Abstraction by the numbers

Bonnie Morano, Progress of Love, 2022

Contributed by Bonnie Morano / I’m a numbers person. Some say that’s atypical for an artist. But before I began my MFA in painting at Hunter College, I was in the financial world creating Excel spreadsheets. For the Northeast edition of New American Paintings, the springboard publication for emerging artists, 38 out of the 40 artists selected were representational painters. There were two abstract artists in the group – one painter and one artist who crocheted textiles. They accounted for 5% of the total group. I decided to cross reference this stat with the current MFA student directory at Hunter, 113 artists strong. Of that cohort, 53 chose a concentration in painting when they were accepted. The split between representation and abstraction was almost even. Why then was the New American Paintings finalist selection so skewed towards representation?

Studio view of Hunter MFA student Claire Bendiner’s work.
Sarah Heinemann, Fastened Held, 2022
Catie Dillon, Expanse(Pulsing), 2022

Because that’s what the art world wants. Should the MFA program’s abstract painters make a Faustian bargain, switching to representation to hedge their bets on commercial success? Or do we, as artists, expect ourselves to be above the numbers? We spend hours in the studio, months preparing for thesis, years completing the MFA degree, and thousands of dollars on tuition, materials, and eventually studio space. The recent meme “Drugs are expensive. Consider art! It’s much more expensive” captures the financial dilemma. If 95% of the painters that the art market apparently demands are representational, isn’t it the fool who does not paint people, places, or things?

Jeremy Lawson, Compound, Harpers Books, East Hampton, through October 8
Ana Villagomez, Tender Spectres, 2022

The lion’s share of Hunter’s most successful recent graduates – including Anthony Cudahy, Emily Furr, Jenna Gribbon, Dani Orchard, Danielle Roberts, Sarah Slappey, and Lily Wong – are representational painters. But Ana Villagomez, also a recent graduate, sees the issue as a false binary. “I think a lot of painters other than myself are interested in letting go of the categorical ways of approaching painting,” she says. Students, of course, may change their concentrations. Recent grad Jeremy Lawson started out as a minimalist sculptor and currently has a show up of highly gestural, expressionistic oil paintings. His work gives me hope that recognition for abstract art is returning. He comments: “I love all kinds of work but abstraction is the most difficult, mysterious activity available to us, outside of love maybe; it’s wild.”

I plan to ride out the trend and continue with abstract painting. It is only through abstraction that I feel completely autonomous, and artists are supposed to be in the freedom business. I’ve heard abstraction is making a comeback in Northern Italy, perhaps a bellwether region. The art world is dynamic, and could soon become saturated with representational painting and poised for a shift towards abstract work. Reminded of why I left my financial desk job to begin with, I find myself erasing all the calculations from my head, and think only this: I believe in myself, and in abstraction, 100%.

About the author: Bonnie Morano is inHunter College MFA Program’s class of 2023. She lives and works in New York.

Note: We welcome submissions from current MFA students about painting and the art world. Please send them to with “MFA POV” in the subject line.


  1. Several years ago, the Art World mavens decided it was time for a switch to a new fashion — representation — and set out to do that, like they change clothes, to freshen up the selling market.
    Fortunately, this time around there is WWW, and artists themselves can feature their own work. So many artists resisted, and there is still a ton of good abstraction being made, and seen! And will continue to be made and enjoyed and cherished.
    Yes, be a part of the Resistance!

  2. Two years after getting a BFA from SVA, I persued an alternative path to study. As opposed to a traditional MFA, hoping to find an evolution through pure art practice.

    For a large part of my art practice, I would make hardcore gloomy figurative paintings. Eventually this topic of despair began to take a toll on my personal being. After a long break, I found myself assisting reductive color field artist Robert Swain for around nine years.
    During that time I discovered an appreciation for an abstract grid language, more importantly received a calling to make work again.

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