Today Leslee and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see an exhibit of abstract paintings by New England women artists. I’m not an expert in abstract painting, but that’s part of the medium’s appeal. Because these works aren’t trying to represent anything specific, viewers like me are free to find their own meaning in them.


Viewing abstract paintings is like looking at the passing shapes of clouds, the flashing forms reflected in moving water, or the flickering colors that glow from the center of a campfire. You can let your eyes rest from their mundane work of deciphering meaning. With no symbols to interpret, you’re left to enjoy the wordless nuance of color, shape, and texture.


When I first encountered modern and contemporary art, I struggled to make sense of it. If a painter isn’t trying to represent something like a face or landscape, how can you tell if it is “good” or not?

Only after abandoning this attempt to understand and assess abstract art did I learn how to enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level. When I look at flowers or eat a good meal, I don’t fret over what that food or flowers mean. Instead, I make a purely subjective decision about whether I liked this thing, and why.


When I walk into a gallery of abstract paintings, some works grab me and others don’t. Some works pull me in and all but beg me to keep looking at them, and others whisper “Keep walking; there’s nothing to see here.” With the works that beg me to look, I ask myself the simple question of why: why am I drawn to this piece, and what about it do I find interesting, appealing, or engaging?


This subjective question of why opens far more doors than the interpretive question “what does this piece mean?” There are many works I like without knowing what they mean. The things I like about such works are purely aesthetic. I might like a particular arc of brushwork or an eye-popping complement of colors. Something about a particular painting resonates with me while another work leaves me unimpressed and unmoved.


This almost visceral way of interacting with paintings allows for a variety of personal responses; I don’t know what any given artist was trying to say or suggest in a particular painting, but I know there are works I feel warm and almost friendly toward. “Could I live with this painting” is one question that sometimes comes to mind. Is this a piece that could hold my interest for more than a day or two, or is it one I’d quickly learn to overlook or ignore?


I sometimes wonder what museum guards think about the works they protect, given the long hours they spend in any given exhibit. Guards are paid to watch museum-goers, not the art itself, but when you spend entire shifts in a gallery day after day, you must acquire a certain familiarity with the works you’re watching over.


Surely long-time museum guards develop a fondness for some works over others. Just as we inevitably like some neighbors or coworkers more than the rest, I like to think museum guards “make friends” with some of the paintings they sit with.

I’m glad Leslee and I went to the DeCordova today. Given the long hours I spend writing and reading, it sometimes feels good to just look at beautiful things without any need for interpretive explanation.