How to look a abstract is like explaining to someone how to listen to jazz, or what to appreciate in modern dance. Sometimes I am asked to explain a painting. The intent here is understandable, assuming that something can be better or more fully appreciated with some background information. Some abstract paintings will have subjects or forms that are vaguely representative – objects can be identified. This is satisfying to the brain, to our emotions. Just prior to the advent of abstract painting, the impressionists informed the public that the forms they were used to seeing were actually made up of fragments, particles of light, a myriad of reflections. It took awhile for the public to respond to this new way of seeing nature, of viewing form.
When there are no references – when nothing is recognizable we are mentally and emotionally placed in a very different orientation. How to look at an abstract painting has very much to do with releasing of preconceptions. By accepting the images as they are, without judgement allows the viewer to comprehend the message of the painting. An abstract painting is rarely intended to impart some sense of profoundness. A relaxed and receptive viewer however may discover the ‘message’ the artist was attempting to manifest. More often the viewer discovers something that resonates for them alone. Each viewer may see something entirely different and even different from what the artist had intended to convey. This is the ultimate benefit to abstract and especially non-objective painting.
As a rule non-objective painting especially is rarely planned out completely. There may be sketches, there may be patterns that have been worked out and sometimes there is a distinct feeling an artist is hoping to convey. Once the painting begins other forces come to play. These forces operate beyond any original conceptions or design. One of the purposes of abstract painting is to allow these inherent and internal forces to be seen. One element that is put down and painted tends to demand a sympathetic painterly response. This goes on and on as the painting is developed. When a viewer can detect these relationships and even to imagine how the painting developed is what makes viewing abstract art so exciting. It goes beyond or under reality. We like to say it comes from the sub-conscious, at least there is a synergy between the conscious original idea and the sub-conscious that is brought forward. The artist allows the two elements to work together. Next time you look at an abstract or non-objective painting, ask yourself how you feel about the painting. How does the painting make you feel? What passages in the painting appeal to you ? Internally do you feel a connection to the piece? The effort to make sense of this type of painting is a waste of effort, any more than trying to make sense of good jazz. Just enjoy the piece as it is. Let it speak to you on its own terms.