UNDERSTANDING ABSTRACT ART: A Personal Exploration for the General Public

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What is Abstract Art?

       Have you ever wondered what in the world the artist was thinking when s/he created this piece of artwork?  Does it have any meaning at all?  To me, sometimes it looks like many globs of color, assembled in no specific way, for no real purpose!

       And yet, I admire Picasso, even though I don’t understand his work completely!  I salute  Kandinsky for his colors, variety of forms, shapes and composition!  I adore Monet for his contrasts in color (he was not an abstract painter, but he handled his colors in an original way).

       So how do we understand abstract art?   In the first place, we don’t have to find explanations,  if we enjoy the experience of viewing abstract art.  If we “get” the piece, and we feel a connection with it, that’s great!  Ask yourself two questions:  “What do I think about this piece?” and “How do I feel about it?”  BOTH questions have equal importance,  and will provide you with many insights.

      But still, after the pleasure of viewing a piece, there is always the little voice inside us that asks, “What is the artist trying to say?  What in the world does this mean?”  
“Did the artist paint this intentionally or did it just happen?”

Read on…

 Some Relevant History About the AuthorHow I Became Involved in Art

      I am about to tell you two stories that have been twinned in my mind:  one of despair, and one of the development of something new, out of the ashes of despair.  By understanding each of them, separately and together, perhaps one gains insights into the many abstract paintings of life.

      My husband and I had been married for almost 71 years, when he died of cancer.  He also had dementia.  He changed from being a bright, interested in everything man.  Almost overnight,  he became irritable, found it difficult to say how he felt, was forgetful about every day matters,  and also, became more introspective.  The long journey had begun, but neither one of us realized what was in our future.  After about eight years of my pleading, cajoling, reasoning, and heart to heart talks with him, our physician suggested a thorough work-up, which included  seeing a neurologist.  The diagnosis revealed that his difficulties would become progressively worse.

      I read everything I could about his condition, joined a support group, and then, after much crying and feeling sorry for him and myself, I turned to art classes.  I never dreamed that art could be so helpful.  I suddenly found some kind of peace while I was painting, since I was totally engrossed in the process.  It was almost like being in some kind of trance!  I found that I was finally able to support him and not fall apart as I had been doing.  The years went by, and he continued to decline.  Fortunately we became very close, and he eagerly greeted me each time I came to visit him in Assisted Living. We both participated in various activities.   We danced, took part in discussions, celebrated New Year’s Eve together, had dinners together,  pulled out recollections and photographs of our early life together.  He enjoyed having me at his side as we watched a tennis match (he had been on the college Tennis Team) or a movie, together.

     When he complained bitterly about being separated from me, I always changed the subject to something cheerful.  When he announced that  he could no longer tie his shoe laces, I got him easy snap-ons.  When he spoke about things that he could no longer do or things that he could not remember, I quickly changed the subject.  I often would get him to count…he thought that this was silly…but he did count:  he counted in English, backwards as well, and then in French and German, to provide a change from the monotony of this activity. 

     He died in July of 2014, but my life as a caregiver did not end.  I had to care for myself!  First, I had to accept the fact that he no longer existed.  He had occupied so much of my time, visiting with him, taking him to doctors,  participating in activities, attending  meetings about his care, making decisions, finding aides for him…all this abruptly ended.

      During this extremely difficult time, I started art classes.  I began to paint in stolen moments between doctor visits, consultations with staff, sessions with the support groups and additional hospice  people,  having tearful conversations with my family and friends, reading what to expect in the hospice “manual,”  awakening at 3:00 am from frightening dreams, reeling from reading and discussing the updates on his condition and other related activities that balanced the pain with the bliss of still being able to connect with him…All of this made my life bittersweet.  As I look back on that time, I realized some truths about myself and my painting and abstract art.

     Throughout, my painting continued.  I have had many art shows and exhibitions, and oddly enough, my paintings are rather cheerful.  That is one of the wonders of this entire experience.  I am guessing, that part of me was seeking a small corner of optimism and affirmation of life that I expressed in my paintings.  I continue to paint, to have art shows, to get involved in the art world, and discovered that art was my salvation!  I will, of course, always remember my husband and what he meant to me, but through art,  I found a way to keep his memory alive and to create an enhanced life without him.

