Art in Small Bites: Subverting assumptions about abstract art


The Benton Museum hosts another installment of Art in Small Bites on Wednesday, Apr. 4. This installment focused on abstract pieces of art, culminating in the large piece that can be viewed by the main doors. (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

Benton Museum of Art docent Arthur Rovosso led a small group of students and community members on a lunchtime tour as part of the continuing lecture series Art in Small Bites. This week’s topic: abstract art.

“Abstract turns people off,” Rovosso said. “They think number one, I’m not going to understand this, and number two, this is for the upper classes.”

Throughout the tour, Rovosso tried to dispel some of the stereotypes concerning abstract art.

He started with a piece called Karl Gray by Manierre Dawson, who painted during the early twentieth century around the time of World War I. Rovosso explained Dawson as one of the first American artists to truly break away from impressionism and start the abstract movement in the United States, despite the lack of recognition he receives.

When talking about Dawson’s work, Rovosso also took the opportunity to explain what abstract art, cubism in particular, really is. Basically, with cubism, like the work of Picasso and similar to Dawson, the artist creates planes within a figure, and then shatters and fragments those planes, rearranging them in new ways and with new colors. Abstract art, on a broader scale, is when the artist “subtracts” something from the visual world, using their imagination, creating works that can be very personal.

“Something all of us can do is use our imagination,” Rovosso said, working to combat the common assumption that abstract art goes over the heads of the ordinary Joe.

After Dawson’s work, Rovosso moved on to Robert Motherwell, who practiced a more specific brand of abstract art known as abstract expressionism. Unlike Dawson’s piece, Motherwell’s wasn’t necessary based on anything in the physical world. It wasn’t a subtraction, but rather pure imagination. His piece in the Benton, “A View No. 15,” may have bits and pieces that one thinks they can recognize as a reference to something in the physical world, but ultimately there’s no guarantee.

Abstract expressionism, according to Rovosso, is “the art equivalent of a ouija board,” because it’s all about letting the emotion dictate your hand on the page.

The third type of abstract work covered in the tour was conceptual art, the exact opposite of expressionism. Sol Lewitt, who donated the final piece of the tour, “Wall Drawing,” to the Benton Museum, worked not by physically painting the colors onto a canvas, but by coming up with the concept for the work, the plans, the “blueprints” so to speak.

“The analogy he used with architects worked really well for me,” said tour member and UConn General Counsel lawyer Rich Orr. “Architects don’t ever do any of the building, they just make the plans.”

The various styles of abstract art were one of the things that resonated with tour members.

“Seeing that spectrum from the impassioned energetic artist,” Orr said, “to the conceptual artist whose not even touching anything was something new that I learned.”

Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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