How Abstract do you like your Abstract Art?
By Faye Hamblett-Jones
The definition of the word 'abstract' is quite a broad one. Meaning art 'that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality, but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.'
But when someone says 'I like abstract art', I don't for a moment believe that they like ALL abstract art!
Indeed abstraction is an essential ingredient of much of 20th Century art. Many of the famous works produced during the 1900's use a certain level of abstraction, each in very different ways.
If you look at the below two pieces of work - one from Jackson Pollock and the other from Frank Stella; whilst both abstract, they are almost like polar opposites!
One is full of movement, brooding marks and indiscernible shapes, whilst the other is rigid, ordered, geometric and colourful.
So, how does one hope to understand or categorise the TYPE of abstract art that we are drawn to?
Well, as with most of these things, it's all in the history! This articles explores the many forms of abstract art and how they developed over the course of the last century.
Hyena Stomp (1962) - Frank Stella
Convergence (1952) -Jackson Pollock
First Wave Abstraction: A Shift from Pure Representation
The term 'abstract' started being used in around 1910 to describe a new form of artistic expression which had become more prevalent. However, it was much before this that there was a shift in the way artists began to depict the world.
In the latter half of the 19th Century, many of the most progressive artists had become fixated on depicting modern life through the impressionist and post-impressionist style.
With the invention of photography and mechanical reproduction, the need for artists to accurately depict and capture the world around us began to wane. Why did society need artists to represent life when photographic images were steadily becoming available with the click of a button?
Artists such as Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne began a shift from representing the details of a subject, in favour of capturing 'the essence of perception' - an impression of the scene in front of them.
It's hard not to overstate how fundamental a shift this was. From the cave paintings of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc France 34,000 BC, across our entire history to date, we had been creating fundamentally representative images of the world around us.
This was the first shift towards abstraction.
Paul Cézanne, detail Mont Sainte-Victoire (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Rejecting figurative art, abstraction came as a new language in which artists would communicate their interpretations of the world. This simple idea spurned the creation of many different art movements throughout Europe - Futurism, Cubism, De Stijl and Bauhaus to name a few - each with their own identity.
Cubism used geometric forms, emphasising two-dimensional flatness as oppose to creating three-dimensional depth. Whereas the Italian-based movement futurism used abstraction to express dynamic energy and movement in an image.
The similarities and differences can be seen by comparing Natalia Goncharvoa’s ‘Cyclist’ to George Braque’s ‘Harbor in Normandy’. They use different styles, but ultimately both use abstraction to create an altered view of reality.
George Braque - Harbor in Normandy (1909)
Natalia Goncharvoa’s - Cyclist (1913)
Second Wave Abstraction: A Departure from Reality
Although both the above artworks could be described as 'abstracted', they still maintain some elements of figuration.
It wasn't until artists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky that figurative elements were completely dropped in favour of purely abstract thinking!
Piet Mondrian, although originally influenced by cubism, became cut off from the movement due to the outbreak of the 1st World War and instead began developing his own style.
Rather than seeking to represent reality, he aimed to represent universal truths through the most pure form he knew - using shape, colour and lines.
His paintings, characterised by large blocks of flat colour separated by thick black lines, stripped painting back to its original elements. The use of primary colours suggested a deep simplicity and idealism which Mondrian thought allowed a harmony to develop between the viewer and the paintings.
Mondrian called his approach neo-plasticism. With neo-plasticism he aimed to achieve the ‘destruction of natural appearance’, finding instead ‘the plastic expression of true reality’.
Piet Mondrian - Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1929)
On the other hand Russian born artist, Kandinsky started to dissolve meaningful subjects into abstract forms during 1910, in an attempt evoke spirituality through painting.
Greatly influenced by characteristics of Impressionism and Post-Expressionism, Kandinsky developed a distinct abstract technique, which incorporated flattening of space and intense use of colour.
