Reflections from an abstract expressionist exhibition

I went to an exhibit of early abstract expressionist art at the Munch museum today, and it brought up a few things. These are perhaps not very important but at least slightly interesting to me.


When I was in the art world, in my late teens and early twenties, I noticed a pattern. Some created an identity for themselves that excluded certain categories of art. They rejected whole categories of art and didn’t seem interested in exploring or learning from it.

To me, that doesn’t make sense. Yes, since we have limited energy and time, we do need to limit what we do. (Although we can still explore a range of techniques, styles, and topics.)

But that doesn’t mean we need to limit what we appreciate and learn from.

Personally, I find art across times and cultures fascinating and often beautiful. I find nature in all its variety fascinating and often beautiful. And I find a lot of “accidental” art fascinating and beautiful. (Including urban spaces, junk yards, dilapidated buildings, and so on.) Visually, I learn from all of it.


I posted a detail from an abstract painting on Facebook, and someone commented: “I can paint that”.

Yes, you can paint an abstract painting. But you cannot paint it three generations ago when that one was painted, and it was a new and revolutionary way of seeing and a new and revolutionary of thinking about and doing art.

The art in this particular exhibition is interesting because of the time and place and historical context. It’s interesting because these were the pioneers. I found only a few paintings interesting visually, and even fewer beautiful. But that’s not the point. They are records of a big change in how we collectively look and what we (most of us) appreciate visually.

It opened up a whole new world to us. And I would assume it opened up a lot more appreciation of what we find around us of “accidental abstract art”. I know I have a great appreciation for it, and I assume it has something to do with living in a culture where abstract art has been around for a while.


Abstract art is not new. It’s just new-ish in European art.

We can find abstract art from a range of times and cultures.

And we can find abstract art in any art. If we zoom in on sections of figurative paintings (and sculptures), we find abstract colors and patterns. More in general, any representation is inherently an abstraction. It’s a representation of something else, and it is by necessity a simplification. It highlights some things and leaves a lot out.

The European abstract movement only highlighted and emphasized the abstraction inherent in nature and any art. And by doing so, it expanded the possibilities of how we do anything visual. It added something and didn’t take anything away. All the other ways of doing art are still here.

Personally, I only find a few examples of abstract art very interesting or beautiful. But I am very happy it exists.


I overheard a child say these classic words, unwittingly repeating what thousands of others have said before her.

A response came up in my mind: It’s not mainly about understanding it. It’s about what moods and feelings you have when you see it. Or what it reminds you of. (Perhaps an old painted door or something in nature?) It’s about opening our minds and hearts to the beauty in the visual abstractions all around us, whether we are in a human-made or natural environment. It’s about the historical context of the art and what the artists experienced and responded to.


I have to admit I thoroughly dislike the new Munch Museum building. Not because it’s edgy or innovative or unusual, because it’s none of those. It’s because it’s thoroughly boring. (And it blocks the view of the fiord from certain areas of Oslo which should be forbidden.) Even the Oslo airport and the main hospital in Oslo are more interesting and beautiful.

It is possible to make an innovative and beautiful building that people love. The Oslo Opera House next door, and the Astrup-Fernley museum across the harbor, are good examples. So why did they choose such a boring option? I am not sure. (Perhaps the architects were too persuasive for their own good?)

I would much prefer a lower building, perhaps partially underground. One that feels more human scale. One that uses more natural materials. (Stone, wood.) And one where many of the rooms are smaller and more intimate. I also enjoy spaces that have more angles and/or flowing forms.

The upside is that the curators and exhibition space designers seem to be doing a good job. Several exhibition rooms have low lighting, which creates a more calm atmosphere and highlights the art. And some of the walls are dark in color, which also highlights the art. (Some walls even complement the colors in the painting, for instance when a reddish-orange painting is on a wall that’s dark greyish blue.)


At the exhibit, they showed movie segments with a few early abstract expressionist artists. What struck me was how serious they all seemed to take it.

Why? It likely has to do with image. Appearing serious signals to others that this is serious business and should be taken seriously by others as well. Since they did go against previous European art, and against what much of the mainstream liked and wanted, that was perhaps even more important to them.

For me, artistic expression is also fun, play, and adventure. And I am sure many of these artists saw it that way as well, at least when they were out of the public eye and the cameras were not rolling.

Images: Detail of an early abstract expressionist painting. Detail from “Vampire” by Munch. (An abstract section of a figurative painting.) And two photos from the exhibit space.


I have some guesses about why.

They did it at a time when they received a lot of backlash from the mainstream and probably also some art critics. Perhaps they wanted to be seen as serious so they could be taken more seriously.

More in general, it likely has to do with image. Appearing serious signals to others that this is serious business and should be taken seriously by others as well.

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