Studio Notes: Understanding Abstract & Expressionistic Painting

At first glance, an abstract painting can be confusing. The viewer is confronted with a canvas full of color, shape and texture – yet meaning appears to be absent. Some abstract art is very minimalistic, resembling a geometric exercise – Frank Stella’s Family Day, which hangs in the Whitney, is a series of colorful squares:

 Frank Stella, Family Day

Frank Stella, Family Day

Viewers may like an abstract piece because it’s colorful or visually compelling. Art does not need to be representational to provoke a strong emotional response. That being said, there’s often an urge to delve deeper into abstract and expressionistic paintings; this quest for meaning is driven by the human need to understand.

 Rust, by Ayn Kraven

Rust, by Ayn Kraven

For example, consider this painting by Ayn Kraven, an abstract painter who maintains a studio in the American Fabric Arts Building. Are there shapes being suggested by the black lines – perhaps a fish swimming ever toward the setting sun, or an Easter Island Moai statue? Ayn encourages this type of inquiry, inviting viewers to be part of her exploration of layers and shapes. There are no right or wrong answers to be found, merely an awareness of the emotions experienced in response to the work.

 To Be Honest, Linda Colletta

To Be Honest, Linda Colletta

The search for meaning is not necessarily the point of abstract art. In fact, that search kept another American Fabric Arts Building resident, painter Linda Colletta, stuck for nearly 15 years, until she realized what she wanted to accomplish with her work was nothing more – and nothing less – than the creation of beauty.

Expressionistic painting is similar to abstract painting yet doesn’t abandon the representational elements: in other words, where an abstract painter may be trying to capture their image of a feeling or experience, an expressionistic painter is sharing their vision of something tangible. In the case of American Fabric Arts Building resident Judith Corrigan, that would very likely be a horse: 

 Circling Dixie, by Judith Corrigan

Circling Dixie, by Judith Corrigan

Collecting Abstract & Expressionist Paintings

If you’re a beginning collector and find yourself drawn to abstract and expressionistic paintings, here’s three things to keep in mind when building your collection: 

1) Look at lots of art.

The American Fabric Arts Building holds Open Studios every November, as do several Bridgeport arts organizations. Make a point of seeing what working artists in your area are working on. Familiarizing yourself with their art is the best way to discover your personal preferences.

2) Buy pieces you love.

For the beginning collector, passion is perhaps the most important criteria. Your artwork should give you joy. If your heart rejoices and you smile every time you see a piece, it’s a good fit for your personal collection. Different criteria apply when you’re collecting art for investment or for an institution – but when you’re buying for yourself, please yourself first.

3) Educate yourself.

There are many websites, magazines, and books about abstract art and expressionistic art. The more you know about the different movements, artists, and mindsets that influenced painters, the deeper your appreciation of the paintings will become and the more joy you’ll derive from your collection.