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Abstract vs. Representational Part 2

by Keith Bond on 8/30/2010 1:33:29 PM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


THANK YOU! Thanks to everyone who contributed to the conversation about Abstract vs. Representational art. I appreciate everyone's point of view. The conversation was great. And as promised, this week I will summarize your comments and add mine. 

Summary of some of the themes in the comments 

I can't list everything here ? there's well over 200 comments and counting, but I found these themes interesting and/or prevalent. It would be well worth your time to read everyone's responses if you haven't yet. 

-       Most Appreciated both Abstract and Representational Art

I found it interesting how many appreciated both camps. Many of you even work in both.

-       All Art is Abstract

A common thread throughout the conversation is that all art is really an abstraction. When using shapes of color or value to represent an idea, it is abstract, regardless of how representational or non-representational the final result is.

-       A Number of You Felt the Other Genre was Harder

Many of you had a great respect for artists who could do what you couldn't do.

-       Quality is More Important than Style

This came up time and again. It is more about how well the artwork is done. Both abstract and representational art has examples of really strong work and some really bad work. 

-       Abstract vs. Representational is a Continuum

Most art lies somewhere along the continuum between the two. It is often difficult to know where one label ends and the other begins.

-       Few Disliked the Other

A few of you disliked the other genre. The reasons seemed to be primarily because there was no or little emotional connection. It had little to do with the style itself (with a few exceptions).

-       As Artists Mature, They Become More Abstract

Hmmm? I found this notion interesting. Many of you brought this idea up in one way or another. I don't completely agree with the argument. An underlying assumption with this statement is that abstract must be superior ? for as an artist grows, she becomes more abstract. Thus, growth = better artist = abstract. I don't think abstract is superior. Neither is representational art. When authentic and with skill, both are powerful and moving. When inauthentic, or lacking in skill, both are crap! But, I digress?

My Take

First, look at the following works of art:

Autumn Rhythm, #30, Jackson Pollock, 1950


Towering Trees, Daniel Garber, 1911


Which painting is abstract? Pollock's of course. And Garber's is clearly representational. 

Let's look again at the statement we're addressing: as an artist matures, he becomes more abstract. The argument is that with greater understanding of the underlying abstract design, over time, there is less need to render detail. This is because the abstract qualities of the design begin to dominate. With even more time, the abstract design possibilities begin to lessen the need to represent any actual motif. Thus the work becomes strictly about the abstract qualities. 

Look again at the two paintings. 

Which has the stronger abstract design qualities? 

The Pollock is certainly abstract. But there is little or no form, design, composition, etc. in his work. It is about randomness and movement. There are other qualities of abstraction which are prevalent in his work, but not design.

Garber, on the other hand, had a very strong sense of design which served as the foundation to his paintings. Regardless of the amount of detail, the painting is striking in its simple (yet powerful) abstract shapes. He also had a keen sense of value and color harmony.

But his understanding of the abstract didn't cause him to paint abstractly ? or I should say, non-representational. Rather, he used it as a foundation to strengthen his work. The abstract framework was simply a place to hang his detail work on. Art history has many examples of such master artists.

Thus, the blanket statement that representational artists become more abstract when they mature is, in my mind, false. Sure, some do. But certainly not all. 

I must qualify this, though. It is true that many artists strive to say more with less. If one were to isolate individual passages within the composition, there is much abstraction. Even in Garber's example above. But, this does not necessarily mean that an artist becomes more abstract in terms on becoming non-representational.

An artist who is a perpetual student will improve. To improve means to be better able to express oneself.  For some, this means gravitating to another style or genre. But for others, improvement and maturity simply takes them further down the path they were already on. 

So, yes, a representational artist might become more abstract with maturity. But the representational artist also might simply master the fundamentals of design, color, drawing, values, etc. and still work in a representational manner.

Likewise, the beginning abstract artist isn't automatically more mature than the representational artist. The beginner in abstract must also learn and grow and develop. Will this artist become more abstract as he matures? Perhaps. Maybe not. But the artist will likely get better.

It matters not whether the artist moves laterally as she matures. Moving laterally along the continuum does not necessarily equate to maturity and improvement. What does matter is that the artist moves upward. This and only this is a sign of growth. Any lateral movement is simply a matter of finding the voice from within. Some find it earlier and never deviate. Others find it later. Some have more than one way to express that voice ? being in both camps. But to move upward is to express your voice with greater proficiency and skill.

Best Wishes,

Keith Bond


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Related Posts:

Abstract vs. Representational

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Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration 

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Helen Horn Musser
Keith, you say it so eloquently, I am bowing to your wisdom. Great Post!

Charlotte Herczfeld
So well put, Keith. Agree fully with you.

I've never seen it before, but there is actually a hint of a division into three parts (equal), in the Pollock. It is either planned, or, it proves that even in chaos the human mind will strive to find a pattern. Wonder which.

Design and composition is everything. I was one of those not resonating much with abstract, but those abstract works I do like, they are designed and composed. Same goes for representational, in fact.

