The renowned art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) argued that to interpret art, there needs to be representation of something in the work of art. But works by artists like Twombly confound this interpretation. In abstract art, interpretation does not demand recognition or resemblance, and may in fact profit from its absence.
In his book Pictures of Nothing (Princeton University Press, 2006), the distinguished art curator and historian Kirk Varnedoe, argued that the absence of resemblance allows a work to embrace a great range of intuitions barely imaginable before the work was done. Using Twombly’s huge painting Untitled (1970) as an example, Varnedoe notes that what looks like chalk on a blackboard is neither chalk nor blackboard but actually oil crayon on a gray ground. Since there is no blackboard, the work forces us to deal with what it is. Why the seemingly mindless scribbling, the endless repetition? Varnedoe’s wife, who is an artist, said of this picture that it is so large and complex that it has its own ‘weather’. We sense that there’s a kind of energy to it, a pulse like that of a cosmic nebula. And we keep reaching for analogies – weather, night sky, impulsiveness – for a vocabularly that in the end describes nothing other than this picture. It is what it is.
Jackson Pollock’s wife, artist Lee Krasner, echoed a similar sentiment about her husband’s famous drip paintings. Asked why Pollock stopped giving his paintings evocative titles, Krasner later explained, “Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a painting for what it is—pure painting.
Helen Frankenthaler’s Tunis from 1978 is a another representative example of the “It is what it is” mystique of abstract art. The landscape work is from the artist’s highly acclaimed period of production in the mid- to late-1970s. The title references the capital of Tunisia in North Africa but the details of the real landscape is “lost” in the fiery reds and sultry maroons punctuated by patches of gold, white and black, as if the artist is revelling in the the emotive power of pure, unadulterated abstraction, harnessing color to create a visual and somatic experience that transcends the boundaries of the canvas.
In the end, abstract art is not about representations or even a search for meaning, according to Vernadoe, but rather “a recurrent push for the temporarily meaningless” in the everyday banalities of a man-made world. It is symbolic game. And like all human games: you have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. Not the faith that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with vast imagination that is unique to our species.
More Examples of 20th Century Abstract Art