Making Sense of Abstract Art / by Rebecca Stern

“Art is not always about pretty things. It’s about who we are, what happened to us, and how our lives are affected”

-Elizabeth Broun

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Something you may not know about me is that I’m not just an artist, I’m an art teacher as well. I teach middle school art in Greenwich CT. I talk to my students a lot about art and show them many contemporary artists, albeit mostly abstract artists because that’s what I’m interested in. The comment I hear most often about abstract art is “But I could do that, why is it art?” It occured to me that not everyone “gets” abstract artwork. I’m not here to make you fall in love with it like I am, but rather shed some light on what’s behind it from an artists perspective.

Sometimes abstract work is purely about aesthetics, but more often than not there’s something deeper than just a pretty picture. That’s where being able to allow your own experience to be seen in the painting comes in. Every single element of a piece of artwork serves a purpose, both visually and symbolically to convey meaning.

For me, each painting comes together in parts and each part speaks a different word of the “sentence” I’m trying to relay. The first wash of color is the opening words, setting the tone. From there bold contrasting colors transport the eye around the surface to a visual roadblock (usually added texture of harder edged shapes) which acts as a visual obstacle much like how negative thoughts or experiences impact our path. Embroidery adds punctuation to the sentence, making everything flow together.


When looking at abstract artwork, I like to first assess how it makes me feel. Do I have a recognizable emotional reaction to the piece? Does the artwork bring questions to mind like why did the artist do that or how did the artist do that? I like to look at the painting up close, and from far away. Look at the edges of the painting, if it’s unframed, as they can often tell an interesting story.

I think the biggest thing that I can stress, is that there is no right or wrong answer when looking at abstract work. Allow the work to speak to you in whatever way your mind interprets it because more often than not, that’s what the artist wanted you to do. If you’re really curious about the artists intent, and this is a very personal choice, I suggest reading the artist statement or reading the title of the work which can often give a clue as to what the artists intended meaning was. On the flip side, if the piece doesn’t do anything for you, so be it and that’s okay too.

Interested to learn more about what’s behind my work? This video may help!