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How do you judge an abstract work?

I know the market is huge for abstract works. A lot of people think it’s better than anything that resembles something from life. I lean toward more realist styles myself. From impressionism to tonalist, to realism and photo realism. I do see an abstract that will catch my eye now and then, but how do you know if it’s good or not? I’ve been asked to judge some paintings and most are abstract. I certainly do not want to just pick winners from the more realist styles…but…it seems to me that it takes a little more effort and skill to do than just letting the paint be the subject. Maybe the art world has went down the rabbit hole? Someone pouring paint on a canvas is as good as someone doing portraits? I’m trying hard not to be bias, but I think painting like any other occupation has some things you need to do to be considered good. Not sure dripping paint down a canvas is good. Or am I just being to literal?

Hi @tl_shaver,

I love abstracts. I’m no expert, but if the colors, comp, shapes within, scale works, then the piece works. I know what you mean, there’s a lot of ‘bad’ art from newbies doing all kinds of art but especially doing abstract work bcuz, like you said throw paint at a canvas and voilà, an abstract!

But then there are great abstracts that I could look at for hours, just enjoying the play of light and textures, and colors. I particularly enjoy when both portrait and abstract backgrounds are on the same piece. Like David Kassan does. Or Tibor Nagy’s street scenes are slightly abstracted realism? (I am sure there are many more examples, but these are two of my faves.)

Abstracts artists may value their work above realist artists and realists value theirs above abstract. I have even heard some devalue hyper realist painters’ work! “just buy a photograph” they would say. Crazy!

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Hi Sunny,

I thought this may be a subject that most would avoid. No one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I feel there should be some standards to art. Otherwise anything is art…like a cross in a jar of urine…or a boulder outside of a museum…In the old days that boulder was sculpted into a great work of art. Now we say that the person who thought of balancing the boulder overhead is a great artist. I too love Tibor Nagy’s work. It is representational for the most part though. I thank you for replying…This has quite a few views, but only you answered.

Hi Shaver,
I also love abstract works, but paint landscapes every once and awhile I try for an abstract/non representational painting, but have never been happy with the outcome.

I know what your saying about how do you tell if its good. I guess to each his own.
Here is a painter that I think produces beautiful abstract works that I could look at all day.


On a personal level, I judge it based on whether or not I have an instant, positive gut reaction to the colors and lines and shapes.

The art establishment, however, seems to judge abstract art – and all modern art, really – based on the weight of the intellectual concept behind it. So it doesn’t find as much value in faithfully recording the image of a lake at sunset as it does in a painting by Mark Rothko, who had some pretty intense socio-psychological ideas behind his abstract work. In the establishment’s view, the crucifix in the urine is a powerful statement, whereas the pseudo-impressionist rendering of a vase of flowers is not.

All in all, I don’t see why we have to denigrate one when we praise the other. Art doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. There should be room for everybody, I think.


Hi David

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree on a personal level, we all like what we like or appeals to us in particular. I’m not saying that all abstract is bad. I too see some that grabs my eye. However I don’t feel that having some standards of art is a bad thing. The cross in the jar of urine is a powerful statement, agreed, but is it art? If you watch a Ballet dancer who has trained their whole life to be the best they can be, and then watch someone throw themselves around on the floor to make a statement…would you consider them equal? The modern art establishment would tell you yes, they are equally as good or even the latter is better because of it’s unbiased passion without all the training. In the museum of art here where I live, they have Monet’s, Van Gogh’s, and many famous great master paintings. They also have three large canvases, one painted green, one white…guess not even painted, and one orange…all just solid color. Now I’m not sure of the statement this makes, maybe it’s over my head, but I do not see how this can be among the great master artist’s work. I have thought of just hanging an untouched white canvas in my gallery, than I found out it’s already been done…and it’s worth millions. Which I guess makes the joke on me. I certainly would not compare random words on pages to a great novel or random photos, lights, and other things to a great movie. So why must we accept everything called “art” as art?

If those are the only two choices, then my answer is no, I don’t consider them equal, and I’m probably closer to your way of thinking vs the art establishment’s. You and I have a lot of common ground, actually.

