What Is Abstract Art?

Definition and Examples

Robert Delaunay, "Windows Open Simultaneously," 1912
Robert Delaunay, "Windows Open Simultaneously," 1912. Tate Modern, London / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-NC-ND

Abstract art can be a painting or sculpture (including assemblage) that does not depict a person, place or thing in the natural world. Note that works of art that represent the world in exaggerated or distorted ways (such as the Cubist paintings of Paul Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso) are not abstract, for they present a type of conceptual realism. With abstract art, the subject of the work is based on what you see: color, shapes, brushstrokes, size, scale and, in some cases, the process (see action painting).

The Origins of Abstract Art

Art historians typically identify the early 20th century as an important historical moment in the history of abstract art as artists worked to create what they defined as "pure art"—creative works that were not grounded in visual perceptions, but in the imagination of the artist. Influential works from this time period include Picture with a Circle (1911) by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Francis Picabia's Caoutchouc (1909).

Kandinsky believed that colors provoke emotions. Red was lively and confident; Green was peaceful with inner strength; Blue was deep and supernatural; Yellow could be warm, exciting, disturbing or totally bonkers; and White seemed silent but full of possibilities. He also assigned instrument tones to go with each color: Red sounded like a trumpet; Green sounded like a middle-position violin; Light Blue sounded like flute; Dark Blue sounded like a cello, Yellow sounded like a fanfare of trumpets; and White sounded like the pause in a harmonious melody.

These analogies to sounds came from Kandinsky's appreciation for music, especially that by the contemporary Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). Kandinsky's titles often refer to the colors in the composition or to music, for example "improvisation."

The French artist Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) belonged to Kandinsky's Blue Rider (Die Blaue Reiter) group, and with his wife, Russian-born Sonia Delaunay-Turk (1885-1979), they both gravitated toward abstraction in their own movement Orphism or Orphic Cubism.

It is worth noting, however, that the roots of abstract art can be traced back much further than the 20th century. Earlier artistic movements such as impressionism and expressionism were, in the 19th century, experimenting with the idea that painting can capture emotion and subjectivity, and it need not simply focus on seemingly objective visual perceptions. Going back even further, many ancient rock paintings, textile patterns, and pottery designs captured a symbolic reality rather than attempting to present objects as we see them.

Examples of Abstract Art

Wassily Kandinksy (1866-1944): Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) (1910)

Carlo Carra (1881-1966): Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells (1913)

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916): States of Mind (1911), a series of three paintings capturing the motion and emotion of a train station rather than the physical depiction of passengers and trains

Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935): Black Square (1915)

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956): Full Fathom Five (1947)

Mark Rothko (1903-1970): Four Darks in Red (1958)

Synonyms for Abstract Art

Nonobjective Art

Pronunciation:

ab·strackt art

Source

Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst), 1911.

Updated by Allen Grove