Does Examining some of my Artist Statements Help With Understanding Abstracts?

      An Artist Statement is a brief explanation of some aspect(s) of art, seen through the eyes of the artist.  I wrote the following selected artist statements for a number of the many solo art shows where my paintings have been on display.

      Artist Statement #1:  “My colors are an exploration of a different world, one that has opened up for me the joy of working with colors, shapes and forms.  I choose colors by picking ones that appear to clash in order to create something that is vibrant and perhaps even unexpected.”   (1) Friendship Heights Village News:  Jan. 2015: 9  Art Show:  Color and Chaos.

     Artist Statement # 2: “…I begin with a concept, choose the colors and shapes and then the direction of the piece begins to flow and I let it happen.  I hope viewers will get a little agitated and ask themselves:  ‘I wonder what she’s getting at.’  Putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation can be good for you because it helps you grow and propels  you into bigger and better things.  The viewer becomes an active participant in enjoying and interpreting the work.  This empowers the viewer and that pleases me.” (2) Program, Art Show:  Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockville, Maryland, June-July, 2015.  Art Show:  Swirling and Surfing in Color.

     Artist Statement #3:  “I have a wonderful time doing art…I’m always amazed at how it all comes together because I only see parts of it as it’s growing, and suddenly, it comes alive…There’s a little rebellious nature in my spirit.  When the teacher said, ‘You might want to copy this, I said, Do I have to?’  I wanted to do my own thing.”  WTOP Rachel Nania’s interview  with Gladys Lipton, 1/6/15.

     Artist Statement # 4:  “This art show invites communication between the artist and the viewers…perhaps a conversation about meaning, style, beauty, interpretation thought and emotion.  It also includes a variety of questions about the artwork:  What planning was involved before the piece was started?  How and why were the colors selected?  Which mood(s) did the artist have, while painting each of the pieces?”  Program, NIH Clinical Center Art Gallery, Jan.-Mar. 2016.  Art Show:   Interest and Interaction.

     Artist Statement # 5:  “My goal is to create interest, in a variety of ways, starting with the size and shape of the canvas.  I often like to include the element of surprise, sometimes including a familiar object, along with the mazes in my artwork.  I encourage viewers to find many interpretations of the visual bursts of colors in my work.  I believe that each painter develops a certain mystique or style, and hopefully, can communicate with viewers, back and forth, on many levels of thoughts and feelings.”           Program, Bethesda Library, Nov. 2015.       Art Show:  It’s Amazing:  Motion and Mystique

     Artist Statement # 6:  “The inspiration for my artwork, personally, is to express thoughts, feelings and my intuitive sense about my many experiences in life.   My hope is that others will find a connection to this inspiration.  Let’s connect.    I get many of my ideas for my artwork from my surroundings, from conversations with different people, from advertisements, from life experiences, from kindnesses of others, from sadness, from anything and everything.  Auntie Mame said it:  ‘Life is a Banquet!’”    Gladys Lipton’s Brochure,  2014.

A Few Random Thoughts About My Abstract Artwork

      In a way, some of these statements explain my own abstract art…such concepts as mystique, motion, interaction between artwork, artist and viewers,   independence and being a rebel,  and the element of surprise are all involved in understanding my abstract art work.  All these elements tend to prepare the viewer for something different, something unexpected, something not quite clear, something  perhaps unknown.  Rarely, do I plan my artwork  very carefully.  Most of the time, I just let it happen, subject to changes along the way.  All of the time I choose the colors, shapes and forms, very carefully.  Do I feel joyful when I am painting?  Definitely YES!  Are my paintings always cheerful and joyful?  No.  I discovered that I do not need to be happy to paint a happy piece of artwork.  That proved to be a very important discovery for me!

