Steve Martin on How to Look at Abstract Art

The standard “anyone could do that” response to abstract art generally falls apart when the person who says it tries their hand at making something like a Kandinsky or Miró. Not only were these artists highly trained in techniques and materials, but both possessed their own specific theories of abstract art—the role of line, color, shape, negative space, etc., along with grander ideas about the role of art itself. Few of us walk around with such considered opinions and the ability to turn them into artworks. The abstraction begins in the mind before it reaches the canvas.

For his appearance on the Museum of Modern Art and BBC web series The Way I See It, Steve Martin chose two obscure American abstract artists who perfectly illustrate the relationship between the theory and practice of abstraction.

“I don’t generally care about theories,” Martin says. “They kind of get in the way of looking at the picture. But I think the result of working from a theory can be fantastic.” We may not need to know that these two artists, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald Wright, painted in accordance with a theory they called Synchromism, but it certainly helps.

“The resulting paintings, called Synchromies,” explains The Art Story, “used the color scale in the way notes might be arranged in a musical piece. As the two artists wrote, ‘Synchromism simply means ‘with color’ as symphony means ‘with sound’….” And as composer and pianist Jason Moran demonstrates in his The Way I See It episode, above, Piet Mondrian went even further in this direction with his Broadway Boogie Woogie, which represents, in its arrangement of colored squares, the very essence of the musical form from which it takes its title. Moran can even play the painting like a musical score.

The kind of abstraction Martin and Moran gravitate toward turns sound into visual pleasure and stimulates the thinking mind. Commenting on one of his selections, Martin says, “I think of this as an intellectual painting.” When it came time for John Waters to make his choice, he went for the gut (and the unconscious), with “a giant, two-paneled painting of a hammer,” he says, “a very butch painting by a heterosexual woman. I love the idea of how scary it is and how powerful.” It’s an image, he says, that reminds him of personal trauma—though nothing so gruesome as one might think.

Waters seeks a kind of catharsis from art by looking at work that scares him. Lee Lozano’s untitled 1963 painting, he says, is “threatening…. All the art I like makes me angry at first…. That’s part of its job, to make you angry.” Paintings of this size have traditionally been “reserved for lofty subjects,” notes the MoMA. “In this painting—and in others, of wrenches, clamps, and screwdrivers—Lozano weds the mundane with the grand.” As Waters delightedly points out, her work, like his own, deals a heavy blow, pun intended, to canons of taste.

The Way I See It series acts as a teaser for a BBC podcast of the same name, which interviews 30 creatives and scientists on their responses to pieces of art in the MoMA’s collection. See more of these short videos at the MoMA’s YouTube channel. Download episodes of the podcast here.

Related Content:

A Quick Six Minute Journey Through Modern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Painting, “The Luncheon on the Grass,” to Jackson Pollock 1950s Drip Paintings

The Art Assignment: Learn About Art & the Creative Process in a New Web Series by John & Sarah Green

Steve Martin Teaches His First Online Course on Comedy

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Ruth Bircham says:

    Fascinating article and Steven Martins view on Abstract paintings. Which makes me question. How he would view my Abstract paintings, that were shortlisted in 2012 and hung in the cork street gallery for a month. As many critics saw loads of movements in my painting even though its a painting painted in skin tones. I believe that Steve Martins may find my Abstracts extremely provocative, as was deemed by the viewers in the Cork street gallery in 2012. Many even stood in front and took selfies of themselves and of their partners. My painting is theory.

  • Miro Sinovcic says:

    To get “the art”, you have to find something what attracted you to art you are observing. Than, go to the next art, and look to find something attractive in that other art.
    Here you are, open your ayes and you will see the difference.
    Now you are an art critics.
    Miro Sinovcic

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