Interpreting Abstract and Modern Art


Jennifer D.

As I was scrolling through a blog one day, I noticed a post asking me to tell the difference between artworks created by toddlers and modern artists. I felt assured that I could distinguish those two kinds of paintings just by observing techniques within brushstrokes. However, in the end I failed to recognize most of the modern artwork. In fact, a reporter from ABC News who ran the test assumed that real artists wouldn’t fall for the trick, so he invited some to take their test. Still, most of them also identified some of the kids’ work as the masters’ (“You Call That Art?”). This statistic suggests to me that the criterion for assessing abstract art has been quite unclear. This ambiguity in rules has given abstract art an aura of mystery, attracting many artists to seek this art form. If even artists themselves cannot tell the difference between modern paintings and children’s doodles, how do artists and curators in galleries and museums determine if abstract art is real art, and how to interpret it?

“The standard for good abstract artworks is the same as for great artworks in general,” is the answer I heard from Michael Knutson, an abstract artist and professor at Reed College. “It is not different than, but part of the same. They are coherent, they are beautiful, they have a strong impact upon the viewer, and they may be challenging, too.” Building on Knutson’s words, Gwendolyn Schrader, a curator from the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, later told me that what makes a great piece of abstract artwork is “the intention, application and mastery of the material.”

Knutson and Schrader recognize that abstract art has always been a controversial subject, mainly because it has a totally different approach compared to classical art, which has been around for thousands of years and is often much easier to identify the elements and expressions. After the invention of the camera, recognizable paintings were undervalued, thus leaving modern abstract artists more room for imagination when creating artworks (Canaday 3). According to Hilton Kramer’s article from the 80s in The New York Times, “What Abstract Art Achieved,” there is “no settled opinion about either its merits or its meaning” and even “some of the most highly acclaimed talents … have rejected the esthetics of abstraction in favor of one or another mode of representation” (Hilton). However, it was not just the specialists who were arguing the value of abstraction but also the general public.

During my interview with Michael Knutson, he told a story about two Russian artists who came into the United States in the late 1970s. They did a survey, asking people what they most like to see in paintings and works of art. It turned out that most people enjoy landscapes of a certain style and a certain color, while what they least want to see is something flat, with bright colors and abstract forms. They also surveyed people from other countries; that was the case with people all around the world–they wanted realistic things, and landscape is the most popular. “I do not think there are a lot of people interested in buying abstract artworks.” Knutson added.

In view of the controversy of abstraction, Schrader purposed that “abstract art is quite subjective” depending on the observer; people have different feelings and reactions when looking at a piece of artwork. Abstract artworks have various purposes likewise; they can be commercial, decorative or expressive to the viewer. For the collectors, buying an art can be an investment or just for personal ornamental. “The financial market is a little skewed,” Schrader acknowledged. “Sometimes the market is not fair to the artists.” Having a benefactor and being successful while still alive is not something that all the artists can achieve. The popularity of abstract artworks always depends on the viewers’ opinions and whether they think this kind of art form holds real value compared to figurative art.

Against these odds, abstract art persists and continues to evolve with the times. Its unique approach of using aesthetics, representing ideas and perceptions of the modern and ideal society, can be seen everywhere around the world at present. There are many types of abstract art, such as Expressionism, Surrealism, Geometrism and Constructivism. Although the founding of abstract art can be traced to late 19th century, it is still considered “new and progressive”, continuing to have enormous influence on the entire visual culture (Hilton). Kramer puts forth the idea that abstract art is created by the artists who have faith in their spiritual duty of displaying forms that correspond to a higher field of being. Building on this idea, John Canaday, writing in the 50s, claimed that “if a subject can be expressed through angles, lines, shapes, colors, arrangement, and other abstract elements, there is no reason why [the artist] has to depend any longer on even semi-photographic reality” (Canaday 6). In other words, he considered abstract art to be much more “advanced” than figurative art. This specific art form presents ardently held ideas on a variety of communal topics, shaping the notion of an ideal society from the chaos and conflicts of one’s real life (Hilton). When painting, nonfigurative artists favor their own unique way of developing shapes and forms using “curved lines and unabashed displays of feeling” to express themselves (Kramer). Nowadays, many of the contemporary artists depict “[their] personal area of feelings that no words can touch it” and “they feel what they do is so different from anything that has been done in the past that no thought can express it” (Chipp 3). In other words, these artists see abstraction as a valid way to demonstrate a purer and higher form of expression than figurative art. Therefore they see abstract art as real art.

Picasso is inarguably the most influential abstract artist from the 20th century till now, touching “every major artist and art movement that followed in his wake” (“Pablo Picasso and His Paintings.”). Unlike many other artists, who were penniless and frustrated throughout their lifetimes, Picasso was one of the few young men to have made it as an artist financially and internationally; no other artists had such an impact on the art world or had a mass following of fans and critics to the extent Picasso did (“Pablo Picasso Biography”). Now known as the father of modern art, he was the founder of Cubism and a major contributor to Surrealism and Symbolism. According to John Canaday, Cubism is a drawing that “reduces the depiction of objects to a vocabulary of shapes that no longer draw their inspiration from direct description” (Canaday 5). However, these methods were not present in his early works.

