We have removed the name of the artist, on the first paint­ing below. I hes­i­tate to crit­i­cize any artist, as I do not want any sin­cere artist to feel rejec­tion, or neg­a­tive crit­i­cism of his or her work. Every artist has a right to express them­selves in the best way that they can, and who am I to dis­count any authen­tic, cre­ative act?

How­ev­er, after study­ing art and abstrac­tion for a life­time, there are some things I have to say about the qual­i­ty of abstrac­tion in art. I lived through the 1950’s, and was in art school in the 1960’s. We were bom­bard­ed with abstract expres­sion­ism. DeKoon­ing was our hero. One can won­der why. Why did this man, who’s paint­ings were crude, huge, and often done on news­pa­per, with house paint, leave such an impact on us? Why do his paint­ings move us to such deep reac­tions? Why is he a great, great painter –Per­haps one of the great­est painters of the 20th cen­tu­ry?

In look­ing at the two paint­ings below, I see why the puri­ty of abstrac­tion, done in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, stands head and shoul­ders above the abstract paint­ing that is being done today. Today’s artists seem to be pur­su­ing nov­el­ty, tech­ni­cal toys, and pat designs and col­ors. Abstract art today seems so con­trived. Where is the gut wrench­ing hon­esty? Where is the artist’s soul expressed?

To use these two paint­ings as exam­ples, one can see that the first paint­ing is a “design”. Shapes and marks on a can­vas, hon­est­ly made by an artist who is inter­est­ed in fill­ing the can­vas with col­ors, shapes and lines that are pleas­ing to look at. For me, that is most­ly all that is there. The title implies that these shapes may be inspired by music. We can see the rhythm of some musi­cal com­po­si­tion. The over­all impact of this paint­ing is shal­low. It cap­tures my atten­tion, but for a moment. It is much too easy to read.

Look at the sec­ond paint­ing by Franken­thaler.  Seem­ing­ly a sim­ple com­po­si­tion, at first glance, it draws me in, and makes me want to look more, and look care­ful­ly. I am intrigued by the shapes and the ref­er­ences to objects from my expe­ri­ence. Can it be a human fig­ure splayed across the can­vas? Are there ref­er­ences to land­scape? Of what does it remind me?  Then, I take it apart for­mal­ly. Look at the color…Look at the line. Look at the shapes, and the sizes of the shapes. How does this make me feel? The artist has giv­en me so much to look at, on so many lev­els. What is the mean­ing? What is the poet­ry? Why is it so appeal­ing? What is that small shape of green doing there? If one blocks out the green, the com­po­si­tion com­plete­ly changes and becomes shal­low, and con­trived. The green clicks the com­po­si­tion into place, and com­pletes the paint­ing. The line drawn through the white shape is pure poet­ry. It adds visu­al tex­ture to the work. It implies form. One sees the artist’s hand, and one is moved by the con­fi­dence, the sen­si­tiv­i­ty, and the com­plex­i­ty of this line. It says so much. There is mys­tery. What is the red shape? What does it tell us? Why is it there? It helps to lead our eye around the can­vas. It points the way to the green, and the bot­tom of the can­vas. It acts as a coun­ter­point to the very strong white shape that diag­o­nal­ly slices across the can­vas. I feel the soul of this artist, and I want to look and look and look at this work. It is like a great musi­cal com­po­si­tion that one wants to lis­ten to again and again.

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