Art with a degree of independence from visual references in the world
Robert Delaunay, 1912–13, Le Premier Disque, 134 cm (52.7 in.), private collection
Abstract art uses visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.Western art had been, from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19th century, underpinned by the logic of perspective and an attempt to reproduce an illusion of visible reality. By the end of the 19th century many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art which would encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical arguments were diverse, and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas of Western culture at that time.
Abstract art, non-figurative art, non-objective art, and non-representational art are closely related terms. They are similar, but perhaps not of identical meaning.
Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in depiction of imagery in art. This departure from accurate representation can be slight, partial, or complete. Abstraction exists along a continuum. Even art that aims for verisimilitude of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Artwork which takes liberties, altering for instance color and form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract. Total abstraction bears no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. In geometric abstraction, for instance, one is unlikely to find references to naturalistic entities. Figurative art and total abstraction are almost mutually exclusive. But figurative and representational (or realistic) art often contain partial abstraction.
Both geometric abstraction and lyrical abstraction are often totally abstract. Among the very numerous art movements that embody partial abstraction would be for instance fauvism in which color is conspicuously and deliberately altered vis-a-vis reality, and cubism, which alters the forms of the real life entities depicted.
Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – used simple, geometric and linear forms which might have had a symbolic or decorative purpose. It is at this level of visual meaning that abstract art communicates. One can enjoy the beauty of Chinese calligraphy or Islamic calligraphy without being able to read it.
Immortal in splashed ink, Liang Kai, China, 12th century
In Chinese painting, abstraction can be traced to the Tang dynasty painter Wang Mo (王墨), who is credited to have invented the splashed-ink painting style. While none of his paintings remain, this style is clearly seen in some Song Dynasty Paintings. The Chan buddhist painter Liang Kai (梁楷, c. 1140–1210) applied the style to figure painting in his "Immortal in splashed ink" in which accurate representation is sacrificed to enhance spontaneity linked to the non-rational mind of the enlightened. A late Song painter named Yu Jian, adept to Tiantai buddhism, created a series of splashed ink landscapes that eventually inspired many Japanese Zen painters. His paintings show heavily misty mountains in which the shapes of the objects are barely visible and extremely simplified. This type of painting was continued by Sesshu Toyo in his later years.
Mountain market, clearing Mist, Yu Jian, China
Another instance of abstraction in Chinese painting is seen in Zhu Derun's Cosmic Circle. On the left side of this painting is a pine tree in rocky soil, its branches laced with vines that extend in a disorderly manner to the right side of the painting in which a perfect circle (probably made with help of a compass) floats in the void. The painting is a reflection of the Daoist metaphysics in which chaos and reality are complementary stages of the regular course of nature.
In Tokugawa Japan, some Zen monk-painters created Enso, a circle who represents the absolute enlightenment. Usually made in one spontaneous brush stroke, it became the paradigm of the minimalist aesthetic that guided part of the Zen painting.
Expressionist painters explored the bold use of paint surface, drawing distortions and exaggerations, and intense color. Expressionists produced emotionally charged paintings that were reactions to and perceptions of contemporary experience; and reactions to Impressionism and other more conservative directions of late 19th-century painting. The Expressionists drastically changed the emphasis on subject matter in favor of the portrayal of psychological states of being. Although artists like Edvard Munch and James Ensor drew influences principally from the work of the Post-Impressionists they were instrumental to the advent of abstraction in the 20th century.Paul Cézanne had begun as an Impressionist but his aim – to make a logical construction of reality based on a view from a single point, with modulated color in flat areas – became the basis of a new visual art, later to be developed into Cubism by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
František Kupka, Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors), 1912, oil on canvas, 210 x 200 cm, Narodni Galerie, Prague. Published in Au Salon d'Automne "Les Indépendants" 1912, Exhibited at the 1912 Salon d'Automne, Paris.
Robert Delaunay, 1912, Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif), oil on canvas, 45.7 × 37.5 cm, Tate Modern
During the 1912 Salon de la Section d'Or, where František Kupka exhibited the abstract painting Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors) (1912), the poet Guillaume Apollinaire named the work of several artists including Robert Delaunay, Orphism. He defined it as, "the art of painting new structures out of elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere, but had been created entirely by the artist...it is a pure art."