He believed that art, served as development and refinement of the human soul. Against the backdrop of an international environment which was characterised by materialism, war, and facist regimes where individualism and creativity were suppressed; their art attempted to lead the modern person back to spiritualism through pure art forms such as colour, form and geometric shapes alone.
Some writers have suggested that this was a period of ‘art distillation’, where artists attempted to strip art of the impurities of modern society, from which they felt detached.
Wassily Kandinsky - Cossacks (1910-11)
Third Wave Abstraction: A Form of Self Expression
The next wave of artists challenged the idea of universal truths in favour of individual experience and interpretation of the world. Rather than seeking to represent a reality that was non-specific to any individual, they aimed to give a visual representation to their expression.
This group of mainly American artists became known as the 'abstract expressionists'.
Whilst the epicentre of the art world had been focused in Europe across the early 1900's, as the Second World War broke out in 1938, artists fled to New York for safety.
European influence paired with the socio-economic conditions of America, again left artists feeling detached and isolated from society. The abstract expressionists stopped depicting the world around them and turned their attentions to expressing their individual psychic using the pure forms of art.
This manifested itself into two distinct styles which became known as 'Action Painting' and 'Colour-field painting'.
‘Action painting’ was characterised by sweeping gestural lines and markings, and large brushstrokes evoking a sense of movement. 'Colour-field painting’ on the other hand used large swathes of blockish colour to provoke a sensation of purity.
Willem de Kooning - Police Gazette (1955)
Mark Rothko - Red on Maroon (1959)
Above you'll find William De Kooning’s ‘Police Gazette’, the other Mark Rothko’s ‘Red on Maroon’. Both prime examples of abstract expressionism during this crucial period, but both very different in style and delivery.
De Koonings work is characterised by expressive brush marks; the flashes of colours punctuate the canvas and create an intense build up of paint.
You can imagine De Kooning frantically layering the paint like a man possessed. This very much mirrors the work of another famous protagonist - Jackson Pollock who became famous for his 'drip paintings',
His technique involved the application of paint to a canvas through the elemental forces of gravity and momentum, rather than through direct contact with tools to a canvas. He embraced a new physicality which displayed a raw, primal emotion in his paintings.
Jackson Pollock, Photo © Hans Namuth
In contrast Mark Rothko’s paintings are solemnly still. The artist’s composition consists of large blocks of colour creating a shallow depth of field and flat picture plane.
Early in his career the artist's figurative painting was influenced by mythology and philosophy, which later he transformed this into his signature rectangle paintings. He believed that the shapes were simply an innovative way of representing the spirits he had tried desperately to represent in his earlier figurative pieces.
Rothko believed, that by removing the representational symbol of the spirits or presence he originally tried to depict through his paintings, the purely abstract forms said what he wanted the presence to say. In this way, Rothko tried to connect his viewers with a divine spirituality through abstraction.
It's worth noting that although the likes of De Kooning and Pollock stick in our minds - this isn't because women didn’t participate in the movement, nor was it because people of different ethnicities didn’t paint as well as them.
This apparent lack of diversity was in fact created by the subordinate placement of these artists below the stance of the heroic, white male American painters.
Fortunately, the likes of Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner are now being recognised and celebrated for their work.
Elberta by Helen Frankenthaler - The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Fourth Wave Abstraction: The Postmodern Menagerie
In the late 1960’s the huge breakdown of rigid social, political and family structures paved the way for postmodern thought, and with it Postmodern art.
Whilst there is no single style on which Postmodernism is hinged, It embraces many different approaches to art making. It deliberately aims to breakdown the boundaries between high and low art, high culture and mass or popular culture (e.g. with Pop Art).
Freedom is paramount and artwork may contain different artistic and popular styles and media, consciously borrowing from or ironically commenting on a range of styles from the past.
In our Postmodern era it is clear that abstraction plays a huge role in many of the different art forms we see. Some specifically abstract styles which emerged during this era included geometric / optic art and minimalism.
