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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