How to Explain Modern Art – Part 2

(and How to have Your Students Create their own Abstract Project)

by Michael Hoctor

click here to read Part 1 or click here for the PDF version of Modern Art Part 2

How to Explain Modern Art – Series Summary

Art by Michael Hoctor

Art by Michael Hoctor

This series will help teachers gain an understanding of Modernist Art and how the emergence of the Avant-guard Movement led to non-objective painting that continues into the 21st Century. This is a simplified, but accurate, overview of the emergence of Modern Art – how photographic technology radically altered artists’ approach to visual art, leading to 20th Century abstract painting techniques.

  • Part 1.   Radical Change in Painting in the 19th Century
  • Part 2. Abstraction in the 20th Century
  • Part 3.  Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, including a lesson plan to guide students through the process of creating their own abstract art project

Abstraction in the 20th Century

The painter Matisse taught classes on painting and making art.  He would tell his students that if they wanted to be a painter, they would need to first cut out their tongue because they can’t explain their art.   It must speak for itself.  (Flam, 2005).   What would Matisse say about writing about art?  Well we know don’t we, but please read on….

So we are to believe Matisse taught his classes in pantomime? No explanations about art? There were lectures and discussions and heated arguments; after all this was Paris the center of the Art World. Young painters came to learn how to make art that was totally inventive and alive.  They had the idea that painting could “really speak to people”.

Art was not about money.  Selling your work was, of course, important and necessary, allowing you to buy paint and canvas and perhaps even eat a good meal once in a while. But, more important was that your work “spoke to the buyer”.  Good art was all about human intimate connection, and still is.

This article will continue its examination of the profound way photographic technology affected painting of the 20th century and briefly identify the participating avant-garde artists, who were major influences on each other and how we see the world we live in.  Many were undiscovered until after their death, and posthumously, were elevated as heroes in the world of painting. They changed the course of art history and today their works are among the most sought after in the world.  In the history of art, their story is probably the greatest ever told and possibly the saddest; they were the original starving artists.

There are many major avenues leading to understanding modern art. This article will travel a small road called color.  It begins with the invention of the camera’s ability to capture an image.  In the mid-19th century a highly skilled artist could make a good living using painting skills developed over years of study and practice.  Unfortunately photographic technology could create miraculous detailed portraits and landscapes using light and chemistry in the new daguerreotype camera.

What to do?

brushesA painter could possibly pick up his obsolete brushes and useless paints and give them away. Or purchase one of those cameras and become a professional photographer.

Many did.

A few painters took on the torturous task of reinventing the art of painting. They wanted to re-examine the way we see the world, creating a visual art much more aesthetic and meaningful than a black-and-white photograph.  The story begins in 1860s Paris with Impressionism and lasts until the 1960s in New York with Abstract Expressionism.

The Impressionists departed from acceptable subject matter, applied shocking colors and apparently never learned acceptable brushing techniques, guaranteeing exclusion from selling their work at the exclusive professional exhibitions.  Without sales they needed to rely on their families and a limited support from a small number of educated collectors.  These artists were successful beyond their dreams, but only a few lived to realize they would be rock stars in the history of art.   Today it is these recognized avant-garde works of art that are sold in high-end galleries and auction houses, and are selling for astronomical prices in the exclusive world of the mega-billionaires.

It is not the superrich buyers that determine who are the major painters.  It is scholars, historians, and museum curators that identify which artists are the more important, the most influential, and who had a greater impact on art history.

Art sold in the world’s auction houses and dealers have increased 150% over the last decade. At this time it is estimated $2 trillion in artworks are currently held in private hands.  Vincent van Gogh sold only one work of art during his lifetime.

