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I received a great question via email today about Andy Warhol and whether or not his grid paintings should be considered “abstract art.” I had a lot of fun thinking through it and writing about it, so I ended up with a longer email. I want to share it here with you in case you’ve been wanting to ask the same thing. Hopefully, these ideas will inspire you to have a fun dialectic discussion with someone about art!
I love the lesson plans! I had my tutor meeting today and the tutors had a concern with week 4 not being abstract art. Could you help me expand on this? [The tutors] feel like abstract art is more of something unrecognizable right away. How are the grids considered abstract art? I’m not an artist so I couldn’t really explain.
Thank you, A.L.
I can understand how someone might wonder if Andy Warhol’s grid paintings are considered abstract art. I think you could have a great dialectic conversation about this, starting by coming up with a definition of “abstract art.”
Some people think of “abstract art” as synonymous with “non-objective art.” (Non-Objective Art” is art that is not recognizable as anything.) But most see “Abstract art” as a much broader term. Google the phrase “define abstract art” and read some of the different opinions. You’ll notice the simplified definition I came up with and included in this lesson for abstract art is “Art that does not try to represent reality.” I believe this is the most common understanding of the term “abstract art.”
Under this definition, Andy Warhol’s gird art, for example, Ten Marilyns, appears to be very abstract, since the colors are not reflecting reality. (Most experts seem to agree that these are abstract.) However, you could argue that you’d need to ask Andy Warhol himself if the art was abstract, since this most common definition places the artist’s intent above the viewer’s opinion on whether or not the art should be considered abstract. This will come up again when we study Andrew Wyeth on week 16. He thought of himself as an abstractionist even though his paintings all seem to be quite realistic!
On the other hand, if you want to define abstract art as “art that’s not recognizable as anything,” then you’ll have another interesting discussion when you look at cubism paintings, like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and surrealism paintings, like Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. They contain recognizable objects, but still feel very abstract to most people. In fact, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is so recognizable as naked women that most moms don’t feel right about showing it to their young children! 😉
Then, we could look at a child’s art. If my son draws an eagle, but I can’t recognize it as such, would I then call it abstract? No! That would be offensive!
Fascinating, right??

I think the key thing to remember when teaching an art class is this: there are different purposes for art. Nature Journaling helps us notice the details. A historical painting tells a story. My travel journal helps me remember. Some art captures an emotion and stirs people to action. Often, painting something different than reality helps us serve our purpose better. So it’s wonderful that we are allowed to make art that reflects something other than exactly what we see! The idea of “abstract art,” is freedom for the artist! Classifying art as abstract or realistic can be helpful, but it’s not an exact science and it’s not nearly as important as the concept.

So, now let’s ask ourselves how Any Warhol’s Ten Marilyns would be different if the colors were all accurately reflecting reality? How would its impact be different? What do you think the purpose of this painting was?
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