Although Picasso mastered the traditional techniques of painting and drawing as a child prodigy, he chose to manipulate the forms, colors, and shapes in his own way by abandoning the existing harmonies of flowing light that had been held in esteem since the Renaissance (Canaday 5). What caused his artworks to be so popular as well as controversial was that he was not afraid to depict pieces that other artists of the time would turn away from, such as mixing war with peace and depicting the different emotions which he was feeling. Furthermore, he created art that challenged people’s ways of looking at the same thing by mimicking what objects looked like in different dimensions (“Pablo Picasso and His Paintings”).

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Figure 1 (The Studio)

The Studio, painted by Pablo Picasso in 1928 (Figure 1), displays “the vivid palette of Synthetic Cubism” (Flint). Picasso has been depicting artist’s activities on canvas though the theme of the studio from 1927 to 1929; according to Lucy Flint, this painting is most significant because “the theme of the interaction of reality and illusion explored here was a central concern for Picasso throughout his life” (Flint). In general, one can interpret the idea behind Picasso’s paintings through the representational forms: it is obvious that on the left side of the painting stands the artist–himself holding a palette and a brush; on the right side of the painting sits a table with a fruit holder and a plaster bust on top. Picasso simplifies the outline he sees from most objects to just straight lines; in his own words, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them”, suggesting that he takes observations from different angles and perspectives (qtd. in “Pablo Picasso Biography”).

Unlike many figurative paintings of portraits and landscapes, Picasso’s artworks are so simplified that “a second-rate picture along the lines of the Picasso is simply no good at all,” according to John Canaday (Canaday 8). Some realists argue that Picasso’s paintings do not demonstrate a high level of proficiency, while abstractionists believe that the enjoyment people take from Picasso’s paintings, like The Studio, is more pure than real life figurative paintings (Canaday 10). I notice that while the composition of The Studio is idealized to a certain extent, the viewer is still able to recognize the elements in the painting, for there is “a cord of interest vibrating between the painter and the model” and “a dozen similar relationships, [forming] a kind of secondary, concealed but important, supporting structure” (Canaday 10). Therefore, in order to be successful in the world of abstract art, one needs to master the techniques of simplification and construction.

When I was associating Picasso’s masterpieces with the abstract movement with Michael Knutson at his art show, he commented, “Picasso never painted completely abstractly without some kind of a recognizable subject matter. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. All painting is in some way an abstraction–even the most realistic paintings are simplifications of things that you are looking at in the world. Obviously a painting of an apple is not the same as an apple; it is a flat representation of it.”

In Michael Knutson’s own artworks, on the other hand, one would not be able to observe the representational forms as directly as in Picasso’s. He himself is a Portlander in his early sixties, broad and tall with a mane of thick white hair. He is creative and highly opened to new ideas; most of his images are computer generated in the style of non-objective, which means that he depicts objects “in an abstract or purely formalized way, not as they appear in reality” ( Although many people argue that non-objective art is totally different from abstraction, as far as I am concerned, non-objective art is a subfield in abstract art because it does not depict natural things that people can observe directly but from the artist’s own imagination–it is definitely a kind of abstraction.

When I first walked into Blackfish Gallery–a long and narrow space with multiple dividing walls to hang paintings and where Knutson’s artworks were shown, his artworks left me the first impression of waves–all the layers of colors creating a sense of transparency just like the deep blue ocean gleaming, reflecting the sunlight while also showing its own depth in color. As D.K. Row remarks in The Oregonian, “Knutson nurtured a world of his own invention: Cubist-inspired geometric forms that he dilated, smushed, deconstructed and reconstructed into webs, crevasses and gulches of varying simplicity and entanglements” (Row). Although the colors he used in different paintings all have a high degree of purity and contrast with one another, they all harmonize with each other in some way; the three colors that occur the most, which are red, yellow and blue, rotate in each of the individual paintings.

Knutson’s artworks have been elusive and fascinating especially to the young viewers. When I started researching his works online, two questions kept running through my mind–how does he build the layers, and where do his ideas come from? I first conjectured that his artworks are based on colored tissues, which have high transparency, building on top of each other. However, as I took a close look at one of the paintings, I could actually see the gurgitation of the brush strokes within the color lumps, reminding me of impressionism, in which artists also put thick layers onto the canvas. “What I really like in both Van Gogh and Monet is just how they build the paintings with thick pieces of paint,” Knutson noted, “That kind of physicality is something that I really like and that is the way I paint these. You maybe would not think of Van Gogh when you look at these, but he is lurking the eye in these paintings.”

