More than often the first encounter with contemporary or modern art makes many of us shrug. Phrases like “I or my 4-year old could do better than that” are heard so often that they have become a no-no expression in professional circles. Still, in many instances, such a reaction from laymen and beginner art investors alike may be well anticipated.
Developing gut feeling for modern art may take months and years of visiting museums, galleries, and fairs but all of it starts from an introduction into how modern art has developed, a description of styles, genres, and stories of great artists who made it. Such a dive may take years but we would try to fit it into several minutes reading to prepare a starting art investor for the first visit to a gallery.
Development of Modern Art
Impressionism. The dawn of modern art began in 1860 as a movement of French artists in Paris who have rebelled against the traditional concept of art which had to be as close to reality as possible. Instead, the impressionists concentrated, as the name may suggest, on conveying the impressions of a scene, making brushstrokes more visible, applying colors side by side rather than mixing it to make the eye mix them, and concentrating on the play of light and the canvass itself. The big names of impressionism are Monet and Renoir.
Post-impressionism. Impressionism gave birth to numerous new styles, including expressionism, symbolism, and others, all of them sharing common trait which was the focus on form and color rather than light. Post-impressionists were also concentrating on the structure and composition of their painting and symbolic content. Most famous post-impressionists are Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne.
Abstract Art. But as artists were exploring new ways of expression, more and more new genres evolved which went even far from reality with slight or no visual reference to the real world. Most well-known forms of abstract art include fauvism with undiluted vivid colors and rough brushstrokes as on the paintings of Matisse and cubism with angles and planes looking more like geometry originated by Picasso and Braque.
Often, abstract art was based on theosophy and theosophical symbolism, which was much popular in the first part of the XX century and influenced the works of many great artists of the time, including Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich. Abstract artists went even further than their predecessors and broke all rules and interrelations between lines, colors, and forms, making them independent actors of their painting.
Abstract Expressionism. As abstract art departed from reality, it was natural for it to become an object in itself, developing into abstract expressionism. The works of abstract expressionists hardly bear any resemblance to the real world or have recognizable subjects. Instead, they are concentrating on interplay of color and form, creating emotions and translating their experiences in colors, shapes, and textures. Many abstract expressionists, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, were making their art pieces more as scenes for performance, dripping, and splashing paint over the canvasses in swooping gestures. Others went to the other extreme with color field painting, making the color the only actor of their paintings as can be seen in works of Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still
Contemporary Art. So far we were discussing the genres of modern art, which originated from impressionists works around 1860 up to this moment with most of the artists already gone and their works becoming classic. The contemporary art, which is art right now, encompasses all the previous styles and continues to develop, evolving into its own unique way. It includes various styles, forms, and genres, such as pop art by Andy Warhol, conceptual art by Glen Ligon, comic-style drawings of Raymond Pettibon, or surrealistic installations of Jeff Koons. During the last decade, the art market has shown the rising popularity of Asian art selling for millions such as the works of Zao Wo-Ki or Yayoi Kusama.
So How Do I Get It?
At the time of realistic art, appreciating the quality and understanding the price of art pieces was much simpler: the closer they were to the reality, the better. A real masterpiece, like works of Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Michelangelo could be seen at a glance due to exceptional technique and resemblance to the real world.
With modern art, often having no reference to the real world, many beginning art investors wonder why a piece, looking more like a painter’s apron with random paint splashes, may cost millions. But before we make any reference to the universal rule of supply and demand, let’s consider a few steps to make the process easier:
Connecting with Art. Before you could expect any feedback from a work of art, you need to connect to an art piece that requires a special environment for undiluted attention. It can hard to connect, for example, with Mona Lisa in Louvre, due to the crowd around, and the viewing conditions including special glass protection and railing around, which doesn’t allow having any experience with this remarkable painting rather than taking a selfie.
It takes a few moments of concentration, and attention to smaller details, including brush strokes, a play of colors, composition, before an artwork starts to reveal itself, showing emotions and granting an experience an artist wanted to convey to it. It is especially true of modern artworks which are often are about an idea and artist’s emotions than about skills and techniques.
Background. Knowing the name of an art piece can often help, unless the artist has chosen not to give a name to his work, like Rothko or Kandinsky. When the name is available, it will provide a useful outline for the artwork before plunging deeper into details. Identifying the genre the artist works in, for example, fauvism, or abstract expressionism, helps to reference other works in the same style and make comparisons. Also, knowing the period of artist life, when a particular art was created, helps to get the background and the prevailing mood like with Picasso anti-war paintings.
Little or No Resemblance. With modern art, the first piece of advice would be to forget about any resemblance to reality. Modern art is not intended to convey such resemblance and so don’t expect it to do so. It would be much more satisfying to concentrate on your own emotions, generated by viewing art pieces and trying to understand the message behind them.
Not all modern art is for everyone. Despite all the knowledge about the history of art, learning about an artist, having the right mood, and a sincere wish to understand modern art, some pieces may simply not work for you at all or at a certain period of time. The reasons may be various, including personal preferences for colors, shapes, genres, styles, disagreement with the artist’s concepts or approach, etc. Some artworks may reveal itself only after you get some new experience and have an acquaintance with other art. It can be much more rewarding to leave such art for later and to switch to that which fascinates and produces emotions in addition to being created by demanded artists and having good prospects for appreciating in value.
Understanding modern art is not magic — everyone can learn how to discern good from mediocre and fledging attempts from the future classics after spending some time with the best art pieces, visiting galleries, and making some research.
It’s true that not all modern art maybe everyone’s cup of tea, and getting at it may take considerable time digesting other more appealing works, gradually learning to appreciate a complex interplay of forms, colors, and composition. Still, modern art includes a multitude of styles and genres for art investors to choose for elevating personal space and earning as it appreciates over time.