Since the turn of the century, cultural connections between artists of the major European cities had become extremely active as they strove to create an art form equal to the high aspirations of modernism. Ideas were able to cross-fertilize by means of artist's books, exhibitions and manifestos so that many sources were open to experimentation and discussion, and formed a basis for a diversity of modes of abstraction. The following extract from The World Backwards gives some impression of the inter-connectedness of culture at the time: "David Burliuk's knowledge of modern art movements must have been extremely up-to-date, for the second Knave of Diamonds exhibition, held in January 1912 (in Moscow) included not only paintings sent from Munich, but some members of the German Die Brücke group, while from Paris came work by Robert Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, as well as Picasso. During the Spring David Burliuk gave two lectures on cubism and planned a polemical publication, which the Knave of Diamonds was to finance. He went abroad in May and came back determined to rival the almanac Der Blaue Reiter which had emerged from the printers while he was in Germany".
From 1909 to 1913 many experimental works in the search for this 'pure art' had been created by a number of artists: Francis Picabia painted Caoutchouc, c. 1909,The Spring, 1912,Dances at the Spring and The Procession, Seville, 1912;Wassily Kandinsky painted Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), 1913,Improvisation 21A, the Impression series, and Picture with a Circle (1911);František Kupka had painted the Orphist works, Discs of Newton (Study for Fugue in Two Colors), 1912 and Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors), 1912; Robert Delaunay painted a series entitled Simultaneous Windows and Formes Circulaires, Soleil n°2 (1912–13);Léopold Survage created Colored Rhythm (Study for the film), 1913;Piet Mondrian, painted Tableau No. 1 and Composition No. 11, 1913.
And the search continued: The Rayist (Luchizm) drawings of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, used lines like rays of light to make a construction. Kasimir Malevich completed his first entirely abstract work, the Suprematist, Black Square, in 1915. Another of the Suprematist group' Liubov Popova, created the Architectonic Constructions and Spatial Force Constructions between 1916 and 1921. Piet Mondrian was evolving his abstract language, of horizontal and vertical lines with rectangles of color, between 1915 and 1919, Neo-Plasticism was the aesthetic which Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and other in the group De Stijl intended to reshape the environment of the future.
As visual art becomes more abstract, it develops some characteristics of music: an art form which uses the abstract elements of sound and divisions of time. Wassily Kandinsky, himself an amateur musician, was inspired by the possibility of marks and associative color resounding in the soul. The idea had been put forward by Charles Baudelaire, that all our senses respond to various stimuli but the senses are connected at a deeper aesthetic level.
Closely related to this, is the idea that art has The spiritual dimension and can transcend 'every-day' experience, reaching a spiritual plane. The Theosophical Society popularized the ancient wisdom of the sacred books of India and China in the early years of the century. It was in this context that Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint and other artists working towards an 'objectless state' became interested in the occult as a way of creating an 'inner' object.The universal and timeless shapes found in geometry: the circle, square and triangle become the spatial elements in abstract art; they are, like color, fundamental systems underlying visible reality.
Many of the abstract artists in Russia became Constructivists believing that art was no longer something remote, but life itself. The artist must become a technician, learning to use the tools and materials of modern production. Art into life! was Vladimir Tatlin's slogan, and that of all the future Constructivists. Varvara Stepanova and Alexandre Exter and others abandoned easel painting and diverted their energies to theatre design and graphic works.On the other side stood Kazimir Malevich, Anton Pevsner and Naum Gabo. They argued that art was essentially a spiritual activity; to create the individual's place in the world, not to organize life in a practical, materialistic sense. Many of those who were hostile to the materialist production idea of art left Russia. Anton Pevsner went to France, Gabo went first to Berlin, then to England and finally to America. Kandinsky studied in Moscow then left for the Bauhaus. By the mid-1920s the revolutionary period (1917 to 1921) when artists had been free to experiment was over; and by the 1930s only socialist realism was allowed.
During the 1930s Paris became the host to artists from Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries affected by the rise of totalitarianism. Sophie Tauber and Jean Arp collaborated on paintings and sculpture using organic/geometric forms. The Polish Katarzyna Kobro applied mathematically based ideas to sculpture. The many types of abstraction now in close proximity led to attempts by artists to analyse the various conceptual and aesthetic groupings. An exhibition by forty-six members of the Cercle et Carré group organized by Joaquin Torres-Garcia assisted by Michel Seuphor contained work by the Neo-Plasticists as well as abstractionists as varied as Kandinsky, Anton Pevsner and Kurt Schwitters. Criticized by Theo van Doesburg to be too indefinite a collection he published the journal Art Concret setting out a manifesto defining an abstract art in which the line, color and surface only, are the concrete reality. Abstraction-Création founded in 1931 as a more open group, provided a point of reference for abstract artists, as the political situation worsened in 1935, and artists again regrouped, many in London. The first exhibition of British abstract art was held in England in 1935. The following year the more international Abstract and Concrete exhibition was organized by Nicolete Gray including work by Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Hepworth, Nicholson and Gabo moved to the St. Ives group in Cornwall to continue their 'constructivist' work.