Another thing that is Everything: The joy of creating, regardless of style.

Happy painting/sculpting/code writing!

Durwood Coffey
There is no difference, they are both the same. I'd be called a representation artist, when viewing my art. Art is all about composition, the seven elements of design. If the viewer see a cat, dog or a splash the art will be successful has long has the composition is correct. We all have heard some one say about an abstract painting "I don't like abstract art, but I like this painting" cause again, the composition is correct. Design speaks to our inner self. I think artist at times get caught up on what the object looks like, example: "Shimmery light thur a window" so they talk about the "Shimmery light" to try understand "Shimmery light". If an artist approaches the subject with the understanding of "values" than they would be very successful capturing Shimmery light. I hope this makes sense

George De Chiara
I too found the results of this interesting to read. I was amazed at the common themes that ran through the responses. Thanks for summing it all up Keith.

Carol Schmauder
An interesting summarization of the comments...thanks for this article.

Joanne Benson
Hi Keith, Well said. I agree that mature artists don't necessarily become more abstract. In my own experience, I have grown to appreciate abstract art more as I have matured and that is mainly because I can appreciate the composition and design elements and these appeal to me. The beautiful thing about art is that there is room for all styles and voices!

Esther J. Williams
I definitely have begun to think more abstractly as I mature and gain experience in art knowledge. Still, my latest painting is representational, I just look at all the design elements first before I begin to paint and keep them in mind while the work is in progress.
I can be called a perpetual student, I crave knowledge in art, love to learn it`s language and put it to use in experimentation. Right now, I have books on the anatomy of the human and the fundamentals of art I am reading. I go through stages where I focus on one fundamental, like presently, it is color.
If I can expand my mind about the meaning of all the elements, my art can only improve. Keeping in mind though that using all the elements in a balanced, cohesive, easy on the eyes approach is the best. The human eye is a fickle thing, too much to see is overpowering.
We are rewriting the book on art as we speak, where will it go next, is unknown and then again it is a knowing waiting for us to discover.

Carl Purcell
I appreciate the summing up Keith - well done! I would add that as an artist matures he or she must (for continued growth) become more aware of and more competent in the use of the elements of shape, color, value etc. I find that for some paintings I wish the result to be very representational, yet I arrange the shapes etc in an abstract manner to enhance the design. However, with other paintings I want to talk about the rhythm or pattern of shapes etc. and so I turn to a nearly non-representational approach. Gratefully, I am free to do whatever I want. Careful drawing is the discipline that has won me that freedom.

max hulse
Keith Some have expressed the opinion that
all art is abstract, and that all art has value.

What would you say about art created by driving
across a canvas with a golf cart, or throwing
paint at a canvas, or having a monkey paint one,
or elephant dung attached?

That might exhibit some creativity, but it is
difficult for me to attribute much value to
that kind of artisitic expression.

Max Hulse

Keith Bond

To me, elephant dung is just crap!

But your question is a difficult one to answer. If someone else feels that it is artistic, even if I don't, does that mean it has value? Or not?

I do think there is a continuum with profound, meaningful art on one end and shallow, meaningless art on the other. On both ends (and all along the continuum), you will find all types of art: realism, abstract, expressionism, concept art, installation art, and every other type.

And yes, I think sometimes there is stuff labelled art that is just...well...crap!

Joanne Benson
Keith, I agree about the continuum and the crap!

Joy Handelman
You chose wonderful examples. I am always puzzled when a painting like the Pollock has a name that seems to refer to something. Autumn Rhythm sets up certain expectations which (I think) he set out to topple and turn inside out. I do think the real subject is randomness (which makes it not random!). In its lack of visual reference to the world we see, the Pollock is a cerebral representation of an idea. The Garber to me does both things so very well. It refers to the world we see and yet the emphasis on the shapes -- their unexpectedness -- makes us see the trees as shapes as well as trees. I love the Garber because it shows me a new way of seeing and yet is beautiful in itself. Thank you for the article!!!

Debra Davies
Keith, this article has been extremely fun to follow, but has opened the door of opportunity for me to say,(or vent) what has long been bothering me.
As you can see, so many artist do, or would, expand themselves into other areas of creative expression, if galleries hadn't come up with using the word "cohesive". In other words, what they are saying is,basically all of your work has to have strong similarities to sell. I don't know about you, but I can't think of anything more that would deter an artist from expanding and growing in their self expression or trying new materials than that.
Personally I paint both, and use the medium that I think would best express the idea, yet everyday I find myself questioning or doubting what I should be doing to try to get my work to have a more "COHESIVE" look.
I have so many ideas in my sketchbook, but keep closing the book, due to not making that final commitment to a certain "style or look". This attitude, or word, seems to have transcended from galleries to critics, judges, and even the public.
I love the challenge and study of realism, but have to express strong emotions with abstacts. Sometimes a picture just won't do, I need line and color, etc... to get my point across.
I think that the word cohesive being used to sell an artist work, has made it much easier to divide us into groups, but in turn, has also stiffled many great works that will never be seen.
Maybe more of the public would appreciate or at least have a better understanding of the life and emotions of an artist, if they could see all pieces that flow from within... good or bad, abstract or representational, oil or acylic.
I guess I'm just the typical artist, out to change the world!

