Origins and Schools of Abstract Art

Art Without a Subject

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Abstract art (sometimes called nonobjective art) is a painting or sculpture that does not depict a person, place, or thing in the natural world. With abstract art, the subject of the work is what you see: color, shapes, brushstrokes, size, scale, and, in some cases, the process itself, as in action painting

Abstract artists strive to be non-objective and non-representational, allowing the viewer to interpret each artwork's meaning in their own way. Thus, abstract art is not an exaggerated or distorted view of the world such as we see in the Cubist paintings of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), for they present a type of conceptual realism. Instead, form and color become the focus and the subject of the piece.

While some people may argue that abstract art does not require the technical skills of representational art, others would beg to differ. It has, indeed, become one of the major debates in modern art. As Russian abstract artist Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) put it:

"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." 

The Origins of Abstract Art

Art historians typically identify the early 20th century as an important historical moment in the history of abstract art. During this time, 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 Kandinsky's 1911 "Picture with a Circle" and "Caoutchouc," created by the French avant-garde artist Francis Picabia (1879–1953) in 1909.

The roots of abstract art, however, can be traced back much further. Artists associated with movements such as the 19th century's Impressionism and Expressionism were experimenting with the idea that painting can capture emotion and subjectivity. 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.

Early Influential Abstract Artists

Kandinsky is often considered one of the most influential abstract artists. A view of how his style progressed from representational to pure abstract art over the years is a fascinating look at the movement in general. Kandinsky himself was adept at explaining how an abstract artist may use color to give a seemingly meaningless work purpose.

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 a flute; dark blue sounded like a cello, yellow sounded like a fanfare of trumpets; white sounded like the pause in a harmonious melody.

These analogies to sounds came from Kandinsky's appreciation for music, especially the works of 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 28" and "Composition II." 

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

Examples of Abstract Art and Artists

Today, "abstract art" is often an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of styles and art movements. Included among these are nonrepresentational art, nonobjective art, abstract expressionism, art informel (a form of gestural art), and even some op art (optical art, referring to art that makes use of optical illusions). Abstract art may be gestural, geometric, fluid, or figurative—implying things that are not visual such as emotion, sound, or spirituality.

While we tend to associate abstract art with painting and sculpture, it can apply to any visual medium, including assemblage and photography. Yet, it is the painters that get the most attention in this movement. There are many notable artists who represent the various approaches one may take to abstract art and they have had considerable influence on modern art.

  • Carlo Carrà (1881–1966) was an Italian painter best known for his work in Futurism, a form of abstract art which emphasized the energy and fast-changing technology of the early 20th century. Over his career, he worked in Cubism as well and many of his paintings were abstractions of reality. However, his manifesto, "Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells" (1913) influenced many abstract artists. It explains his fascination with synaesthesia, a sensory crossover in which, for example, one "smells" a color, which is at the heart of many abstract artworks.
  • Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) was another Italian Futurist who focused on geometric forms and was heavily influenced by Cubism. His work often depicts physical motion as is seen in "States of Mind" (1911). This series of three paintings capture the motion and emotion of a train station rather than the physical depiction of passengers and trains.
  • Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935) was a Russian painter whom many describe as a pioneer of geometric abstract art. One of his best-known works is "Black Square" (1915). It is simplistic but absolutely fascinating to art historians because, as an analysis from the Tate mentions, "It is the first time someone made a painting that wasn't of something." 
  • Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), an American painter, is often given as the ideal representation of Abstract Expressionism, or action painting. His work is more than drips and splashes of paint on canvas, but fully gestural and rhythmic and often employed very non-traditional techniques. For instance, "Full Fathom Five" (1947) is an oil on canvas created, in part, with tacks, coins, cigarettes, and much more. Some of his work, such as "There Were Seven in Eight" (1945) are huge, stretching over eight feet in width.
  • Mark Rothko (1903–1970) took the geometric abstracts of Malevich to a new level of modernism with color-field painting. This American painter rose in the 1940s and simplified color into a subject all on its own, redefining abstract art for the next generation. His paintings, such as "Four Darks in Red" (1958) and "Orange, Red, and Yellow" (1961), are as notable for their style as they are for their large size. 
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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Origins and Schools of Abstract Art." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2020, August 27). Origins and Schools of Abstract Art. Retrieved from Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Origins and Schools of Abstract Art." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).

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