The incredible nature of Abstract Art and how it can change the way you think about everything.

This is going to be a story about me, and abstract art, and how it changed the way I understood and perceived everything.

In one of the slack groups I frequent someone shared a picture of a famous piece of Abstract art; Cathedra by Barnett Newman.

Cathedra — Barnett Newman

Newman was considered a leader in the Abstract Expressionist movement, as I understand it, he didn’t value beauty in art, but instead felt it should bring you some kind of emotional epiphany. So he created pieces like Cathedra, and his work was/is generally considered pretty controversial. Many people don’t really think his work required any skill, and that anyone could accomplish the same thing, basically, people just don’t “get” it.

With that thought in your mind let me tell you my story and we’ll see if it changes your perceptions or not.

When I was in high school, I studied Art. What is important to understand about me is that I am terrible at drawing and I’m not much of a painter. What I loved about Art was creating things. I liked sculpture, and textiles, I’d build things like giant wearable metal wings with hundreds of individually cut out feathers. So paintings, they didn’t really inspire me a whole lot.

One year we were very fortunate to have an excursion to the West Australian Art Gallery, I was never a big fan of abstract art, but our art teacher was insistent that we experienced all forms of art and art history. When we hit the abstract area we came across a series of paintings that were just different coloured squares, some blended together, on different backgrounds. They were not very large, they were very unassuming. Friends, I was not impressed, and I was pretty clear about that fact.

I remarked to my art teacher that it was stupid. That anyone could paint that and that and it wasn’t art.

The rest of this story is so vivid to me, it’s one of my clearest memories.

My art teacher was very patient. She smiled at me and she said:

“Mandy, come stand here. I want you to stare at this painting for a minute and then when you have done that take a step to the side and stare at the wall.”

Picture me, an insufferable teenager proclaiming I know more about art than the West Australian Art Gallery and my own art teacher, reluctantly doing as I was told.

I stood in front of the first painting stared at it for a bit (very unimpressed). As I stepped to the side to stare at the white wall I saw it. The painting was still visible just in different colours, it left an after image — each painting displayed a different image on the wall depending on what the colour combinations were. In essence, if you stare at the coloured shapes for long enough it will induce an afterimage of the complementary colour.

It blew my mind.

The point of the art wasn’t what you saw on the original painting, but what it left behind after you had looked at it. The experienced stayed and lingered with you. I thought this was incredible, and beautiful and amazing.

This moment changed my perception about everything.

I think about it a lot, about how we can judge things so quickly before we really understand it. About how we can blindly follow traditional convention and always do things the same way. I wonder if I’ve considered all the angles, or if I took a step to the side or back would things be clearer.

Instead of thinking, this is stupid, I try to think — “What don’t I see”.

We make so many decisions within the frame of our current understanding. How we solve problems, how we communicate and empathise. How we live. It’s all determined by the shape of our current experiences.

If we aren’t taking that step to the side sometimes, we cannot possibly have the whole experience and we certainly can’t have an epiphany doing the same thing we’ve always done.

Notes:

I could never find the art itself again, so instead made some simple examples on Codepen you can play with :)

I’ve also setup a collection that i’ll add to because it was pretty fun making them: https://codepen.io/collection/XMoOOa/