Abstract versus Realistic Art

Abstract art versus realistic (or figurative) art has been going on for most of the 20th century and continues to today. Is one really better than the other?

I know a lot of abstract artists (I am thinking painters) and I know just as many figurative painters. To me, personally, it doesn’t matter. Art is big enough (again, in my opinion) to encompass both.

A lot of people (including me) have much more of a feel for abstract art but I could really care less what form or style of painting you choose to practice. Why? because it’s really about a type of visual language that you choose to develop and engage in.

So many people tell me, “Abstract art’s crap. It’s just a bunch of squiggly lines on a canvas. Hell, my kid could do that!” I go back a ways so I have heard this (in multiple forms) more times than I care to think about.

Does it bother me? Nope, I don’t care. I know art as an artist (the making of it) and I know the history of art a lot better than most. I can tell you why and who is associated in movements of art from Fauvism to Cubism to Dada to Pop art to Abstract Expressionism to Minimal art to the new expressionism and beyond.

Not trying to brag. I just know this stuff and have been fascinated with it for a long, log time. And, so I know where modernism (The period from roughly 1860’s through the 1970’s) comes from and why it evolved.

To me, it was always the same thing. Paint on canvas. I don’t care whether you’re talking about DeKooning or Peter Paul Rubens. It’s all the same stuff. Pigment on canvas. In my own work I never wanted to hide that. It always felt a bit fake to me.

Why would anyone paint in an abstract manner anyway? Again, as I mentioned, it is a way to create a unique visual language where one can explore other aspects of pictorial space. I never could get at that doing representational work. It didn’t work for me.

I started drawing when I was about 6 or 7 and soon learned I had a kind of aptitude for it. I could create a visual representation of an object in space. I had an innate sense of visual proportion and pictorial balance. Kids even paid me in candy (my favorite, Strawberry Twizzlers, of course!) in grade school to draw pictures for them. I seemed to them (I think) kinda magical.

But as I progressed in my art education I started to see other pictorial possibilities because I started to be exposed to artists like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Degas for starters who began to really question and expand what painting could be. That really clicked for me.

The question for me (and I’m sure a whole bunch of other artists) was, “Now what?” So I could really draw and represent objects in space with real facility, but, “Now what do I do?”

Just trying to represent reality didn’t do much for me. I didn’t just want to create “pretty pictures.” I wanted a much more raw experience. I didn’t want to do coloring book art to impress my friends – that was gone. I wanted to be visually surprised when I worked. And I wanted to acknowledge in a real direct way that I was working with materials (whatever they were – whether it was paint or not)

That became my working methodology – trying to create the painting as I went. To discover. To have the process reveal the painting. Not knowing the end result was fine. That was cool to me. That is still cool to me.

Conversely, what bothered me about representational art was that it can be too easy. That all you have to do is see what’s in front of you and accurately depict it. I never got that. It was too easy. I could already do that.

The problem I ran into and which I think a lot about now is really developing a visual language. I think that trips up a lot of people. You really need some type of visual pictorial vehicle to communicate with. I used to bounce from here to there, different materials, different process and you can really scatter yourself very easy.

Artists like Cezanne and Matisse and Picasso and women artists like Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler (just some examples off the top of my head) provided us with a rigorousness of thinking about pictorial space. They were up for that challenge. And it brought out the best in them.

Bottom line is – whether you work with a figurative language or an abstract one, what does it matter? What matters is that your work can be continued so that it provides you with a vehicle to dig deeper as an artist, to not settle for the easiest solution but to really expand YOUR notion of what art can be. When you can do that – then you start to play a new game. A serious game.

Top Image:
“River” 1989
Joan Mitchell
oil on canvas/diptych
© Estate of Joan Mitchell

Second Image:
“Ville d’Avray” ca. 1867
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

2 Responses for “Abstract versus Realistic Art”

  1. peggy-lynn holland says:

    Hello Mr. Farrick

    This article was a pleasure to read, and I whole heartedly agree with your veiws re realistic versus art abstract.
    I too was like yourself, gifted at young age to draw and paint and made
    a profit in selling my work in grade school. Others kids did see it as a kind of magic to abe able to draw.
    After manyy years of working realistically and honing my abilities, and teaching realistic drawing and painting methods to children and adults.
    There was no joy left reproducing exactly what is in front of me.
    I hit a wall of creative block that knocked me off my feet.
    It was abstract painting that has helped me find a creative voice agian.
    And it is exactly as you described… starting a project and discovering pictorial space with different mediums, and a sense of fresh discovery, from moment to moment in the creative process. It feels like being reborn.
    Koodos for this article!

  2. doug says:

    Loved your comments. Thanks Peggy-Lynn!

    How is your painting going nowadays?

    Anything I can see?


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