Julia Bright
Here is what Picasso had to say about his own painting style vs. the old masters:
"From the moment that art ceases to be food that feeds the best minds, the artist can use his talents to perform all the tricks of the intellectual charlatan. Most people can today no longer expect to receive consolation and exaltation from art. The 'refined,' the rich, the professional 'do-nothing,' the distiller of quintessence, desire only the peculiar, the sensational, the eccentric, the scandalous in today's art. I myself, since the advent of Cubism, have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied these critics with all the ridiculous ideas that have passed through my mind. The less they understood them, the more they admired me. Through amusing myself with all these absurd farces, I became celebrated, and very rapidly. For a painter, celebrity means sales and consequent affluence. Today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone, I do not have the effrontery to consider myself an artist at all, not in the grand old meaning of the work: Giotto, Titian, Goya were great painters. I am only a public clown ”" a mountebank. I have understood my time and have exploited the imbecility, the vanity, the greed of my contemporaries. It is a bitter confession, this confession of mine more painful than it may seem. But at least and at last it does have the merit of being honest."~Pablo Picasso, 1952

Kaitlin Gray
Very interesting thoughts. When I read the first article, and the various comments attached, I didn't read 'artists becoming more abstract as they mature' in the physical sense. To me, it just says that as artists mature there is more thought going into the work. Ideas being abstract. Whether the work is physically abstract or representational isn't the point. Better work is simply More Thought Out. At least, that is my thinking. =)

Rich Moyers
Aiming to be a great "Painter" like: Giotto, Titian, or Goya is NOT all there is to producing great "art"

As ARISTOTLE said: " The aim of art is to represent NOT the OUTWARD APPEARANCE of things, but their inward significance, .....and THIS.......and NOT the external manner and detail, is TRUE REALITY "

Art is Hard Work, requiring physical skills and mental acuity...BOTH styles of artworks can result in either works of substance or folly, and then fall anywhere "along the continuum" as Kieth has stated.

Whether you choose one over the other is usually a pointless self-defensive exercise, because you are already convinced that there is ONLY ONE style of "art" that deserves to be respected.

FYI: I own and appreciate BOTH Representational AND Abstract Original ART, from MANY different Artists....something that is sadly VERY rare among most practicing artists, many of whom decry other styles of art for it's successes, and yet fail to support any other efforts but their own,... regardless of any artistic affinity or merit in the art they may personally agree with.

"...As ARISTOTLE said: " The aim of art is to represent NOT the OUTWARD APPEARANCE of things, but their inward significance, .....and THIS.......and NOT the external manner and detail, is TRUE REALITY "..."

The tricky (and interesting) part is that who is to say what the true reality is? I think later philosophers concluded that there are *multiple* realities. And are some things imbued with greater inward significance than others? Or, as Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Just killing time until lunch... ; )

Jana Parkes
Wonderful recap, Keith!

What I want to say is that another way we look at art is with our brain, both the left and right hemispheres.
I think the left brain looks to see if it can recognize what it is, or represents, and relates it to our personal history.
I think that the right brain sees the 'energy' of it, what is there, but not seen with our physical eyes.
And I think we 'see' with some combination of both, but often we don't know it consciously, especially with the right brain. And I think we all have our personal preferences,...which is what makes the world go round.
Energetically, to me, and this is where art is subjective, I like the Pollack piece better, as it has more flowing energy, but it also has some angsty spots that are heavier. And, it is a bit chaotic.
And, again to me personally, the Garber piece has something enervating or depressing about it, although there are some spots where I see 'life' energy.
And, I see in both the "divinity" energy that creating art is. And having spent some time really looking at both, I feel changed.
just my thoughts in this moment. : )
blessings to all.

Sue Martin
I found the summary to be most interesting and I agree with Keith's conclusions. I also agree with Carl's statement that as we artists mature, the principles of design (hopefully) become ingrained and the practice/manifestation of those principles improves the finished product whether representational or purely abstract. I believe the key is "ingrained." When the principles are used academically or self-consciously, as when we are still learning, the painting can seem stiff/unemotional. But when we can get caught up in the subject (or form/color/rhythm, if abstract), with the subliminal/long-practiced principles guiding us, the emotion that results in the painting is magical.

Julia Bright
To Rich Moyers, Wow - I guess you feel really strongly about this - Picasso did tend to produce strong feelings in people :) No need to e-shout, though....

Jason Mehl
Hmm, it seems that my progression went from abstract (as a child) to representational, to realism, and back to abstract. Perhaps it goes in cycles? haha :)

sorry to dig up an 8 month old post, but I'm new here, and there's tons of great reading.


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