Talking About Abstract Art 

In 2001, art historian James Elkins declared that “There is no survey to prove it, but it is likely that the majority of people who have wept over twentieth-century paintings have done so in front of Rothko’s paintings.” Mark Rothko does not depict sad people or tragic scenes, but instead expansive swathes of abstracted colour. 

Andrew Taylor   'Untitled'

Abstract art can be hard to understand or talk about. Despite this, it continues to be one of the world’s most popular genres, conjuring everything from ecstasy to melancholy, tranquillity and intrigue. How can we make sense of this? And how can we talk about abstract art with others? 

Sidney Nolan   'Study for Snake'


What is abstract art? 

It is commonly held that the first artist to create an abstract work was Vassily Kandinsky. According to the Tate however, it was actually a woman – Hilma af Klint. She was a Swedish artist, driven by Theosophy to look beyond the representational world to abstract forms. This spiritualism still follows abstract art, with Australians like John Coburn finding the divine in dancing shapes. 

Other artists however, use abstraction to secular ends. Hard-edge abstractionists like Sydney Ball are interested in pictorial purity. What is the essence of harmony, balance, red, a circle? In this pursuit, an almost surgical preciseness prevails. 

Abstract expressionists however, giddily forego preciseness. For artists like Yvonne Audette, mark-making is but a vessel for action. The artist’s body, energy and humanity lives in the cacophony of their art. 

Alun Leach-Jones   'Untitled, from A Studio Book Suite'


How can we understand abstract art? 

Like all forms of art, abstract art is subjective. The best place to start is with a wandering eye and an open mind. Abstraction pulls away from reality, emphasising the artist’s inner world; in this fluidity, the viewer can emphasise their inner world too. Ask yourself: how do I feel? What are the features of this work, colour, composition, texture? Is the artist seeking to create balance or buzz?


One of the challenges at the heart of abstract art is the extent to which it can ever really depart reality. The mind cannot help but to schematise, classify and recognise. Like a rorschach test, viewers find landscapes and faces in abstract art. Others find visual music. 

For Plato, the highest form of beauty lies not in the real world but geometry. Abstractists would agree. Those tearing up before a Rothko however, may not see geometry in his enveloping plums, pinks and indigos, but lying on the grass at night, the sublime sky infinite and engrossing. They may see the world.