A simple guide to understanding “modern art” because #knowledgeispower.

We’ve all been to a museum, flipped through a magazine, or encountered a facebook post about some seemingly masterful piece of art and thought , “A kindergartener could do THAT.”

I remember my first encounter with the phrase. It was 2012 and I had wandered into the Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings exhibit at the Met in New York. When I heard it, I thought to myself, “dayum, talented kid with super sound motor skills.”

Firstly, let me say that many highly lauded artists would take a child-like comparison as a massive compliment, understanding full-well that children are perhaps the most creatively uninhibited creatures our world may ever know.

Creativity aside, however, no, a kindergartener probably could not do THAT.

scenes from marriage

Scenes from an Ideal Marriage by Cy Twombly, 1986. Acrylic and pencil on paper, 28″ x 21″.

I’ve studied art and looked at it almost every day of my adult life and there are days when I still play “epic masterpiece or scribbled joke” in my own mind (distant relative of “hipster or homeless”).

So, how on God’s green Earth is your average human supposed to discern between a good piece of modern art and bullshit?

I’m here to try to lend a hand — not because i’m a genius by any stretch of the imagination, but because I think it would be pretty be pretty cool to live in a world where we consider artists rockstars, and we talk about our favorite painting as often as our favorite song.

picasso baby jay z

Jay Z with performance artist Marina Abramovic on the set of ‘Picasso Baby’ music video.

The following is a summation of tips to take into consideration when you come across a piece of modern art that you just do not get. It’s not perfect, it’s not very academic, but it is what I say to my friends over drinks when we end up on the topic of art and they ask me “but how do you knowww?” The truth is I don’t, but these are a few things I look for.

  1. Line quality. This is my number 1 go-to. When I say line quality, I don’t mean look for really straight ones, but rather the intentionality of the line, aka: does it seem like someone meant to draw or paint it? Like they used their muscles and mind in conjunction to create it?
    courtesy of

    photo courtesy of discover magazine

    Take the piece above. Notice the orange cross in the piece on the right, repeated small markings of various color, as well as the maroon and yellow wavy lines to the right. There are varied, intentional lines throughout this piece that might be something you pick up on. The best way to become a line quality master is to look at a lot of art. A. lot. Also, THIS DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD LIKE THIS PIECE, (I don’t to be honest). Just an example.

  2. Range of work. Looking at a selection of work from a single artist is super helpful in understanding a solo piece. Luckily, most of us can do this within 5- 10 seconds depending on the current wifi situation. Often you may find another more tangible piece that makes sense. A lot of people’s minds are blown when they learn that Picasso wasn’t all cubism and masks. The man was a classically trained draftsman.
Early Picasso drawing, 1891.

Early Picasso drawing, 1893.

nude on a beach painting.

Nude on a Beach by Picasso, 1929.

To go even further, looking at a whole body of work can make a lot more sense. You start to see “shifts” and “experiments” that seem much more methodical than the scrawl of one painting. For example, check out the Cy Twombly piece below, then go here to see it within the context of six decades of work.

untitled cy twombly art

Untitled by Cy Twombly, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 66″ x 85″.

3. Something To Relate To. When in doubt, find an element or part of a piece you relate to. For me, it usually comes in the form of some a-symmetrical marking or color that can only be found in one part of the piece. Now, this isn’t necessarily full-proof indicator of “good art” — actually, it’s not at all, but if YOU find something that grabs you, and find value in it, any piece can become “good”. I had a recent conversation with a friend about Jackson Pollock. He was all, “Please explain to me why it’s such a big deal.” Becasue I like my friend, I chose not to mount my soapbox and put him to sleep listing off Pollock’s contributions as one of the forefathers of abstract expressionism. Instead, I told him about the cigarette butts, handprints, glass, and sand that would end up on his canvas because of the way he flung the paint (and himself) literally into his work. It’s these bite-sized, relatable human elements that to make modern art speak to anyone.

autumn rhythym

Autumn Rhythym (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock, 1950.

4. (Bonus) See What the Artist Says. If you have the opportunity to talk to the artist who has created a piece (so more likely someone who is an emerging contemporary artist and, ya know, not a deceased old master), do it. Learn about their process from conception to creation. That alone is not only a pretty good bullshit barometer, but also helps wrap your mind around the often difficult-to-fathom connection between an artist’s mind and what ends up on canvas. Plus, artists are just crazy-interesting.

 

From one friend to another, I hope this proves useful in a real-world way. If you’re interested in some more fact-based definitions about modern art, you can check out a brief history here. Or, you can test your discerning art mind with a very humbling quiz — children’s art vs. masterpiece.

P.S. One of the pieces in the quiz was used in this article, please get that one right.


Also published on Medium.

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