But there is a third category, which is the one where we’ll find artists like Picasso, Matisse, and DeKooning: people who were formally trained in traditional techniques, mastered them, and then tossed them to the side because they didn’t feel traditional technique and realism were effective vehicles for expressing what they wanted to say. And that’s what it’s about I think, each individual artist finding what workss best for them in terms of what they want to say and how they want to say it.

So, getting back to the specific idea of making judgments in regard to quality, as you were called to do as a juror, I think context is key, and art can only be judged in the context of similar art, and by the standards customarily employed within that artistic sub-community, which means I really don’t see how an abstract can be compared to a realist painting in terms of judging for a competition, and I’m confused as to why the oragnizers would mix things up like that.

That’s a long winded way of saying I feel your pain, and good luck :slight_smile:

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True masters Picasso, Matisse and Dekooning, I agree. They earned the right to explore without being questioned. I do however believe it was accepted more because their name was one it. Sometimes that was the only part of the actual work Picasso did. Sign it. So I think he was playing us a bit too. Yes I don’t know why I’ve went into these long thoughts about this. I’m sure it’s much simpler than what I’m making it. I just get angry sometimes when I see the art world acting like they know something us common people could never know. I once won a third place award and the winner was a white piece of paper with a quick pencil line in the middle. That’s all…just a line. I think at that point I started thinking there should be some kind of guidelines like every other form of art has. My Ballet example. I must say though people stood around this line and discussed it. It seems to me they were giving it much more meaning than was actually there. I think they were fooled. Here I am ranting again. Thanks for wishing me luck David. It was an open call for artist’s, that’s why the various styles are mixed. I’m just gonna put all these thoughts outta my head and judge it how I see it. Guess that’s all you can do. Thanks again David.

Now that brings up an interesting question, Shaver: Does an artist, or any person, really have to earn the right to explore? I think it’s one thing to earn our money, our reputation, or a place in an exhibition, but I don’t think we can put limits on an artist’s right to explore, to express. Freedom of expression is an inalienable right, regardless of how graceless that expression may be, don’t you think?


Very true. That is a bad choice of words on my part. I know that none of them however woke up one day, knocked over and spilled some paint and said “look at that”. They were not just a guy who drew a line and people found it fascinating. People found what they did fascinating because of what they had already done and their name.

I understand where you’re coming from. Well, it’s nice to have a place to discuss these things. I enjoy these kinds of conversations.

That I absolutely agree with. I wish there were more places to have these discussions. Normally though this type of discussion just gets you cut off. Can’t have a different view…especially to the art world. Isn’t that ironic.

Thank you for this conversation. I am a beginner at painting. I’ve tried it before, and felt I was a failure. Then I took a class in abstract painting, and for the first time, I feel that I am making some progress. Before, it seemed that I had to make thinks look a certain way. I labored over it and was dissatisfied. Working with abstraction, I am freer to explore the elements of a painting, without having to strive for a particular result. I don’t consider what I’m doing as finished work, but I’m learning with every one.

Uh, that would be "make things look a certain way . . . "

@lindacy44 I had a similar experience. When I started painting I was very focused on realism, and it was fun and I was capable, but one day I saw a Matisse for the first time and I realized that I was “allowed” to paint what I feel about a scene, rather than just record it in brush strokes, and it was such a feeling of freedom that it’s been hard to go back to more representational work.

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@dkuhn_art, I love your freedom in your oceanscapes!

@savocado Thank you for saying so. And I’m a fan of your marionette paintings.

Hi again David,
I also love your work…and at know time did I ever look at it and try to figure out what it was (our previous conversation)…so yes, you don’t have to try to record the scene to be a “realist” for lack of a better word. I think the “way you feel” about a scene is what it’s all about. The Hudson River School and movements like them were certainly not what they actually saw…but the way they felt about what they were seeing. Even if it was very realistic. I believe your work is still representational…just not an exact copy…Nobody wants that…well I guess photo realists might…and it’s also not paint spilled down a canvas…

@tl_shaver Thanks for the kind words, and btw, God forbid if anyone should get the wrong impression here; for the record, I am a big fan of many realists. Just wanted to put that out there.

So how did the competition you were judging shake out? What kind of painting won first place?

Thanks for asking David…it went well I would say. I’m sure some folks went away mad, but that’s always gonna happen. I wound up choosing a portrait. It was amazing. One of those ones you see and just know this is another level…even if I’m not a portrait painter…lol