Art in which there is no attempt to represent anything existing in the world, particularly used of the 20th century onwards. ‘Abstraction’ refers to the process of making images that may in part derive from the visible world but which are reduced to basic formal elements.
Abstract Art is a term that describes any art which does not represent visual reality, placing an emphasis instead on formal properties such as pattern, shape, line and gestural marks. Some artworks are ‘abstracted’ from an original source, while others have no discernible point of reference. Many abstract artists have invested a spiritual or psychological dimension into their works. Abstract art is sometimes referred to as ‘non-representational’ or ‘non-objective’, a term first used by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. Since the early twentieth century, abstraction has formed a central tenet of modern art.
The Origins of Abstraction: Kandinsky and Malevich
The early twentieth century was a watershed moment in the history of art, with avant-garde artists questioning the role of art and the nature of representation. The Surrealists, Cubists, Fauvists, Futurists and Rayonists all made radical departures from reality with exaggerated forms, heightened colours and broken picture surfaces.
The German Expressionists, particularly those associated with Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), made revolutionary artworks that delved deeper into abstraction than ever before. In 1911 Kandinsky published his influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he argued for an art which looked inwards rather than outwards for inspiration. Kandinsky wrote, ‘that is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul.’
Like Kandinsky, Russian artist Kasimir Malevich is widely regarded as a pioneer in the development of abstraction. Originally associated with the Russian Constructivists, Malevich developed a form of abstraction outlined in his essay, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting, 1915. Cubism led the way for Suprematism, exemplified in Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, a simple ‘pure’ abstract painting invested with spiritual meaning.
In the 1950s Abstract Expressionism swept across the United States and into Europe, taking the Surrealists’ Automatism towards greater levels of expression and abstraction. Such painters, often dubbed ‘Action Painters’ allowed the properties of paint and the movement of their bodies to take centre stage. Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings epitomise the trend, as do Helen Frankenthaler’s ‘Colour Stain’ canvases.
Geometry and Minimalism
During the First World War the emergence of the De Stijl group in the Netherlands further expanded the possibilities of abstract art, led by Piet Mondrian. He adopted Theosophist ideas about balance and harmony to produce his most famous grid paintings, composed of primary colours and horizontal and vertical stripes, as seen in Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932.
The St Ives School that emerged in Cornwall in the 1940s and 1950s also explored various forms of geometric and expressive abstraction through painting, sculpture and relief, as seen in the work of Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barnes Graham and Peter Lanyon.
In later years, Mondrian’s spare, reductive abstraction was adopted by the Minimalist artists of the 1960s, which was translated into painting, sculpture and architecture. Prominent Minimalist artists include Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd.
Abstraction continues to be explored by artists working today, with the influence of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism felt in many of their practices. Howard Hodgkin’s vivid, rich paintings depict evocative moments remembered by the artist, while Vicken Parson’s quiet geometry recalls intimate places, suggestive of interiors or landscapes. German artist Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings often have the appearance of expressionism, but are in fact produced in a detached, mechanical manner.