It isn’t hard to understand the “abstract” part of Abstract Expressionism. It’s the “Expressionism” part that is more obscure. Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko defined the movement in the 1940s and ’50s (Their work can be viewed at the current MoMA show “Abstract Expressionist New York”). No one thinks that Pollock’s splatters or Rothko’s hovering squares of color are supposed to depict anything else. They are just shapes and colors and splatters of paint. The abstract nature of the paintings is obvious. But what do they express?

“Abstract Expressionist New York.” Through April 25. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Pollock spoke about his paintings as “expressing an inner world — in other words — expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.” I suppose we can conclude that Pollock’s inner… More…

We fill absences. This is what we do. Nature has her way of filling up absence with stars, atoms, frogs, dirt, human beings. Human beings, though, have their own curious way of filling absence. When we lived in caves, we filled the vacuum of the unknown with fear. In ancient times, gods filled the unknown. In 16th-century Europe, the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo filled the unknown with monsters.

“Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy” Through January 9. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the darkened rooms of the “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy” exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hang strange and unwholesome monster faces. The portraits lining the walls are a perversion of everything we consider to be natural and right and harmonious about the human visage. In Arcimboldo’s “composite heads,” men are… More…