Inheriting a painting by one of the recognized artists or finding one in a thrift store or at an estate sale can be like winning a lottery.  You may have seen Antiques Roadshow, the highly rated PBS television series.  The premise of the show is that hopeful owners bring their painting, or other treasure, for a professional appraiser to reveal that what they possess is valuable.  It turns out that the paintings or objects are not always worth that much, most usually only a few hundred dollars.  But a high point of the show, that payoff moment, what an owner, and the home viewer, wait for is that special occasion- when the appraisal is a breathtaking jackpot.

In an episode of the show, that will be aired next year, 2015, a painting by an early Laguna Impressionist, Joseph Kleitsch (1882 to 1931) was featured. His art training was in Munich and Paris. In 1920 he fell in love with the rustic artist village of Laguna Beach CA. and painted the town’s eucalyptus lined streets and the crashing waves of the Pacific coastline. It was appraised at  $500,000, (a little high but, probably more like $130,000), still a very valuable work of art. The Los Angeles times in 1933 stated “He was a born colorist; he seemed to play on canvas with the abandon of a gypsy violinist (Miller, 1933).

Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still

Another historically significant painting was found when the Antiques Roadshow stopped at Palm Springs. A work, painted in 1937, depicts the building of the Grand Cooley Dam. The art was given to a nice couple as a housewarming gift and was painted by one of the husband’s college professors, Clyfford Still. It was also appraised at $500,000. (But that appraisal was probably very low). Clyfford Still, it turns out, is considered one of America’s foremost ‘avant-garde’ painters and a leader in American Abstract Expressionism. His non-figurative, non-objective paintings are largely concerned with a variety of different abstract color formations.   Jagged flashes of color give the impression that one layer of color has been torn off the painting revealing the colors underneath.  In 2004 Still’s widow, Patricia Still gave the city of Denver 2000 pieces from her husband’s collection to be used for an endowment to support the new Denver Clifford Still Museum. Hoping to ensure the museum success they auctioned four of his paintings hoping to raise $85 million. The four paintings fetched $114.1 million ensuring the Museum’s success. That averages out to approximately 28 million dollars each.

Why is an early Clyfford Still painting worth so much more than a beautiful Impressionist landscape?  At the Antique Roadshow you will hear the appraiser often say, “my colleagues and I looked this over” appearing to be taking a second or even a third opinion. But the main member of the conference is almost always Mr. Google. Evaluation of a painting involves multiple sources and is seldom about the professional appearance of the art.  It is always the signature at the corner of the painting.  The price at the last auction, along recent sales by a collector or gallery will determine the possible current value of a recognized artist. If none of the experts have ever heard of the painter, it probably will not make it into the televised final show. If the painting was a scene of an inviting October country road and you could easily step through the frame into the autumn countryside. How much could that be worth?

A brand-new landscape by an unknown artist that was exceedingly beautiful, obviously painted by a trained artist.

If we were to ask an expert museum curator like Marcia Tucker, the first female curator at the Whitney Museum of Art and cofounder of the New York’s New Museum and an expert on emerging artists, she might ask, “How do you feel about the picture?”

If the viewer felt …”I just love this picture…this work just speaks to me”.

Her response might be “If you would like this painting of the country road in your life then buy it”   “But if you are buying this painting as an investment?   Don’t!  It will never be considered an important work of art.”

If the potential buyer stated …”I just didn’t like it, I hate it … ”

Well, it’s possible her response might be “It’s probably good art.”

If the viewer’s response was   “You know, I really hate this picture! Positively hate it.

Well then… ” It may be Great Art.”

How is it possible?  Because major galleries and museums and especially collectors are now looking for the newest avant-garde artist, the emerging genius painter who is attempting to extend the prevailing limits of today’s accepted boundaries, creating something challenging, never seen before; that’s where the money is. And that is why some contemporary art is so confusing and difficult to understand.  That very realistic road painting with autumn leaves has already been painted thousands of times by other skilled painters. The California Impressionist painting is beautiful, but in a style that’s already 50 years old.  Clyfford Still is a recognized avant-garde artist from the New York school of painting. The painting at the roadshow was from his earlier work. He was a leader in Abstract Expressionism and helped lead the way for Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, in the mid-20th century.