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Figure 2 Inverse Symmetrical Ovoid Lattices I (Dai)

Knutson also mentioned several other abstract artists who influence his artworks–Piet Mondriaan, a Dutch painter in the early 20th century, Jackson Pollock, an abstract expressionist, and Al Held, one of his teachers. “I like the physicality and the clarity in Mondriaan’s work,” he said, “They are very simplified and tactile–just black lines, white background [and] colored squares. With Jackson Pollock, I like the energy of the space in his works; he gets energy by painting on the ground–without having the brush touching on the canvas, he flames the painting so the paint goes in the squirly lines.

“I am also trying to create the same sense of motion in a very different way in this painting–” Knutson paused, pointing at the green and blue colored painting that looks like the surface of the sea (Figure 2), “–starting with something through structure, then I am trying to create something that is in motion. I like seeing things that are pushed to some kind of essence. I start with something that is simple, and then I am trying to make something that is complex by manipulating it on the computer to do the design. What I have done is something that is different from Picasso–he starts with something that is representational and complex, then he simplifies it.”

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Figure 3 (Dai)

The finished product for abstraction might give one a sense of simplicity, complexity, or intangibility. In any case, one would not be able to find out Knutson’s intention and process of creating the work just by staring at the painting. In the middle of the interview, Knutson showed me the sketches that he had brought with him; those were all the secrets behind his artworks. He put those pieces of papers onto the wooden chair in the middle of the gallery and started demonstrating his inspirational source with enthusiasm. “I have been trying to make the same painting for the last forty years, but what it looks like has changed. I start with a spiral, and then I set triangles into it; there are six triangles in each section. And then what I do is place those oval forms inside those triangles. Then I erase away the lines [of the spiral] and scan the composition into the computer. I make three duplicate layers on top of the original one, and then I enlarge it and rotate each of the copies to a different position (Figure 3).” Knutson then picked up his final draft that has the oval form on it and placed it onto one of his paintings and I was almost astonished to realize that the draft matches one of the edges of the painting perfectly.

About three years ago Knutson decided to use triangles as a container for the oval forms. He believes that the spiral creates a kind of “perspective effect” with the triangles where the form’s either pulling into the center or expanding out from the center (qtd in Knutson). “Van Gogh used the spiral,” Knutson told me, “so did Leonardo Da Vinci; I like the spiral because it is a gesture… The spiral provides a certain kind of order; it is a wave setting something in motion, energizing the form. The other thing is that the spiral is off balanced–it is not horizontal or vertical, it is going in its own world. And then the triangulation is just the way I like building on top of the spiral. And since the triangles and ovals are in different shapes and sizes, I like the idea that the spiral causes the triangles to distort, and then causes the ovals to distort.”

The composition of an abstract artwork might start simple and then end up complex, just as Picasso did his paintings; or it can be the other way around, just as Knutson did his artworks. In both ways, the finished product has a chance to achieve greatness and brilliance. When you find yourself in the world of abstract art, you will notice that there are so many possibilities; one would never know what the artist is trying to express just by staring at the painting and one would never know when a random piece of art would become famous–this is all because that abstraction is subjective indeed.

To this day, people continue to ask the question whether abstract art is real art and whether there is a correct way to interpret it in general. “Some abstract art is very much just about the artist’s mood at the moment,” Schrader said. “When you are looking at it, you can sense the mood that they are trying to evoke by the brushstrokes or by the colors that they use. Sometimes, there are some representations in the abstraction so you can tell that it is based after natural scenes. Other times the title will tell you what the work is about. When there is an art called untitled, it is not as important to understand what the artist is trying to express as what you personally get by looking at it. You don’t necessarily need to understand abstract art.” What really matters is your own relationship with what you are viewing. Do not ask the artist what he or she is thinking; ask yourself what you think; interpret the artwork in your own way.

Works Cited

Canaday, John. “Abstraction.” Metropolitan Seminars in Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum

of Art, 1958. Print.

Chipp, Herschel Browning, and Peter Selz. “General Introduction.” Theories of

Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: U of California, 1968. Print.

Flint, Lucy. “The Studio (L’atelier).” Guggenheim. The Solomon R. Guggenheim

Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <>.

Gwendolyn, Schrader. Personal Interview. 23 Nov. 2014.

Kramer, Hilton. “What Abstract Art Achieved.” The New York Times. 29 Sept. 1985, 1st ed.

2014 The New York Times Company. Web. 20 Oct. 2014. <>.

Knutson, Michael. Personal interview. 26 Oct. 2014.

“Nonobjective.” Web. 2 Dec. 2014.


“Pablo Picasso Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Guide to

Modern Art. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. <>.

“Pablo Picasso and His Paintings.” Pablo Picasso Paintings, Biography and Quotes. Web. 13

Nov. 2014. <>.

Row, D.K. “Review: Michael Knutson at Blackfish Gallery.” The

Oregonian Oregonlive. 3 Sept. 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <>.

The Studio. 1927. Paris. By Pablo Picasso. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. <>.

“You Call That Art?” ABC News. ABC News Network, 4 Aug. 2005. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.


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