The above is a 1939–42 oil on canvas painting by Mondrian titled Composition No. 10. Responding to it, fellow De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg suggested a link between non-representational works of art and ideals of peace and spirituality.
During the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s many artists fled Europe to the United States. By the early 1940s the main movements in modern art, expressionism, cubism, abstraction, surrealism, and dada were represented in New York: Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, André Masson, Max Ernst, André Breton, were just a few of the exiled Europeans who arrived in New York. The rich cultural influences brought by the European artists were distilled and built upon by local New York painters. The climate of freedom in New York allowed all of these influences to flourish. The art galleries that primarily had focused on European art began to notice the local art community and the work of younger American artists who had begun to mature. Certain artists at this time became distinctly abstract in their mature work. During this period Piet Mondrian's painting Composition No. 10, 1939–1942, characterized by primary colors, white ground and black grid lines clearly defined his radical but classical approach to the rectangle and abstract art in general.Some artists of the period defied categorization, such as Georgia O'Keeffe who, while a modernist abstractionist, was a pure maverick in that she painted highly abstract forms while not joining any specific group of the period.
Eventually American artists who were working in a great diversity of styles began to coalesce into cohesive stylistic groups. The best known group of American artists became known as the Abstract expressionists and the New York School. In New York City there was an atmosphere which encouraged discussion and there was new opportunity for learning and growing. Artists and teachers John D. Graham and Hans Hofmann became important bridge figures between the newly arrived European Modernists and the younger American artists coming of age. Mark Rothko, born in Russia, began with strongly surrealist imagery which later dissolved into his powerful color compositions of the early 1950s. The expressionistic gesture and the act of painting itself, became of primary importance to Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline. While during the 1940s Arshile Gorky's and Willem de Kooning's figurative work evolved into abstraction by the end of the decade. New York City became the center, and artists worldwide gravitated towards it; from other places in America as well.
One socio-historical explanation that has been offered for the growing prevalence of the abstract in modern art – an explanation linked to the name of Theodor W. Adorno – is that such abstraction is a response to, and a reflection of, the growing abstraction of social relations in industrial society.
Frederic Jameson similarly sees modernist abstraction as a function of the abstract power of money, equating all things equally as exchange-values. The social content of abstract art is then precisely the abstract nature of social existence – legal formalities, bureaucratic impersonalization, information/power – in the world of late modernity.
Post-Jungians by contrast would see the quantum theories with their disintegration of conventional ideas of form and matter as underlying the divorce of the concrete and the abstract in modern art.
^François Le Targat, Kandinsky, Twentieth Century masters series, Random House Incorporated, 1987, p. 7, ISBN0-8478-0810-6
^Susan B. Hirschfeld, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Hilla von Rebay Foundation, Watercolors by Kandinsky at the Guggenheim Museum: a selection from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Hilla von Rebay Foundation, 1991. In 1871 the family moved to Odessa, where the young Kandinsky attended the Gymnasium and learned to play the cello and piano.
^Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863–1922, Thames and Hudson, 1962
^Walter Gropius et al., Bauhaus 1919–1928 Herbert Bayer ed., Museum of Modern Art,publ. Charles T Banford,Boston,1959
^Seuphor, Michel (1972). Geometric Abstraccion 1926-1949. Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.
^Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, p. 104, Thames and Hudson, 1990
^Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, Thames and Hudson, 1990
^Utopian Reality: Reconstructing Culture in Revolutionary Russia and Beyond; Christina Lodder, Maria Kokkori, Maria Mileeva; BRILL, Oct 24, 2013 "Van Doesburg stated that the purpose of art was to imbue man with those positive spiritual qualities that were needed in order to overcome the dominance of the physical and create the conditions for putting an end to wars. In an enthusiastic essay on Wassily Kandinsky he had written about the dialogue between the artist and the viewer, and the role of art as 'the educator of our inner life, the educator of our hearts and minds'. Van Doesburg subsequently adopted the view that the spiritual in man is nurtured specifically by abstract art, which he later described as 'pure thought, which does not signify a concept derived from natural phenomena but which is contained in numbers, measures, relationships, and abstract lines'. In his response to Piet Mondrian's Composition 10, Van Doesburg linked peace and the spiritual to a non-representational work of art, asserting that 'it produces a most spiritual impression…the impression of repose: the repose of the soul'."