Pictures of Nothing: Understanding Abstract Art

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1970. Oil crayon on canvas, 405 x 640 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 173 x 264 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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.

Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Tunis’, 1978. Acrylic on canvas. 170 x 285 cm. Private collection.

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

Ellsworth Kelly, Neuilly, 1950. Gesso on cardboard mounted on wood, 58 x 80 cm. Collection of the artist.

Mark Rothko, Rust and Blue (Brown Blue, Brown on Blue), 1953. 293 x 234 cm. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55. Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 107 x 154 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II, 1967. Acrylic on canvas, 305 x 258 cm. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

Sol LeWitt – Serial Project 1 -A 6, 1967. Baked enamel on aluminium. The estate of Sol Lewitt and ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015. Courtesy Cattelain Collection/Pace Gallery.

Gerhard Richter, Gray Streaks, 1968. Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Private collection.

Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969. Lead antimony, four plates, each 122 x 122 x 2.5 cm. The Museum of Modern art, New York.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled IV, 1978. Oil on canvas, 178 x 204 cm. Collection of the artist.

Rachel Lachowicz, Color Chart Flat #1, 1992. Eye shadow in aluminum pans mounted on aluminum panel, 121 x 119 cm. Private collection.

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