Abstraction

Korean art curator Soyoung Lee reflects on the appeal of abstraction, found everywhere from her children's artwork to that of modern masters.

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There's that sense of ambiguity which is so appealing to some people and perhaps what's frustrating about abstract art to others.

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  • Soyoung Lee
    1280852
  • This is an Alligator  |  2007  |  Henry Chanu Kotkin (b. 2002, son of Soyoung Lee)
    1280926
  • Black Reflections  |  1959  |  Franz Kline (American)  |  Oil and pasted paper on paper, mounted on Masonite  |  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Schneider, 1964 (64.146)   |  © 2011 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    10371024
  • Omma (Mommy)  |  2009  |  Audrey Yejin Kotkin (b. 2004, daughter of Soyoung Lee)
    7891024
  • Hammamet with Its Mosque  |  1914  |  Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland)  |  Watercolor and pencil on paper  |  The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.4)  |  © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    9601024
  • Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken  |  1969  |  Josef Albers (American, born Germany)  |  Oil on Masonite  |  Gift of the artist, 1972 (1972.40.7)  |  © 2011 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    10261024
  • Static-Dynamic Gradation  |  1923  |  Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland)  |  Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink  |  The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)  |  © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    6991024
  • Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth)  |  ca. 1950–80  |  Unidentified Artist (Korean)  |  Silk  |  Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.149)
    10511024
  • Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth)  |  ca. 1950–80  |  Unidentified Artist (Korean)  |  Silk  |  Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.150)
    10061024
  • Kernos (vase for multiple offerings), Jar, Jug  |  ca. 2300–2200 b.c.; Early Cycladic III–Middle Cycladic I  |  Terracotta   |  Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2004 (2004.363.1–3)
    1280818
  • Jar  |  Majiayao culture, Machang phase, ca. 2300–2050 b.c.  |  Gansu or Qinghai Province, China  |  Earthenware with painted decoration  |  Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection, Gift of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber (1992.165.8)
    862994
  • Three female figures  |  ca. 1400–1300 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIA  |  Mycenaean  |  Terracotta  |  Fletcher Fund, 1935 (35.11.16–.18)
    1280996
  • Kouros  |  1944–45  |  Isamu Noguchi (American)  |  Marble  |  Fletcher Fund, 1953 (53.87a–i)   |  © 2011 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    4601024
  • Bird in Space  |  1923  |  Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania)  |  Marble  |  Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab)  |  © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    7241024
  • Head from the figure of a woman  |  ca. 2700–2500 b.c.; Early Cycladic I–II  |  Cycladic; Keros-Syros culture  |  Marble  |  Gift of Christos G. Bastis, 1964 (64.246)
    5651024
  • Jar  |  Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century  |  Korea  |  White porcelain  |  The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
    9131024
  • Jar  |  Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century  |  Korea  |  White porcelain  |  The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
    9131024
  • Jar  |  Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century  |  Korea  |  White porcelain  |  The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
    9131024
  • Jar  |  Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century  |  Korea  |  White porcelain  |  The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
    9131024
  • Soyoung Lee
    1280852
  • My name is Soyoung Lee. I'm a curator here at the Metropolitan Museum, and I am responsible for the Korean art collection and gallery, and my topic is abstraction.

  • I have two children. Henry is 8, and Audrey is 6, and like all children they love to draw and you know a lot of abstract artists'

  • works are characterized as naive or childlike in a very positive sense and I think that's the strength of children.

  • Because they don't grasp the real world the way that we can, they're actually in many ways better to see the essential qualities.

  • And there are artists like Klee, who can so delicately and elegantly express a lot with just a few color strokes, with shapes, and yet at the same time retain some sort of realistic sense of the place.

  • Even though they can seem so stripped bare. For example, the Homage to [the]Square, it's just blue and green squares. Why should that be appealing?

  • And yet I think geometric patterns, things that are reduced to the essentials, the viewer brings just as much to the meaning of the art as the artist, so you're in many ways participating in the creation of what it means and what the emotional depth of the artwork is.

  • And of course it also reminds me something that I'm very familiar with, which is patchwork in Korean art. These were not art per se. They were made from discarded pieces of clothing

  • to make something that was both practical and beautiful. They very much look a lot like Mondrian. And lots of people comment on that, actually make that connection.

  • When you look at ancient pottery, in different cultures, perhaps the most striking thing is how

  • they're all very visually and emotionally powerful because they get down to the

  • very basic forms and lines. It has nothing to do with realistic depictions of anything we might find around us.

  • We tend to equate, in Western culture, realism with lifelike or naturalistic renderings of the subject matter. But in abstract

  • art, where there are no realistic depictions, the lines, the geometric forms, and the abstraction makes them incredibly dynamic.

  • There are many things actually in the Museum that are accidental abstractions. This head of a woman. The face has been eroded and so really all you see is the egg-shaped head, the beautiful tubular neck, and a hint of an eyebrow and a chipped nose. Though this is not the intended result of the creator, of the artist, in fact what we today see is in some ways perhaps more evocative and I think more emotionally resonant.

  • What I've come to develop or come to realize is that, in fact, abstraction is very much a part of Korean art and it's this classical restraint and minimalism in traditional Korean art

  • that resonates with modern and contemporary art and audiences. The moon Jar

  • it in many ways doesn't represent anything; at the same time it's incredibly evocative of the full moon.

  • But I think there's that sense of ambiguity which is what is so appealing about abstract art to some people and perhaps what's frustrating about abstract art

  • to others.

  • 64.146
    Black Reflections, 1959, Franz Kline (American), Oil and pasted paper on paper, mounted on Masonite Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Schneider, 1964 (64.146) © 2011 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • 1984.315.4
    Hammamet with Its Mosque, 1914, Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland), Watercolor and pencil on paper The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.4) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
  • 1972.40.7
    Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken, 1969, Josef Albers (American, born Germany), Oil on Masonite Gift of the artist, 1972 (1972.40.7) © 2011 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • 1987.455.12
    Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923, Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland), Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
  • 2007.149
    Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth), ca. 1950–80, Unidentified Artist (Korean), Silk Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.149)
  • 2007.150
    Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth), ca. 1950–80, Unidentified Artist (Korean), Silk Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.150)
  • 2004.363.1-3
    Kernos (vase for multiple offerings), Jar, Jug, ca. 2300–2200 b.c.; Early Cycladic III–Middle Cycladic I, Terracotta Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2004 (2004.363.1–3)
  • 1992.165.8
    Jar, Majiayao culture, Machang phase, ca. 2300–2050 b.c., Gansu or Qinghai Province, China, Earthenware with painted decoration Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection, Gift of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber (1992.165.8)
  • 35.11.16-.18
    Three female figures, ca. 1400–1300 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIA, Mycenaean, Terracotta Fletcher Fund, 1935 (35.11.16–.18)
  • 53.87a-i
    Kouros, 1944–45, Isamu Noguchi (American), Marble Fletcher Fund, 1953 (53.87a–i) © 2011 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • 1996.403.7ab
    Bird in Space, 1923, Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania), Marble Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
  • 64.246
    Head from the figure of a woman, ca. 2700–2500 b.c.; Early Cycladic I–II, Cycladic; Keros-Syros culture, Marble Gift of Christos G. Bastis, 1964 (64.246)
  • 1979.413.1
    Jar, Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century, Korea, White porcelain The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
  • Black Reflections, 1959, Franz Kline (American), Oil and pasted paper on paper, mounted on Masonite Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Schneider, 1964 (64.146) © 2011 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Hammamet with Its Mosque, 1914, Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland), Watercolor and pencil on paper The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.4) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken, 1969, Josef Albers (American, born Germany), Oil on Masonite Gift of the artist, 1972 (1972.40.7) © 2011 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Static-Dynamic Gradation, 1923, Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland), Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth), ca. 1950–80, Unidentified Artist (Korean), Silk Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.149)
    Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth), ca. 1950–80, Unidentified Artist (Korean), Silk Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.150)
    Kernos (vase for multiple offerings), Jar, Jug, ca. 2300–2200 b.c.; Early Cycladic III–Middle Cycladic I, Terracotta Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2004 (2004.363.1–3)
    Jar, Majiayao culture, Machang phase, ca. 2300–2050 b.c., Gansu or Qinghai Province, China, Earthenware with painted decoration Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection, Gift of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber (1992.165.8)
    Three female figures, ca. 1400–1300 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIA, Mycenaean, Terracotta Fletcher Fund, 1935 (35.11.16–.18)
    Kouros, 1944–45, Isamu Noguchi (American), Marble Fletcher Fund, 1953 (53.87a–i) © 2011 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Bird in Space, 1923, Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania), Marble Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    Head from the figure of a woman, ca. 2700–2500 b.c.; Early Cycladic I–II, Cycladic; Keros-Syros culture, Marble Gift of Christos G. Bastis, 1964 (64.246)
    Jar, Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century, Korea, White porcelain The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
    8000–2000 B.C.
    2000–1000 B.C.
    1000 B.C.–1 A.D.
    1–500 A.D.
    500–1000 A.D.
    1000–1400 A.D.
    1400–1600 A.D.
    1600–1800 A.D.
    1800–1900 A.D.
    1900–Present

