Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: The Allure of Abstraction

Posted inFine Art

Who would win in a popularity contest between American realist Edward Hopper and American abstractionist Jackson Pollock? Both were giants of 20th century art and continue to be widely exhibited, but whose work is most beloved?

Although this silly comparison recalls the old axiom, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I think Hopper would be the clear winner.  

People commonly prefer figurative art, and Hopper’s narrative style, lush color, and distinct use of light strike an easy emotional chord. On the other hand, Pollock’s “drip” painting epitomizes abstract art, is intellectually challenging, and offers no recognizable story for the viewer. Yet abstraction is widely accepted in daily life, home décor, fashion, and graphic design. What is a beautiful tile floor, a brightly striped tie, or a QR code if not pure abstraction?

My pursuit of a career in fine art took a detour when I chose to study graphic design, resulting in a fulfilling professional practice that has lasted more than 40 years. I have enjoyed drawing figuratively since childhood, but abstraction dominated my design classes in college. For example, rigidly structured exercises would challenge students to find visual vitality and implied meaning when placing three small, black dots on a white square. Superimposing two colored rectangles to create vibrating chromostereopsis was a lesson in visual perception. Far from literal picture-making, this training was valuable in learning how to employ abstraction for commercial applications.

In 1961, designer Tom Geismar created an abstract symbol for Chase Bank, the first of its kind for a major corporation. Its octagonal shape embodied strength, stability, and safety, yet had no visual reference to money. Companies, institutions, and endless enterprises worldwide adopted geometric marks in the following decades. Fast forward to 2023, Chase still uses this symbol, and abstraction remains popular, as seen in OpenAI’s spiraling geometric mark for ChatGPT.

However, the acceptance of abstraction is less widespread in art and continues to be criticized as an elitist scam, meaningless scrawl, or “something my kid can do.” I assume that, once framed on a gallery wall, this context presents an intellectual affront to audiences seeking narratives, a sense of connection to the tangible world, and the skill required to recreate reality on canvas.

In his landmark book Pictures of Nothing, the late MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe offers a perspective on abstraction’s contribution and importance to art history. “Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games; you have to get into it, risk it all, and this takes a certain act of faith.” My take on this is echoed in painter Frank Stella’s quote, “What you see is what you see.” The point of abstraction is that it’s not supposed to be something— it is a self-contained entity, a spontaneous creation, not a copy of another reality.

The Chase symbol is the Chase symbol— nothing more, nothing less.

My drawing and painting have been about flora and fauna at the edge of abstraction for several years. I created work with a literal reference while being open to interpretation and found that trees provided the ideal source of inspiration. Their linear limbs and leafy patterns can be seen through an abstract lens.

My favorite Abstract Expressionist is Joan Mitchell, whose massive canvasses feature bold colors and aggressive brushwork. Along with Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Pollock, and Helen Frankenthaler, she was part of the mid-century art attack that rebooted the explosive innovations of proto-abstractionists Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Hilma af Klint in the early 1900’s. Mitchell’s standout appeal for me is the emotionally impactful private narrative buried in the fury of her work, sometimes suggested in a title, that results in an exuberant style without peer.

Abstract painting can feel problematic because it can be so wrong until it is just right. For example, when working without a literal subject, a portrait, a landscape, or still life is very difficult for me. But I’ve persevered and overcome this fear by enjoying an artistic “journey” without a map. The heightened surprise is the exhilarating moment when the painting and I simultaneously arrive at the right destination.

My pursuit of abstract art provides two things that bring me peace in a time of worldwide turmoil and existential threats: contemplation and action.

In 1978, I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a humble brick building designed by Philip Johnson. It contains 14 monumental paintings by Mark Rothko that evoke a Zen spirituality. As I sat in this church devoid of any religious regalia, transfixed by a meditative calm, I felt that the sacred impact of this space could equal any of the world’s great cathedrals. The stark monochrome canvasses of subtle rectangular shapes in dark plum invited deep reflection, and “pictures of nothing” were all I needed.

Additionally, I will continue to “toggle” between realism and abstraction while acknowledging that my deepest roots are modern, and that pursuing non-representational work might be a more rewarding path. I can also still find inspiration from my early training in graphic design when I realize the value of placing three black dots on a white square is more profound than I expected.

Next month: “Ten Best Design Books I Never Read.”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.