To Understand Art, Think Biology

Just as cells are the building blocks of the human body, a painting’s points, lines, colors, and tensions are the building blocks of its life.

Visitors look at an untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Christie's auction house in London in June 2013. (Frank Augstein / AP)

An artwork is a living organism. If you visually break down a work of art into its various components and systems, you will begin to understand how each of its elements functions and how those elements work together in harmony, just as you would if you were learning gross anatomy or dissecting a body. In this way, you can begin to see not just what an artwork looks like, but how it’s structured, what its elements and systems do, how they interrelate, and how they contribute to the life of the artwork as a whole.

You can begin to understand that just as cells are the building blocks of an organism’s life, so too an artwork’s elements are the building blocks of its life. Essential to the life of an organism, such as a human body, are the tensions among ligaments and muscles, the circulation of fluids, the strength and density of bone, the functions of organs, the elasticity and porousness of skin, the rhythms of breathing and heartbeat. Those interdependent elements of the body, if they are not purposeful, healthy, and working together, could become useless, if not dangerous, to the organism as a whole. So too an artwork’s unique, interdependent elements (its points, lines, movements, shapes, forms, colors, structures, energies, tensions, light, and rhythms) must be present, healthy, functional, and purposefully fused—working together in harmony, subservient to the greater whole—in order for that work of art to have life.

Basic Books

Paul Klee suggested that a line is a point going for “a walk … a point, shifting its position forward.” In representational works, we often experience a line as designating some particular thing or place: a strand of hair, the horizon, the contour of a form, such as the edge of a cheek or an apple. But a line can also represent abstract ideas about boundary, meeting place, energy, fusion, and fission. A line can be a spine or a vein. It can be lightning, or stress, or striving. When two forms meet and press against each other, they create a new line—a juncture, an offspring—out of the encounter and merging of their two separate boundaries: new life and energy generated out of interface. Each element in a work of art has the potential, through relationships and contact with other elements, to foster new forms and life—to convey a sense of growth and transformation; to convey that the artwork, though its forms might be literally unchanging, is not fixed but continually in motion, interaction, creation. These are the qualities and energies and actions we notice and therefore make happen in an artwork through the acts of looking and experience.

The more you begin to understand about what an artwork’s elements are doing—and can do—the more you’ll begin to realize what is possible in art. You’ll begin to see how subtle pressures and spatial shifts operate and move you through an artwork, not just vertically and horizontally but also from front to back, in depth, and from inside to outside. And as you move through an artwork, letting your eyes hop and glide from form to form, you’ll begin to pick up on the rhythms and melodies of the artwork. You’ll begin to feel your own eyes dancing through the artwork’s elements: moving faster here, slower there, pausing, and resting; traversing long, lyrical arcs and feeling the rat-a-tat effects—as in Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, Byzantine mosaics, and the checkerboard patterns of abstract medieval manuscript pages—of staccato pulses.

If you accept that these forces are at work, you’ll begin to sense not just palpable forms in a picture, but also the palpable space in which those forms exist: a sense of distance and atmosphere and tension and air among forms; a sense that those spaces are not only open and navigable, but charged with light and energy, and that those spaces, like the forms themselves, seem to breathe and provide air, that they are believable, purposeful—alive.

Black Lines, by Wassily Kandinsky (Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty)

Consider the work of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), the Russian painter and professor who wrote a number of groundbreaking books. In Kandinsky’s early landscape-based abstractions from 1911, line, color, and shape free themselves from acting as descriptive nouns into becoming active verbs, forces, and energies: Contours and colors mix and dissolve, suggesting stained glass and children’s finger painting; a horse and rider are expressed as a lyrical bolt of lightning. By the time he paints the purely abstract masterpiece Black Lines (1913), all sense of the landscape has vanished: Color, shape, volume, space, and line are completely independent, free agents, and his spatial arabesques simultaneously remain on the surface of his flat picture and also transform that flat surface into a stretchy membrane, as if the painting were made out of rubber or taffy, or could be poked and twisted, or even turned inside out, like the surface of a balloon. Kandinsky gave his lines, forms, and shapes pictographic immediacy and energy. Sometimes, as in the later masterpieces Blue World (1934), Striped (1934), Thirty (1937), Various Parts (1940), Sky Blue (1940), and Various Actions (1941), his forms feel as if they are painted or incised hieroglyphics, while they also suggest unfamiliar creatures and microscopic organisms, as well as veins and jolts of electric current. They look like signs and symbols, yet feel alive and in motion.

Or consider Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), a renowned German American abstract painter and an influential teacher of many of America’s most celebrated mid-century artists, who came up with the English term push and pull to describe the dynamic interplay between flatness and depth in a painting or drawing. Even in an abstract painting made of colored rectangles, no two shapes of different sizes (even if they are the same hue) can really seem to exist in the exact same spatial location relative to each other. Larger forms will tend to advance, perhaps, and smaller forms will tend, perhaps, to recede. Or the opposite can happen. Other qualities besides size—such as brightness, intensity, opacity, translucency, density, warmth, and coolness, and especially location relative to other elements—all contribute to how we read where, exactly, a color or form is in relation to another color or form, and to how we experience the rhythmic pulse and speed and dynamic push and pull of those forms as they seem to shift within the spatial universe of the picture.

We can experience the visceral dynamics of push and pull in Hofmann’s abstract painting The Gate (1959–1960). Here, Hofmann’s color shapes are heavy with opacity and impasto—thickened paint that feels as if it has been troweled onto the canvas. The speed of the colored shapes feels at first to be somewhat sluggish, as if forms are still congealing. Yet Hofmann gives those forms various speeds and levels of elasticity. Each form seems to be stepping forward and/or backward in space; the forms all seem to be competing, perhaps, for frontality. If we try to ascertain which of Hofmann’s forms is actually the closest to us in space and which is the farthest away, we find we are muscling in and out through the picture space—moving back and forth where the painted forms move.

Hofmann’s Gate—pushing and pulling, exerting its will on us—feels alive. His notion of push and pull, which refers to more than spatial dynamics, gets at the heart of what living is: The forms are interacting and struggling within the universe of the picture, just as we interact and struggle within our own universe. We relate to and sense in an artwork its own tensions and movements and vitality, its will to live—its ability, for instance, to defy the downward pull of gravity or to strive vertically against the opposite tension of horizontal. We sense that an artwork’s forms endeavor to move, to assert themselves, to change and grow—to move within, affect, and break free from the binding flat plane or the solid marble.

It is neither important nor necessary, usually, to name and identify the symbolic meanings of those dynamics, but it is important to feel them and to understand how they operate on and relate to one another in an artwork, how they build into and contribute to and fuse as an organic whole. It’s important, I believe, to begin to ascertain what the elements of a work are doing and why the artist created them and put them there. It is in these ways that we move beyond the mere physical, or formal, aspects of an artwork’s elements and get to something closer to the artwork’s philosophy—its raison d’être.

This article has been adapted from Lance Esplund’s new book, The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art. Copyright © 2018 by Lance Esplund.