Bridget Riley - Cataract (1963)
Optic (or Op) art is not made up of figurative elements, rather shapes and patterns aimed at provoking a sensory response in its viewers. Rather than attempting to create any particular image, op art simply plays visual trickery on the eye.
In theory, it should provoke the same visual response in each of its viewers, meaning every person viewing the piece is an equal and the artist is merely someone who understands the laws of optics.
British-born Bridget Riley was one of the leading protagonists of the Op art movement. During her education, Riley was influenced by the work of Italian artist, Umberto Boccioni, who had been a leader in the futurist movement during the early 20th Century.
Comparing Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) to Untitled (Fragment 2/10), we can see the influence of earlier abstraction on the initial op art Riley was producing - demonstrating how abstraction was simply a way of thinking about art as opposed to a movement as in itself.
Later she started to add vibrant colours, playing warm and cold colours against each other to progress the optical illusions played on her viewers.
Umberto Boccioni - Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)
Bridget Riley - Untitled (Fragment 2/10) (1965)
Across the Atlantic during the late 50s and early 60s American artists abandoned the gestural marks of Abstract Expressionism, but continued to develop the abstract concept that art existed as its own reality, in form and material. This movement became known as Minimalism.
In conjunction with Conceptualism, Minimalism challenged rigid ideas of producing and viewing art. Both sculpture and painting became key mediums of Minimalism.
Frank Stella was one of the key artists who activated the shift to Minimalism abandoning emotionally driven marks on canvas for aesthetically clean, industrial forms which seemed to represent purity and truth.
His step away from gestural painting is evident in his Black Paintings series characterised by highly accurate application of black house paint, creating parallel strip forms.
Stella's painfully precise artworks remind the viewer that the image is simply paint applied to a two-dimensional canvas, rejecting renaissance notions of art as a window into a three dimensional world - a view that dominated our concept of art before the 20th Century.
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II (1959) - Frank Stella
Equivalent Series 1966 - Carl Andre
Another influential character of Minimalism was Carl Andre, an American sculptor, who like Stella, turned away from classic forms of figurative sculpture and turned to creating linear and grid format sculptures using common industrial materials.
Andre's Equivalent Series consists of 120 firebricks arranged into various rectangles. Every rectangle is a different length, height and width, yet each block is equal in mass. Although the artwork is dubbed by many as 'boring', the series stirred controversy in the art world for the plain fact that Andre had essentially just rearranged a pile of bricks in a gallery and called it art.
But Andre had intended for the geometric forms to be simplistic, as his focus is on the concept behind their equivalent mass, as well as how they become part of the environment which they are placed in - therefore changing the viewers relationship with that space.
Charting the course
Alfred H. Barr’s chart devised for his exhibiton Cubism & Abstract Art at MoMA, perhaps most clearly (in quite a complex way) depicts this development of abstract art across the early 20th Century.
It demonstrates how abstraction became a central way of thinking about art, which influenced almost all of the avant-gardes of the 20th Century.
The concept of abstraction developed and grew from just 'a shift from representation' to a pure 'departure from reality' and a 'method of self expression'. It developed in response to a society that was changing rapidly and provided a fundamentally new method of artistic communication.
Alfred H. Barrs Exhibition Poster for Cubism & Abstract Art (1936)
Whilst it's easy to look at abstract art and think 'I don't get it' - it's important to realise that abstract art isn't always made to 'make a point'. Rather, the artwork is there to provoke a feeling or a sensory response within the viewer or simply to provide an outlet for the artists expression and emotion.
Sometimes understanding the simple differences in style, can make appreciating abstract art a lot easier, in what can otherwise seem a formless mass of abstract nonsense!
Ultimately everyones thoughts behind what abstract art is and what it means, is individual to them - it's just up to the individual to decide how they connect with an artwork - or not.
Hopefully this article has made the complex matter of abstract art a little less... abstract! If you have enjoyed reading this article, then here are the links to a few resources I found particularly interesting when reading up on abstraction!