Abstractionism: What do you see?

In September of 2015, a painting was bought by Kenneth C. Griffin for an exorbitant $300 million making it one of the most expensive art purchases of all time. The painting, named Interchange, is an Oil-on-canvas piece made in 1955 by the renowned abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Like many other things that are tough to understand the painting has a rather inexplicable charm that is revealed upon observing it for a while. The hues of red, yellow and white thrown around haphazardly seem to hold no apparent meaning until you look at it long enough to spot patterns and shapes.

Interchange, Willem de Kooning, Oil-on-Canvas

The factors that determine its value are not clear-cut or unvarying. The value might also depend on factors that are as abstract as the painting itself, such as the painter’s intention to sell and the buyer’s intention to buy. An artwork is valued heavily based on the art movement and time period it belongs to.
This form of art focuses more on the experience of painting rather than achieving a level of accuracy in the depiction of something real. Abstract art has stemmed into many different sub-genres through the times.

Cubism is an offshoot of abstract art that focuses on using geometric figures to define depth and shape. It also tries to depict the subject from multiple viewpoints. Developed and popularised by the artist extraordinaire Pablo Picasso, Cubism has become the most prevalent and admired style of abstract art. Cubism was also mastered by India’s most famous painter of modern times MF Husain.

Girl with a Mandolin, Pablo Picasso, Oil-on-Canvas

Suprematism is another form of geometric abstractionism. In this style, the arrangement of different geometric shapes itself forms the primary subject of a work. A very limited palette is another aspect of this style. Kasimir Malevich developed Suprematism and named it so because he strongly felt that this new idea would be superior to the artworks the past had seen.

In the 1940’s another style of art emerged from the post-war climate in New York City. A style with no rules, it ranges from absolute colourful chaos to careful symmetry. It was said to be an expression of an artists’ imagination and it had no bounds. It was named abstract expressionism. Very often we hear about paintings being auctioned for millions which to many seem ridiculous considering the little sophistication they possess. Barnett Newman’s paintings with solid colours and contrasting lines, Mark Rothko’s canvases of coloured rectangles, Jackson Pollock’s colour splashes are all too eye-pleasing if not anything more.

Onement VI, Barnet Newman, Oil-on-Canvas

A more psychedellic style of art is Fauvism. Here, more emphasis is given to the vibrancy and hard-core nature of art. Characterised by wild brushwork and strong colours, these paintings surface highly saturated colours.

Surrealist art is another interesting take on abstractionism. Pioneered by artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy it is a form that does not belong to our natural realm of perception. The artworks of this genre are most often eccentric combinations of things which you would never picture together unless you were significantly spaced out of reality. Consider this painting of a floating naked lady being ambushed by two tigers coming out of a fish which itself is jumping out of a pomegranate.

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, Salvador Dali, Oil-on-Canvas

I wonder what Dali meant when he proclaimed, “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.”

Another important facet of abstractionism is the idea that the interpretation of a work is completely left to the observer. The painter is not burdened to express his viewpoint in an uncomplicated and straightforward manner. This ends with a work being interpreted in multiple ways and never being misinterpreted.

But we must remember that beneath the layers of colour there is some truth the artist intends to tell. It might be strikingly visible to you at first glance or even remain an intriguing puzzle after minutes of close observation. It was after Van Gogh lost his belief in the man-made interpretation of divinity that his gaze turned to the stars. But in a society with widespread zealotry, a subtle and beautiful thing as art cannot prevail. Painters will still be exiled for hurting sentiments when all they have done and will always do is provoke thought.

Abstract art is an open playing field with no rules and no referees. It is an exercise to ease your mind, you might want to trash the canvases one after another, you might want to keep painting over it endlessly. It is more about the artist than the subject. The abstract can be a reflection of what you are or what you want to be. Painting can be a very pacifying experience and to have no rules is to break free from inhibitions.


-Pranav Parashar, assisted by Priyanjali Roychoudhury.

Pranav Parashar

I hate dogma and credulity. I don’t like people who hate much.

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