Spring 2011

A 4-year-old Cannot Do This

How to Look at an Abstract Painting with Professor Julie Alderson

ONE OF MY GREATEST joys in teaching art is helping students approach challenging work with an open mind. Particularly with abstract art, students often react by saying “That’s not art!” or “My 4-year-old cousin could do that!” Learning how to think more deeply about abstract art—discovering how and why some artists choose to work this way—offers students a truly transformative experience. Understanding how to engage with such art helps them to think critically when exposed to any artwork, abstract or otherwise.

One of the simplest ways to approach a work of art is to examine its “formal” qualities—details such as color, line, shape and space. Such a visual analysis is the first way to engage with a piece, as one must see the work deeply before being able to construct a meaningful analysis. With an abstract work in particular, thinking about its basic visual components is an easy way to “get to know” the painting.

The next step often includes exploring a work’s subject matter. What is depicted? How does the artist choose to portray the subject? In an abstract work, the subject may be less obvious than a tree or a clear figure, but if you look carefully, you can generally pick out key details to help understand the artist’s intentions and meaning.

The final perspective, and the one which I personally find the most rewarding, is to consider the work’s broader context. This is the meaty “Why?” of art. How does what you see reflect the artist’s interests and ideas? How does it connect with the artist’s biography? Does it illustrate the time and place in which it was made? This contextual analysis is often the source of our deepest appreciation for art, especially for abstract work that does not necessarily offer up its intentions easily.

When looking at a specific example, such as HSU Professor Teresa Stanley’s Half an Eight, we can move through these steps toward a deeper understanding. A visual analysis reveals its particular colors and forms. An attention to subject matter teases out schematic diagram elements, as well as the central half-formed “8” of the work’s title. Finally, we can explore the context in which the work was created. Of her reasons for working in abstract art, Stanley says, “Early on, I was suspicious of what I thought was the meaningless formalism of abstraction and was drawn instead to a more confessional and narrative style of painting. Once I was lured by the charms of abstraction, I found that it was unnecessary to leave my narrative sensibilities behind. I continue to this day to fuse together a personal investigation of the self and the physical world with an interest in the formal qualities of space and color.”

One thing to remember, however, is that while an analysis of an abstract painting can lead to interesting and logical conclusions, there is often also something elusive about this art. As Stanley says, “I love the immediacy of the paint, the way that colors, when worked in layers and in conjunction with one another, startle and confound, the paint’s obstinate refusal to obey and the way that after a long struggle, the painting is suddenly resolved in a way that you cannot entirely explain.”

For more information on Professor Stanley’s work, see teresastanley.com