      Frequently, when I am choosing a color, such as yellow, I am reminded that my husband really liked yellow.  (He had a favorite yellow sweater that he enjoyed wearing quite frequently.)  On other occasions, when I needed to choose between a cheerful approach or a gloomier approach, I would be reminded that my husband preferred the cheerful one.   I did not always select what he preferred, but it is pleasant to remember some of my conversations with him about various artistic decisions that I made in the past, and continue to make now.  To this day, when I complete a piece of artwork, I often giggle to myself:  Bob would say, “I hate this one!”  At other times:  he would proclaim, “Not bad…not bad at all!”

       Am I always pleased with the results of my artistic efforts?  Not all the time.  Can I do something about it?  Sometimes I can and sometimes I cannot.  Have I ever discarded my artwork?  Yes, but very rarely! Do I rage when things are not working out well?  Not as often now as I used to do.  Do I have trouble deciding when a painting is finished?  No.  I seem to have developed a sense that when I have finished a painting, it is finished. Do I sometimes wish that I had discovered painting earlier?  Of course…  my artwork probably would have had time to go through many different stages.  However, now, I am most grateful that whatever talent I have appeared when I needed it most!

Would You Like to Learn How to View a Piece of Abstract Artwork?

      In order to understand abstract artwork, the viewer needs to change the viewing process so that there will be openness to the unexpected.  Perhaps addressing different types of approaches will help…Take a look!

Changing the “WHEN” of Viewing an Abstract Art Piece:  “Before” and “After” Viewing List

      What happens before and after viewing  abstract  art can often influence how you react to it.  From the following “before” list, try to anticipate which activities might help you to understand the art piece better:

n  Eating a full meal

n  Reading a scientific article

n  Writing a love letter

n  Watching an adventure movie

n  Putting  nail polish on

n  Washing your hair

n  Reading the newspaper

n  Telephoning your friend about a problem

n  Taking a nap

n  Drinking wine

n  Dancing

n  Reading a love story

n  Going grocery shopping

n  Taking a walk

n  Others?

Obviously, we all re-act differently…However, I would guess that some readers might become more open to unexpected and non-representational art if they are relaxed, feeling “warm and fuzzy,”  and thus  receptive to something new.  Why don’t you add a few of your own to the list?

       Now let’s try this same list as an“after” list of activities…Which activities, after viewing the abstract art piece, continue the relaxed state of mind?                Using this same list of activities, you might expect to get a similar reaction.  Other  “before” and “after” activities,  such as time of day or night, the person who views the artwork with you, your state of health, etc. all determine whether or not you will be open to new ideas, new approaches, and new feelings about the artwork. 

       Viewing a piece of artwork often requires you to use both parts of your brain…Your cognitive thinking left brain will help you think and analyze the piece.  Your emotional right brain will help you to register your feelings and emotions about the piece.  If you are relaxed and are willing to be open to something new, this will be the best time to do it.  If not, maybe try for another time!  The more times you view a painting, the more familiar it becomes…almost a friend, whom you may not understand, sometimes

Some Questions to Ask Yourself as You View An Abstract Piece of Artwork

When I look at the piece, I think and feel:

The painting reminds me of something I remember…

There are parts of the painting that I like…

There are other parts that I don’t like/or don’t get…

I enjoy viewing a painting when …

The time of day to view a painting is…

I like the painting because it has some movement…or not

I like the arrangement of the painting…or not

I like the way the colors and shapes work well together…

I like to view paintings along with music…

I still do not understand it, but the painting “sings” to me!

I find the painting disturbing…or irritating, or…?

I wish the artist had given a better title for the painting

When I view the painting, I think about…

What was the artist thinking of when s/he painted this?

Even though I do not understand the piece, do I find it pleasing or not?

If all else fails, try a little self hypnosis…keep repeating “ I am open to all kinds of art.”