    Works of art in order of appearance

    Last Updated: August 19, 2013. Not all works of art in the Museum's collection may be on view on a particular day. For the most accurate location information, please check this page on the day of your visit.

    Black Reflections
    1959
    Franz Kline (American)
    Oil and pasted paper on paper, mounted on Masonite
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Schneider, 1964 (64.146)
    © 2011 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Not on view
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Hammamet with Its Mosque
    1914
    Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland)
    Watercolor and pencil on paper
    The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.4)
    © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    Not on view
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken
    1969
    Josef Albers (American, born Germany)
    Oil on Masonite
    Gift of the artist, 1972 (1972.40.7)
    © 2011 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Not on view
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Static-Dynamic Gradation
    1923
    Paul Klee (German, born Switzerland)
    Oil and gouache on paper, bordered with gouache, watercolor, and ink
    The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987 (1987.455.12)
    © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    Not on view
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth)
    ca. 1950–80
    Unidentified Artist (Korean)
    Silk
    Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.149)
    Not on view
    Asian ArtSecond Floor
    Patchwork Bojagi (Wrapping Cloth)
    ca. 1950–80
    Unidentified Artist (Korean)
    Silk
    Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2007 (2007.150)
    Not on view
    Asian ArtSecond Floor
    Kernos (vase for multiple offerings), Jar, Jug
    ca. 2300–2200 b.c.; Early Cycladic III–Middle Cycladic I
    Terracotta
    Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2004 (2004.363.1–3)
    On view: Gallery 151
    Greek and Roman ArtFirst Floor and Mezzanine
    Jar
    Majiayao culture, Machang phase, ca. 2300–2050 b.c.
    Gansu or Qinghai Province, China
    Earthenware with painted decoration
    Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection, Gift of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber (1992.165.8)
    Not on view
    Asian ArtSecond Floor
    Three female figures
    ca. 1400–1300 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIA
    Mycenaean
    Terracotta
    Fletcher Fund, 1935 (35.11.16–.18)
    On view: Gallery 151
    Greek and Roman ArtFirst Floor and Mezzanine
    Kouros
    1944–45
    Isamu Noguchi (American)
    Marble
    Fletcher Fund, 1953 (53.87a–i)
    © 2011 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    On view: Gallery 920
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Bird in Space
    1923
    Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania)
    Marble
    Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab)
    © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    On view: Gallery 903
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    Head from the figure of a woman
    ca. 2700–2500 b.c.; Early Cycladic I–II
    Cycladic; Keros-Syros culture
    Marble
    Gift of Christos G. Bastis, 1964 (64.246)
    On view: Gallery 151
    Greek and Roman ArtFirst Floor and Mezzanine
    Jar
    Joseon dynasty, second half of 18th century
    Korea
    White porcelain
    The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1979 (1979.413.1)
    On view: Gallery 233
    Asian ArtSecond Floor

    © 2011 The Metropolitan Museum of Art