You may dislike abstract art, but you cannot ignore the fact that this type of art is an inevitable part of contemporary art. In many cases, different movements that are using abstract ideas and different types of abstract art are dominating contemporary art in general. Just take a look at exhibitions, at art auctions, fairs – different forms of abstract art appear everywhere, and it’s impossible to follow contemporary art without respecting the important place abstract ideas have in today’s world of the arts. The term “abstract art” is frequently being used, but many could not answer the question: What is abstract art? We will try to understand this gigantic artistic approach by offering definitions, briefly present the history of abstraction, and by explaining the main characteristics of abstract art.
It’s almost impossible to determine when the abstract art emerged. It’s also very difficult to point out to one or more individuals that could be considered as “founding fathers” of this big movement. There is a big debate between experts about when abstract art was born. The majority of them argue that the 1910s should be considered as a period that can be celebrated as a birth of abstract art, or to be more precise with the famous Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Picture of the Circle from 1911. On the other hand, we cannot understand the emergence of abstract art without a given historical context. As other experts argue, the origins of the abstract art can be found in the 19th Century, in the works by James McNeill Whistler and even Claude Monet. These experts argue that Whistler and Monet placed greater emphasis on visual sensation than the depiction of objects, and that they can, in some manner, be considered as abstract artists. Still, we could definitely say that from the 1910s, abstract art began to attract many.
There are a number of definitions of abstract art. The real question is - is it really possible to have one, coherent abstract art definition that would include all complexities of this movement? But, we could say that abstract artists use a visual language of shape, form, color, and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Abstract art does not depict a person, place or thing in the natural world; or it does, but does not make any visual references. What is very important to mention when trying to define abstract art is the fact that abstract artists do not deal with the representational interpretation of a subject. They only communicate with the viewers in an attempt to understand “reality”. All types of abstract art share a common position – reality is subjective, and it’s up to a viewer to define it.
The main feature of the abstract art is that it is a non-representational practice, meaning that art movements that embrace abstraction departure from accurate representation – this departure can be slight, partial, or complete. It depends on what types of abstract art we are talking about. In geometric abstraction and lyrical abstraction, we can talk about total abstraction. Figurative art is characterized by partial abstraction. Even realistic art can have partial abstraction as well. But, all abstract artists use color, memory and visual sensation to show that reality is subjective – and that is probably one of the most important characteristics of abstract art. This subjective approach in contemporary art coincides with similar approaches in social sciences, particularly in philosophy.
The emergence of every art movement highly depends on certain historical and cultural context. As we mentioned in the article about the emergence of Pop Art movement, we always have to have in mind “the spirit of time” when we speak about different art movements. There were two golden periods of abstract art: the first one between 1912 and 1925; the second one between 1947 and 1970. What is in common for these periods? The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the First World War, and the horrors of the Second World War. In these periods, the artists found it quite difficult to “realistically” represent all sufferings humans experienced during the wars and economic crisis. Because of that, they had a feeling that they had to discover a diverse range of new voices that communicated emotion, memory, inner strength, and spiritual beliefs. Or as Adorno put it: "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz", implicating that there can be no (realistic) art after Auschwitz.
The abstract art reached its peak in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. New York was the center of this important phase in the development of abstract art and a whole new generation of abstract artists known as the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School (names like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, among others) embraced it to spectacular effect. Sometimes, abstract expressionism is presented as the “purest” example of abstract art. But in reality, abstract art covers other art movements and all sorts of different types of abstract art as well: neo-Dada, fluxus, happening, conceptual art, neo-expressionism, installation, performance, video and pop art – all these important art movements have characteristics of abstract art.
The 21st century gave birth to many different art movements. As technological development brought new opportunities, new, exciting movements have emerged, and many of them shared some characteristics of abstract art and could be described as abstract art: digital art, computer and internet art, hard-edge painting, geometric abstraction, appropriation, hyperrealism, photorealism - to mention a few. We recently wrote about contemporary abstraction, and the fact that abstract art survived only as part of other movements. But, its “pure” form has made a huge comeback in abstract painting and other forms, as we see great painters and sculptors that can be labeled as abstractionists. Let us just mention Anish Kapoor, Christian Rosa, Ben Berlow. Abstract art never disappeared – it only took different shapes depending on what movement we are talking about. As we have already been living in the Postmodern world for years, abstract art can only further evolve. Hyperrealist, surrealist – we hear these words in everyday life. Artists are not aliens; they always react to the developments in society they live in. So, we can only expect that we see some new great examples of abstract art.
This particular book simply explains how abstract art originated and evolved, discusses major abstract artists and movements, and looks at the current revival of abstract painting. Its author is Anna Moszynska, Consultant Lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. She pioneered the study of contemporary art as an academic subject in the UK at Sotheby's Institute where she directed the first courses during the late 1980s. Her other publications include Sculpture Now and Anthony Gormley Drawing. Her books have been published in French, Spanish, Korean and Chinese. She has reviewed over 30 exhibitions for BBC Radio; has chaired symposia at the Tate Gallery and elsewhere, and has served as a judge for the Jerwood Sculpture Prize.
Featured Image: Jackson Pollock, detail. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.
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