What is Abstract Art?
Abstract art, also known as non-figurative, non-representational, or non-objective art, is art that uses line, shape, form, texture, color, patterns and gestural mark-making to convey meaning. Abstract art does not attempt to accurately depict visual reality and achieves its conceptual effect by simplifying its subject matter beyond recognition. Some abstract art may not have an existing or tangible reference point and can be based on thoughts, feelings, ideas, or spiritual understanding. Abstract art can even come directly from an artist’s imagination. Abstract art can be found across visual art media, including painting, sculpture and printmaking. The concept of abstraction also appears in music, film and architecture.
Notable Abstract Artwork
History of Abstract Art
Non-representational, or abstract, forms of visual representation have existed for millenia. Ancient civilizations often represented people and animals through simple, geometric forms and abstract shapes. Despite their simplicity, or perhaps because of it, abstract forms and inscriptions were used when creating pottery and spiritual artifacts, textiles, in domestic settings, and even in creating early records of nature and the cosmos.
The power of abstract art lies in its ability to communicate meaning beyond what the viewer is able to see. A seemingly simple shape or symbol can represent many concepts, emotions or even histories. Ancient Egyptian art, Islamic art and East Asian art are examples of cultures using abstraction as an art form for hundreds and even thousands of years. Calligraphy, hieroglyphs and splash paintings are some of the earliest abstract styles of expression and are often associated with religious or spiritual practice.
Many cultures continued to create important symbols and express their customs through non-figurative representation. Western modern art only began to align with abstraction as an artistic style and technique in the nineteenth century, after many years of precise, mechanical, and heavily realistic painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking inspired by discoveries in medical science and, more generally, the scientific revolution.
Abstract Art in the 19th Century
Around 1800, art became more accessible to the public as both a career and commodity. European artists, once only commissioned as court painters or by the church, were becoming more independent in choosing who they worked with and for. This independence also translated into developments in the subject matter chosen and techniques applied. Abstract art, particularly abstract paintings, slowly began to appear.
Romanticism emerged in the early nineteenth century and was characterized by extreme emotions and events. Romanticism also explored the sublime in nature and rejected industrialization and rationalism. At first glance, Romantic paintings, such as Francisco Goya’s The 3rd of May 1808, from 1814, seem to hold no resemblance to abstract art. Upon closer inspection, their treatment of people and nature signals a shift away from the technical precision favored by earlier art movements. Artists would border on abstraction by conveying the terror of a storm rather than the mathematical precision of a tidal wave, focusing on the emotion this natural phenomenon could cause rather than how perfectly it could be represented.
Much like Romantic painters, Impressionist painters depicted nature by trying to capture its essence rather than its structure. Both movements, though very different in terms of aesthetics, used abstract painting techniques, such as distortions and bold color, to express a deeper meaning behind their art. Thick brushstrokes and plays on perspective were used to capture phenomena such as an awe-inspiring sunrise, as seen in Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise, from 1872. Artists such as Monet sought to capture the sensation caused by an event or object rather than the event or object itself. The result was, in retrospect, abstract art.
Bold color, distortions and exaggerations became foundational techniques for other art movements such as Expressionism. Expressionist painters created emotionally charged paintings that reacted directly to contemporary events. Expressionism even began to reject the idea of art itself and was entirely dedicated to portraying psychological states of being.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream, from 1912, for example, shows a human-like figure in a landscape, hands holding its face as if it were screaming in terror. The composition, though not entirely abstract, uses abstract elements to create the idea of fear and anxiety in the viewer.
Abstract Art in the 20th Century
At this point in time, abstract art was not yet acknowledged as an artistic style, technique or movement. It was simply the outcome of artists shifting their focus away from the rigid standards of academic painting and reacting to their subject matter instead. Only around 1900 would modern art and artists return to an examination and deconstruction of their technique, as seen in the Post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist movements, which would eventually lead to abstract art.
While Post-Impressionism was widely credited with the advent of twentieth century abstraction, the development of Fauvism and Cubism were also essential to its growth. Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin continued the trend of colorful, expressive and somewhat abstract paintings. Landscapes, figures and scenes of everyday life were reimagined through thick, gestural brushstrokes, intense colors and even geometric shapes.
All of these movements emerged around the same time and almost always overlapped. So, many artists were working parallel to each other to develop this new art and visual language we now know as abstract art and abstraction. While still largely unintentional, or at least not the overall goal, abstraction continued to flourish within the Fauvist movement. Fauvism, another expressive art movement, abandoned realistic portrayal in favor of non-naturalistic color and loose brushstrokes. Many Fauvist artists carried this unique style into the development of Cubism.
Artists working in the Cubist style, like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, dissected their subjects from all angles only to reassemble it on a single picture plane, rendering it almost unrecognizable. This technique, as seen in Braque’s, Glass on a Table, 1909-10, was largely unheard of until this point. Cubism went beyond the canvas and composition to include collage elements and everyday objects.
Artists became increasingly invested in alluding to their subject matter through technique and use of material rather than depicting it as it existed. Emerging in the 1910s, parallel to the second phase of Cubism, were Dadaism and Futurism, where artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Umberto Boccioni created abstract work through collage, photomontage and depictions of subjects in motion.
Abstract painting was still popular among art movements such as Orphism, which emerged with the intention to use pure abstraction as a method for achieving a form of “pure art.” This meant that an artist’s subjective interpretation of a subject through painting abstract elements was valued over the ability to paint a subject exactly as it existed.
As the twentieth century unfolded, many movements would embrace abstract art in many ways and to achieve a variety of goals. Abstract artists aligned with movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art would continue to push the boundaries of abstraction and of art itself well into the twenty-first century.
The Abstract Paintings of Hilma Af Klint
In Western art, Wassily Kandinsky is often revered as the first artist to create completely abstract art pieces associated with emotions, patterns, linear forms and even music. However, fellow artist Hilma Af Klint is likely to have been producing abstract paintings earlier than Kandinsky. This is an important piece in the history of abstract art because there are many pioneering figures, including artists Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, Krantišek Kupka and Kazimir Malevich, who certainly made significant contributions to abstract art. They were simply not the first to do so.
Some of Klint’s earliest abstract works date back to 1906-7, such as her pure abstract painting, The Ten Largest, No 2 Childhood, Group IV. Klint’s work was already in the realm of total abstraction while Expressionist and Cubist artists, such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, were still exploring the exaggeration and deconstruction of a subject in their art. Klint was inspired by the natural sciences as well as esoteric and occult religions, specifically theosophy, because it was one of the earliest European religious groups to welcome women as members of the clergy.
Klint did not formally exhibit any of her paintings in her lifetime, though her commitment to abstract art offers a deeper understanding of how abstract art became so popular in the mid-to-late twentieth century, especially as a vehicle for social and political commentary.
Notable Abstract Artists
- Hilma af Klint, 1862-1944, Swedish
- Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011, American
- Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944, Russian
- Piet Mondrian, 1872-1944, Dutch
- Lee Krasner, 1908-1984, American
- Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, American
- Lyubov Popova, 1889-1924, Russian
- Elaine de Kooning, 1818-1989, American
- Joan Mitchell, 1925-1992, American
- Mary Lovelace O’Neal, b. 1942, American
- Mira Schendel, 1919-1988, Swiss
- Robert Delaunay, 1885-1941, French
- El Lissitzky,1890-1941, Russian
- Ad Reinhardt, 1913-1967, American
- Theo van Doesburg, 1883-1931, Dutch
- Fernand Léger, 1881-1955, French
- Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956, American