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Pierre Soulages has died, and abstract art, is it really that difficult to understand?

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Two things happened this week; Pierre Soulages, known for his black abstract paintings, died aged 102, and, it was discovered that a painting by Mondrian had been hung upside down for 75 years. Both events have caused me to consider why it is that the public like representational art and still don’t understand abstract art.

Before his death the Times called Soulages the most financially successful living artist in France and the then President Francois Hollande proclaimed that Soulages was “the world’s greatest living artist,” and yet his paintings sell for a fraction of say a view of some water lilies, a jar of sunflowers, a sunset view of a mountain or even a girl wearing a pearl earring.

This preference for representational art, the painting of things, is all the more bewildering when one considers that abstract art can represent a huge range of complex worldwide issues unhindered by having to actually look like something, but if experts can’t tell when an abstract work is the right way up how can the public be expected to understand what they are looking at?

The issue rests on a greater value being placed on skill and craft rather than the intellect of the artist. Turners abstract seascapes were as carefully considered, composed and skilfully painted as say Frederick Leightons painting of a Fisherman and a Syren, Mondrian’s view of New York City is no less considered than say a Hopper painting and a Soulages painting or Sandra Blow or a Motherwell or even a Basquiat painting is no less considered or skilfully made than a shiny dog by Jeff Koons, it’s just that as soon as the subject is recognised there is no need to look further and it is appraised by whether it’s a good representation. Abstract art demands more of the viewer: it requires that a part of the brain that is not normally engaged is required to consider something that is beyond a personal and limited set of experiences and to either empathise with someone else’s experience and view point or refute that view. Either way it requires more work of the viewer than just deciding if something looks ‘nice’ or whether it is of something.

While some abstract paintings might look as though they have been hastily made, each gesture requires a deliberate act. A decision is made to be precise or to be impulsive, to allow paint slops or to refine an edge, to adopt colour theory or break with it, to tell the viewer what to think by adding words or to challenge the viewer to bring their own words. Soulages and Blow and Motherwell and Klein paintings are intellectual exercises defined by human gestures: the hand of the artist is clear and the way they should be hung cannot be doubted if you put yourself in the mind of the painter. The difficulty comes from paintings that suppress the artists hand and are pure intellectual exercises like Mondrian’s work and many of those that prefer representational art recoil from these because the way in to these is concealed.

I’ve always worked on the premise that it is possible to read a work of creativity in many different ways but even so, to misread a painting the way that New York City has been just shows that the ‘experts’ frequently haven’t got a clue, and, yes, abstract art is hard but like solving a difficult puzzle it is so much more worthwhile than just looking at yet another landscape or portait or still life or horse or .... ( you fill in the dots!)

shown above are some Motherwell, Blow and Basquiat paintings

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