In the mid-19th century, avant-garde painters were not at all popular.   At that time viewers and the critics alike were offended by the new “never seen before art” and were in full agreement that the painter lacked training and talent. The artist cannot draw, colors are strange and slapdash, the unfinished canvas looks accidental and the painter is obviously lazy.  The painter was Pierre Auguste Renoir. And that was the critical reaction to a painting he had spent six months continuously developing and reworking what he hoped would be his masterpiece.  On his painted canvas we see attractive young women and men drinking, talking, and flirting. Sunlight filters through an overhanging orange striped awning bathes everyone in the party with a warm wonderful light. Everything is in sparkling colors reflected from the surrounding water.  Renoir painted in tiny brush strokes, contrasting paints were applied next to each other, the viewers eyes, at short distance, would optically mix the colors and become an active participant in creating the visual experience.  Everybody seemed to hate it!   He called it “Luncheon at the Boating Party“.

Marsha Tucker would point out, in 1881, that departing from traditional state sanctioned academic style of how and what to paint was completely unacceptable.  A Parisian newspaper critic, Albert Wolff, commented,    “Had he learned to draw, M. Renoir would have made a very pleasing canvas out of his Boating Party” (Wolff, n.d.).  Renoir was unable to sell the luncheon, so his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel purchased the painting for around $2000. The painting had taken six months to complete; that works out to be about $10 a day.  In 1922 Phillips Museum in Washington DC purchased the “Luncheon”  for $125,000. It is now the centerpiece of their incredible collection.

Photographers had the luxury of working outside the studio in the real world; all they needed was a tripod and their camera.  The painters also needed to escape from the confines of their studios and take inspiration directly from the world around them.

It was during this period that the French box easel was invented. A highly portable container with telescopic legs, built-in drawers for assorted portable tubes of new colors, brushes and canvases and could fold up to the size of a large briefcase. For the first time in history it was practical to produce a finished oil painting on-site, en-plein-air, painting outdoors.

Impressionist artists were now free to travel the countryside, cafés, the ballet, and the seashore. Claude Monet visited a small fishing village on the Normandy coast.

He walked along several sandy beaches and through a long dark tunnel to reach a cove with extraordinary rock outcrops. A series of paintings called the “Waves of Manneporte” were executed with extraordinary luminosity and colors bursting in red, blue, yellow and green including grains of sand stuck in the painted surface. An unexpected large wave almost carried the artist and his equipment out to sea.  Monet painted the Waves of Manneporte a number of times. This painting was purchased for approximately $500 by the Impressionist collector Paul Durand-Ruel.

waterlilliesMonet’s paintings now sell for millions of dollars. Monet’s Water Lilies led the auction in London at Sotheby’s in 2014 selling for 208 million dollars.


At the turn of the 20th century French painter Paul Cézanne had come to the conclusion that the way we see the world, the way we see reality – is different for everyone and as a result, seeing is a creative process for both painter and viewer. This idea opened a whole new approach for avant-garde painters.  Works of art could reveal the artist’s personal vision, totally different from the established conventions and traditions of academic art.  Cézanne broke the rules of perspective and painted overlapping foreground into background, which then almost dissolved into patches of unusual vivid colors.   Cézanne’s ideas of how we see were a century ahead of current neuroscience.

Until very recently little was known about how our brain processes visual information. We now know that what we see is actually a constant series of assembled detailed glances creating an ongoing composite. The main concern for human visual perception is luminance – the direction and the power of light and is completely unconcerned with color. What we are seeing is not in our eyes, but in multiple micro perception centers deep in the brain. Color perception is actually located a few inches away from our perception of luminance. And there is an enormous variability in our individual visual powers. Cézanne was a major influence on avant-garde painters and the way they approached color.

cezanne-269880_640Because of poor sales, Cezanne could not earn a living as a painter, and was dependent on his father to subsidize his art.  He continued to ignore the laws of classical perspective allowing each object to be independent within the space of the picture.