More About Analyzing An Imaginary Abstract Piece of Artwork

      Let’s imagine that we are examining this fictional piece of abstract artwork, and overall, we cannot connect with it.  Imagine that it has circles here and there, something like a crescent moon, and a leg and an eye and a nose, scattered in various places.  There are assorted, non-representational forms, as well.  It is very colorful… 

       Let’s start with a simple decoding process.  Let’s try to analyze this imaginary piece of artwork.  What do we see that is representational?   (What can we recognize that is real?)  Answer:  the circles, the crescent moon, the leg, eye and nose.  So maybe there is a face?  No, there is no face.  What do we think about the leg, the eye and the nose?  What are they usually for?  Well, the leg is for walking, running, hoping, skipping etc.  The eye is for seeing, and sometimes it is seeing for specific purposes.  The nose is for breathing and smelling and sniffing…There doesn’t seem to be anything that ties them together, as in a face.  This is the time for guessing, for speculating, for creating, for imagining…

      Perhaps the leg means that we should be doing something quickly, as in running.  Perhaps the eye suggests that we should refocus and not dwell on traditional ideas.  Perhaps the nose indicates that we need to find the right direction for moving on.  It might serve as a pointer of some kind.  Now, what about the circles and the crescent moon?  The circles may indicate that we are going in circles, not understanding what it all means together.  The crescent moon tells us that we are in the dark, and we need to break out of this line of traditional thinking.

      So, putting everything together, one possible explanation (there could be many others) might be that we are confused, we are trying to see and go in the right direction, and we had better do it quickly, before daylight appears…That could be one interpretation.  It is a stretch, of course.  But this kind of thinking aloud, kind of guessing,  kind of imagining what the artist had in mind, is an adventure…an adventure NOT to the missed!

       There are many, additional avenues to pursue, in order to solve the mystery of a piece of abstract artwork.  Other possibilities to explore might be color, composition,  the  choice of title,  to name a few, and some of the other non-verbal clues and relationships.  In many ways, one can say that we each bring with us, in  viewing an abstract piece, our senses,  thoughts, experiences, successes, failures,  perspectives, and  expectancy skills, and much more…In short, everything that is the very essence of ourselves, may and should be utilized.  Process versus end-product?  Both are vitally important! Both should be embraced and welcomed, joyfully!

The Last Word:  Everyone Has the Right to Have a Preference!

       We all have different preferences when it comes to food and drink.   We all tend to be rigid in our favorite colors…favorite friends…favorite sports activities…favorite movie stars…favorite artists, musicians, favorite anything and anyone!  So now we are being asked to embrace something that we do not understand, nor want to! 

      Some feel it is one’s duty to love anything artistic!  Some feel it is only right to like something because an artist spent so much time painting it!  Some think that the price of a painting determines its true value!  Some like the prestige of owning a Kandinsky, even though they secretly wish that it had something more representational!  Some think the value of a  painting  is determined by its age or the notoriety of its artist!  Old is better than new!  Bright is better than dark and somber! 

      Here are some overarching principles to help you understand an abstract painting:

      We have to go back to the two questions raised at the beginning of the essay:  “How does this piece of artwork make you feel?” and “What do you think about this painting?”  You alone have the answers, but keep in mind, as you try to analyze a piece of artwork:

          There are no correct or incorrect answers….maybe sometimes only fleeting insights…

          Given enough time and different conditions, your response to a piece of artwork is subject to change, or not.       



About the Author

Gladys C. Lipton was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and came to live and work in Maryland  forty years ago.  She taught  French and Spanish,  where she taught not only languages, but the cultural and artistic aspects and artists of other countries , directed foreign language programs in New York City and  in Anne Arundel County,  Maryland, directed institutes for teachers  coming from many parts of the U.S.at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), and became highly involved nationally  in the teaching of foreign languages to young children (National FLES* Institute).  She also served as the national President of AATF (American Association of Teachers of French).  Dr. Lipton holds a doctorate in Modern Languages and International Education (NYU, 1969).

She has two daughters, 4 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren.  She became interested in art at a difficult time in her life, and soon discovered that she could create close to 400 paintings, exploring the use of different media, while developing her own personal style of painting.  She has had many solo art shows, and has taught art workshops. She likes to think of herself as a senior who has re-painted her life in different modes and colors.    

Her Art Website is:      www.gladys-c-lipton.org/art        Take a look!



Dedicated to the memory of my husband, Robert L. Lipton.  Appreciation is expressed to the following people who assisted in the preparation of this personal essay:  Aniko Makranczy, (my art teacher), Patricia Dubroof, Judy  E. Ackerman,  Nancy Naomi Carlson,  Jean McMillen and Marlies Buhler.

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