and aesthetics through rhythmic pattern and form. He has explained, “abstraction lends itself more to the idea of music. It’s more about the feeling. When you see my paintings, you probably won’t remember them specifically, but you get a vibe from them and it allows you to put your own meaning into the painting.”
Abstraction can tend to highlight the materiality of artwork. Because it is a non-pictorial genre, the physical and formal aspects of a composition are more prominent. Many artists have noticed this and use the emphasis on materiality as a way to parallel conceptual themes. Angel Otero is one such artist who deconstructs abstract canvas compositions to create visuals that reflect the complex and layered stories he desires to tell. His process is fascinating: over the course of days or weeks, Otero paints a plexiglass surface with layers and layers of paint, which dry and compile into a thick sheet. He then peels the paint off as a single sheet and drapes the paint skin onto a canvas. The density of the paint, unraveling of the canvas, and textured appliqués add a physical dimension to his paintings, bringing attention to the material aspects of art and how it can be displayed. Otero undertook this innovative approach, elucidating: “I was tired of the canvas and the frame, and I knew I wanted to embrace something more sculptural without departing from conversations about painting.” With this technique, he constructs abstract narratives of his personal history.
His intricate and sprawling compositions act as a conceptual photo album, an intimate and revealing gaze into familial history and personal identity. Dreaming in Blue (2019) incorporates physical mementos of his youth into his characteristic paint skins. Here, he collages his constructed layers of paint with objects from his childhood, attaching segments of blue lace to the composition—the very fabric that his grandmother used to crochet. His work is thus autobiographical, offering peeks into his past while encouraging contemplation on themes of memory and tradition. Just as with El-Saieh, Otero’s abstract art makes constant references to his culture. Red Milagro (2018), the word for “miracle” in Spanish, is an ode to his homeland of Puerto Rico and the cultural tradition whereby people collect charms as votives of good luck or gratitude. The composition evokes a giant quilt, and its patchwork quality and frayed edges hint at childhood memories and nuanced nostalgia. The work is in fact made up of fragments of past paintings, emphasizing the notion of recollection and echoes of the past. However, the negative spaces in the canvas can come to symbolize a lapse in recollection, or perhaps more optimistically, a space for future souvenirs. The voids within the canvas are for viewers to fill with their own perspectives and evocations.
Because abstract art evades strict definitions or visual clichés, viewers can interact with works from different perspectives on a transcendent level. Rather than studying a photograph of a different land, or reading a book documenting a person’s story, an abstract work can provoke an immediate innate reaction. Australian Aboriginal art has been a contemporary sensation that further proves the far-reaching power of abstract art. These compositions typically comprise of narratives or landscapes, constructed with dots and lines in vibrant hues. From afar, the paintings resemble optical illusions, and from up close they are textured and animated—yet extremely meticulous. In Papunya Tula Aboriginal painting tradition, painters depict stories that have been transmitted to them from familial predecessors. Essentially, compositions are aesthetic transcriptions of ancient stories and traditions into a composition on canvas. These works embody the notion of the visual storytelling; where paintings are an unfolding of dreams and sacred histories. Yukultji Napangati is one of the most renowned Australian Aboriginal artists of our time, and much of her work centralizes on stories from her maternal ancestors. Similar to artists such as Guidi, Napangati employs texture and color to capture an atmosphere. The grainy compositions and warm color palette are reminiscent of the desert landscape in which she grew up. Her paintings can be interpreted as perpetual landscapes, representing the resilient land that sustained her people from former eras to present day. She has even played with unique display techniques, at one point configuring a painting on a gallery floor facing the ceiling, further emphasizing a sense of place and grounding of homeland within her work.
Napangati’s painting practice not only results in visually-captivating depictions of cultural heritage, but also ensures ancestral histories are permanently transcribed and accessible to future generations. What is especially pertinent to note is that this form of abstraction evolved separately from mainstream modern abstraction. This indigenous tradition developed isolated from Western trends in modern art, and reinforces arguments proving humans’ intrinsic interest in using patterns and non-figurative painting to create a viable visual language.
Abstract art also has the ability to creatively embody political messages that allow for a variety of interpretations. Instead of imposing opinions or suggesting concrete conclusions, abstraction can encourage questions and create platforms for open discussion. American visual artist Vaughn Spann has incorporated abstraction and iconography to create nuanced political work that aims to do exactly this. The letter X is a recurring motif in Spann’s work, and the artist has come to state that the symbol actually represents the artist himself. His work, Cosmic Symbiote (Marked Man) explores personal and societal narratives through the use of this ambiguous symbol. He elaborates how he took “an interest in assigning new meaning to an extremely recognizable form. How can I take an X, allow it to be my muse for painting, invite conversations of color, line, form, yet allow it to open deeper conversations?” This interest was sparked after a traumatizing stop-and-frisk experience he endured during his university years, where he was forced to spread his legs and hold his hands in the air. This defenseless pose sparked his initial intrigue in the form. However, Spann also appreciates that the X structure is easily-recognizable, graphic, and endless in symbolic potential. Thus, while his paintings are inspired by his personal experiences and commentary on social issues, he views his work as an open platform for discussion. Spann values abstraction for its ability resonate with a wide audience by remaining unbarred by singular interpretations. Soul of a Nation (2019) also depicts a universally recognizable form with limitless metaphorical potential: the circle. It is an applicable symbol for our world, life cycles, renewal, or totality. Spann specifically made the work as a response to the global pandemic, which he felt bared the cyclical nature of time and a bleak confrontation of life and death. However, the spherical glowing red form also recalls of the sun, which the artist painted in a textured and sensual manner, providing a reassurance of the power of the natural world and hopeful return to equilibrium.
Overall, these examples illustrate the creative application of abstraction as a form of universal symbolism to comment on contemporary issues while leaving space for viewers to contemplate, debate, and arrive at their own conclusions. These are but a handful of examples demonstrating just how visually- impactful, methodical, political, or even spiritual abstract work can be. Non-representational art asks for effort by its viewers; we are given a responsibility to decipher forms, translate symbols and assign meaning. But that effort, in the end, it is what makes experiencing abstract art so rich.