In November 1895 Cézanne held his first solo exhibition in Paris and failed to sell a painting. Ambrose Villard, his dealer, bought every piece of artwork there.

Recently his painting ” The Card Players “was purchased $250 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

Postimpressionist’s Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin were experimenting with color and moving ever further away photography’s representational image.

The two artists lived together for a while, but were entirely different in their way to approach the canvas.  Gauguin boldly combined line and color giving each an equal role.   He purposely worked with the flat two dimensionality of the canvas freeing and distorting has colors.   Van Gogh became influenced by Gauguin’s technique of painting from memory, resulting in Vincent’s paintings that were less realistic, but emotionally more colorful. He would squeeze the tube of paint directly onto the canvas, resulting in sculpted movements of brilliant colors to the skies in his landscapes, creating impassioned compositions that still remain unmatched.   Van Gogh entered an exhibition in Brussels January 1890, a fellow artist threatened to withdraw his own pictures in order to avoid finding his art displayed in the same room as the laughable van Gogh.

In 10 years of nonstop painting, he sold one painting during his lifetime, ” Red Vineyards at Arles”.   Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1990 sold for $82.5 million.

The strong and vivid colors of Gauguin and van Gogh inspired Henri Matisse and the Fauvist artists to be able to paint in an extreme “orgy of pure colors”. The critics called the work “Fauvism”, which means ” wild animals” (NGA, 2014).  Matisse improvised brushing techniques and applied paint freely in thick smears and dabs of unique colors with total freedom. Finding power in unnatural color combinations without any allegiance to realistic representation.   Color existed on the canvas independently establishing its individual influence with it’s own rhythms and moods.  The paintings of Henri Matisse inspired Picasso and his use of color. He would say, “When I haven’t any blue, I use red” (ArtQuotes, n.d.).

Picasso’s argument with the threat of photography was less about color but the apparent limits of the photograph. Photographers had invented the stereoscope. A viewer could look through the device at two adjacent almost identical pictures gaining a three-dimensional result.  Picasso could paint a guitar showing six different multiple viewpoints all-in-one painting. Portraits could have a profile contained within a full frontal view.  Breaking the picture plane into fragments became the cubist approach and Picasso became wildly successful.  He would always pay his bills with a large signature on a check, knowing the proprietor would never deposit it. The signature ” Picasso” was always worth more than the bill.

Cubism was a major influence on Wassily Kandinsky considered the father of Abstract Art. He exhibited his works, taught art classes, and published his ideas on his theories  “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”.   Color became more an expression of emotion rather than a faithful description of subject matter. Kandinsky advocated an art without any reference to imagery or narrative, an artistic philosophy emphasizing color alone, totally independent of any photographic imagery.  Painters could now create “never seen before” works of art, eliminating all subject matter except the pure elements of painting – shape, volume, line, and color contrast executed on a flat surface in an energetic and visually powerful style, making a work of art that is “totally inventive and alive”.

The third article in this series will explore the revolutionary avant-garde painters that produced the abstract art of the 20th century, how film has been replaced by the computer and will include a lesson plan allowing students to create their own abstract art.
About Michael Hoctor

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 1.57.17 PMMichael Hoctor received a Bachelor of Arts from UCLA’s College of Applied Arts and a Master’s Degree from the UCLA College of Fine Arts. He was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship in Education.   Mr. Hoctor taught advanced improvisational skills and acting techniques as well as producing and directing productions of plays and musicals. He taught classes in California’s Gifted and Talented Education Program (GATE). He cofounded the Laguna Beach improvisational theater, Changing Masks, and directed the play Sarah Was Mine at New York City’s off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater. In 1996, he enrolled in the Laguna Institute of the Arts and has pursued painting since that time. Michael Hoctor is a working artist. He can be contacted at new.synchromy@

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