There’s something beautiful about transforming emotion into art. Abstract creations that convey sensations, created by artists who use paint, clay, and metal to express the feelings there are no words for. Walking into the gallery of Approaching American Abstraction, a permanent exhibit of artwork primarily from the Doris and Donald Fisher collection, you feel a rush of electricity. The space is full of emotionally charged pieces.

For instance, Lee Krasner’s Polar Stampede (1960). Standing before it, you feel grief radiating off the canvas. It’s communicated through aggressive brushstrokes, subdued colors, and a frantic, turbulent energy. She painted it in the years following the deaths of her mother and her husband, Jackson Pollock. During this time, she developed insomnia and took to painting in the dark, using art to express indescribable anguish.  

Other pieces glow with obvious love and optimism. Sam Francis’ Untitled (1951) clearly represents hope with bright colors breaking through a smoggy cloud of black. Admiring the piece, you feel a bubble rising in your own chest. Francis referred to black as the “satanic color from which light emerges, often unexpectedly.” 

The meaning of these two works are evident, but there are a few pieces that are harder to grasp. Such as Joel Shaprio’s 1989 bronze sculpture. Your first instinct is to consider it as a statute, a human form with extended limbs, but then you second guess your first impression. Perhaps it’s a deconstructed chair? A pile of precariously stacked building blocks? Untitled, and without description, it’s up to you to divine its meaning. 

Suddenly, your fingers itch for pen and paper. You envision large, loose circles that overlap and occasionally fall off the page, drawn in black ink with a few jagged, tight strokes near the center like lightning bolts. A combination of soft and harsh, whimsical and serious, to reflect the mix of emotions you feel right now. You’re certainly not a master artist, but you’re inspired to create a drawing based on this exhibit. Why? It just feels right.

Outside cover photo: Joan Mitchell, Bracket, 1989; The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Estate of Joan Mitchell; photo: Ian Reeves

Inside cover photo: Approaching American Abstraction (installation view, SFMOMA); photo: © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA