Abstract art

Understanding art is a little like learning to communicate with someone new

Abstract Art. What does all this talk about the materiality of paint and the balance of colour really mean?

The recent Rendezvous night at Cadogan Contemporary gave guests a unique chance to survey how the great abstract painters from across the Atlantic have influenced the way we view and appreciate modern art. It was a perfect little slice of abstraction, with four of the most exciting abstract painters from North America celebrating colour and gesture, as only they know best; and yet to many it was a baffling display of an unreadable and impenetrable form of expression.

Perhaps therein lies the point. Much of this kind of art is not meant to be instantly recognizable – that is more the purpose of representational art that dominated the years before the camera was discovered. Once pictures arrived, artists; in particular painters – had to find a new purpose. Well this is a huge sweeping generalization, because of course artists had being doing much much more than simply painting what they saw for centuries, but this is a blog not a history essay.

However, until then, they had been using a language we could understand, and a narrative we could relate to.


But when Van Gogh started painting what he perceived as the energy of the growing wheat and the amplification of the starry starry night sky, he ushered in a whole stampede of artists who, traumatized by the horrors of WW1, were trying to find ways to express something deeper and more elusive about the human condition. So much about our lives is not really something that we can easily narrate…

Which brings us back to how you feel when standing baffled in front of big abstract canvas of bold sweeping colours or a dreamy waxy lyrical piece with something like floating flowers spinning across its surface. Collected on Cadogan’s walls was potentially something for everyone – should they choose to give it the time. Meanwhile eyes were skimming more than just the walls to see if there was another kind of visceral connection.

Did you lock eyes with someone – and was it because they seemed to instantly capture your attention? Or did you find yourself having a surprising conversation with someone you had not initially noticed?

two women smiling

Abstract art does not offer us a lovely neat narrative with recognizable characters. It is messy and confusing, fabulous and strange… a bit like falling in love. It takes time and patience to find out whether that initial reaction – good, bad or indifferent – was indeed the right one. Often we are wrong and discover that the person who captured all our attention physically cannot engage our mind. Equally we can often miss what was right in front of us all along…People just like paintings have their own particular schematic – and learning to read a painting is a little like learning to communicate with someone new. It takes time, it can be deeply frustrating and too often it is simply easier to give up. But sometimes something inside you – something we cannot really qualify – keeps us going.

If something stirs you, then give yourself time to look beyond the surface. Try, as you might with a painting, to work out the particular gestural nuances and imagine what they might be saying. It might be worth the effort, as you will find your mind opening up to all sorts of new possibilities…

Nico Kos Earle

Nico Kos Earle is an arts writer and creative director, and the co-founder of Van Kos Art, an art consultancy and content provider within the art world.  She met her business partner Sam Van Coillie, art historian and art dealer, in the middle of their respective stories and they decided to combine their narrative.

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