A single line thrown onto a canvas. Simple blocks of colour. A clutter of squiggles. Should you be sauntering past the wall of abstracts at a museum this summer, a cynical thought may swiftly follow: "My kid could have done that. Heck, a monkey could've done that."
Well it turns out that your kid and your monkey can't do that.
To test whether people really mistake paintings by professionals with those produced by children and chimps, researchers at Boston College showed art and non-art students pairs of images - one by an Abstract Expressionist (including images by Mark Rothko, Charles Seliger, Clyfford Still, Sam Francis, Hans Hofmann, and Cy Twombly), and one by a child or animal. Their survey results, released in March, revealed that a clear majority of participants in both groups liked the professional paintings more and judged them as better.
"We are showing that the disparaging things people say don't hold up," says Ellen Winner, chair of the Department of Psychology at Boston College and co-author of the study Seeing the Mind Behind the Art. "A child could not have painted a Twombly … even the untrained eye can see the difference."
Forty non-art students and 32 art students participated in the study. Winner and PhD candidate Angelina Hawley-Dolan selected 30 paintings by abstract expressionists, and paired each painting with a similar work by a child or animal (monkey, gorilla, chimpanzee or elephant). They flattened both images on a computer screen and made them as similar as possible in terms of size and resolution.
Both groups saw the first 10 image pairs without any labels; the rest of the images were either correctly labelled or reversed. They were then asked which they liked better and why, and which was a better work of art and why. Participants preferred professional paintings and, more than 60 per cent of the time, judged them as better than the non-professional paintings even when the labels were reversed.
"A lot of people think about art as taste, sort of like ice cream - you like chocolate, I like vanilla - but there's another component where people agree on these objective standards, specifically in Abstract Expressionism," Hawley-Dolan says.
The study is still topical for Elizabeth Smith, executive director of curatorial affairs at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This weekend the Toronto gallery will open the exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York, on loan from Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, and it features the work of many of the best-known artists of the movement.
Smith isn't surprised by the results of the Boston College study. "The quality, vigour and mastery that you see in these paintings really communicate," she says. "When you look at a Jackson Pollock painting for more than half a second, see how the drips and strokes reveal themselves across the surface of the painting, imagine the artist and his rigorous movements … it can't help but envelop and fascinate you."
More than in figurative or representational art, where an object or theme is recognizable, abstract art communicates emotion, feeling and intangible elements, Smith says: "It's more akin to the way music operates on us. It causes us to experience memories and reveries."
Abstract art can look simple, which leaves it vulnerable to criticism, but it comes from a complex beginning. "Few people realize that artists who choose to paint abstractly are often trained classically and traditionally," Smith says. "They feel it gives them a way to communicate differently and more powerfully with the viewer."
Denyse Thomasos is a Canadian abstract artist living in New York. She began painting figuratively but later turned to abstraction. "It offers a kind of openness. The intention can take on all different forms; it could be journalistic, emotional or metaphoric," Thomasos says. "I love the fact that you can just go into your studio and get started - you don't need a model or photograph, you don't even need an idea."
Thomasos has worked with children, and says the freedom that comes across in their art is what makes it appealing. Professional art, however, has a purpose behind it that viewers pick up on, and can be interpreted like a language.
"When kids are working, a lot of it is coming from an urge, not so much intellectual, but a response, a reaction, and play," she says. "An artist is making a deliberate choice for something to be here or there.… One approach with line can feel very lyrical and soothing, and then a rigid line can feel more anxious and threatening."
Smith says the language present in the work of the Abstract Expressionists has a depth and richness that will reach even the skeptics - as long as they approach it with an open mind.
"If they look closely at each of the works, I think that their skepticism will turn into admiration," she says. "But they need to take the time to look closely."
(Note to readers: The child's painting in the photo at the top of this story is the one on the right.)
Special to The Globe and Mail