How to look at contemporary abstract art

Broadly speaking, contemporary art can be categorized as either representational (works that portray recognizable objects from the physical world) or abstract. Abstract works are unconcerned with realistic depiction, instead seeking to express the insights and creativity of the artist, without depending on visual references to the tangible world.

While abstract works may at first seem difficult to fathom, the key to appreciating abstract art is to know you are free to form your own associations and connections when viewing the work. Whatever the artist had in mind you, the viewer, are invited to develop your own response to what you see.

Here are a few tips to assist you, when you next view a work of contemporary abstract art:

* Don’t begin by searching for identifiable objects. Abstract art is not concerned with representing a realistic version of something else. It may not look like, or contain, any recognizable thing at all. Accepting this basic premise is immensely freeing – you may stand in front of an abstract work and simply soak in the sensations you experience on viewing the work, without striving to identify familiar objects, or to articulate exactly what it is you see.

* Take your time. Let your eye wander over the work, giving yourself time to take in what you see. Consider the physical qualities of the work – its colours, shapes, lines, textures, forms and composition. Even without any recognizable subject matter, these physical qualities may still be evident within an abstract work. Step back and look at the work from a distance, then move in closer and explore the details – the way the paint coagulates, cracks or splatters on the surface, the harmony or clash of colours, the way light hits or is absorbed by the sculptural forms within the work.

* Consider how the work makes you feel. Let yourself respond to how the work makes you feel. What emotions, memories or sensations does the work trigger for you? There is no right or wrong response – you are free to develop your own associations, and assign your own meanings, to what you see. Don’t be concerned if you’re unable to articulate the sensations you feel – the work may evoke subconscious feelings and emotions that you are unable to understand, let alone able to express in words.

* Consider the context. No art is created in a vacuum - every art work is created at a particular point of time, as a product of the artist’s own culture, history, and the society in which the artist lives. While you remain free to form your own associations and interpretations when viewing a work, you may gain a deeper appreciation by learning a little about the artist, or the environment in which the artist lives. Even the title of the art work can sometimes be an illuminating entry point into what the artist had in mind when creating the work.

* You don’t need to like what you see. If an abstract artwork leaves you cold or turns you off, that is a valid response. However, by taking a few moments to consider why the work does nothing for you, you may extend your personal appreciation of this and other works. Do you find the work sterile, depressing or clichéd? Is there a particular image, texture or association that is offensive to you?

* Keep looking. Perhaps the best way to appreciate any form of art, abstract or otherwise, is to keep looking at as much of it as you can. Hopefully the above tips will be of some assistance, when you next encounter a work of abstract act.


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