How To Approach Abstract And Conceptual Art For Be...

How To Approach Abstract And Conceptual Art For Beginners

More often than not, art that falls into the conceptual art category is misunderstood and thus ignored or criticized. Unless the viewer has prior knowledge about the artist at hand, many can be entirely lost while browsing a conceptual artwork collection.

Film Set-Isa Genzken-Conceptual Art

Film Set (2015), Isa Genzken

There is a very thin line differentiating the two artistic styles abstract and conceptual. The latter’s focus on the meaning and concept behind the work often creates more depth and aptitude compared to the overall aesthetic. Abstraction, on the other hand, utilizes aesthetic, applying deeper meaning to the artwork through a distorted or convoluted lens.

Last September, David Zwirner opened two almost entirely conceptual shows, Isa Genzken’s solo show and Wolfgang TillmansPCR. One too many people have voiced disappointment by the shows, not because they found them dull or uneventful, but because they felt the shows appeared as though they required little artistic skill or talent.

This is, of course, not the first time conceptual or abstract artworks have been critiqued for this reason. Who could forget the founder of abstract Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp, and his Fountain (1917)? Towards the beginning of his career, critics despised his minimalist readymade works. Later on, his infamous style influenced legendary artists like Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, Robert Rauschenberg and many more.

Schauspieler II, 10-Isa Genzken-Conceptual Art-Abstract Art

Installation view of Schauspieler II, 10 (2014), Isa Genzken

When viewing the Genzken series (or other conceptual works), you first need to consider the use of media. In Isa’s latest show at Zwirner, she followed her ongoing practice of using different media that draw upon everyday consumer culture including design, mass media, architecture and urban environments.

Between her traffic cop/New York hooker sculptures, the plaster replicas of the bust of Nefertiti, the uncanny accuracy of the twin towers and the flat works on the wall made by a process of layering various reflective materials, her impressionable works expose her fascination with urban culture. While she aims to be aesthetically interesting, the work’s real focus is to inspire thoughts about the relationships between architecture and art, commercial goods and everyday life.

Tillman_DavidZwirner_Conceptual Art_Abstract Art

Arms and legs (2014), Wolfgang Tillmans

While browsing the works of Tillmans (or other abstract photographers), be aware of the photographic manipulation behind these perceivably unclear images. To create a desired aesthetic, artist’s crop, enhance, expose, and commit many other means of photo manipulation in order to convey a particular theme or underlying opinion.

In the Tillmans exhibit, each work is a sample from a seemingly infinite pool of possible subject matter. From the highly contrasted Russian gay club photographs to the large prescription drug portrait emanating classical horror vacui, all of Tillman’s work have deliberate intent. Whether hung or taped upon bright white walls or laid flatly on wooden tables, the work explores the parallel between current social and political commentary through an abstracted, thought provoking lens. The overall goal is to allow viewers to come to their own creative conclusions.

Even the show’s title PCR, is ripe with meaning. PCR is an abbreviation for “polymerase chain reaction” (a technique in molecular biology of amplifying a DNA molecule), which echoes a recurring interest in Tillmans’ works. Essentially, PCR can determine the overall genetic identity of an individual from a trace amount of starting material (a single hair follicle, for example).

TSC-Time Mirrored-Wolfgang Tillmans-Conceptual Art-Abstract Art

Installation view of TSC, Time Mirrored (2015), Wolfgang Tillmans

While some works may be a bit out there for your taste, try to approach all art without prejudice or judgement. We’re not saying you have to love it all (in fact you shouldn’t), but try to understand the stories behind conceptual and abstract works before making a decision on what is good or bad.

To find out more information on both Isa Genzken’s and Wolfgang Tillmans’ work, you can find both of their press releases and bios on the David Zwirner.

17 years' supply-Wolfgang Tillmans-Conceptual Art-Abstract Art

Detail of 17 years’ supply (2013), Wolfgang Tillmans

Nefertiti sculptures-Isa Gengken-Conceptual Art-Abstract Art

Nefertiti sculptures, Isa Genzken

New York installation PCR, 533-Wolfgang Tillmans-Conceptual Art-Abstract Art

New York installation PCR, 533 SE (2015), Wolfgang Tillmans


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Alexis has a BA in Art History from Syracuse University – her hobbies include but are not limited to; bleeding orange, collecting sunglasses, eating pizza, and laughing loudly.