what is abstract art ?

art that does not depict recognizable scenes or objects, but instead is made up of forms and colours that exist for their own expressive sake. much decorative art can thus be described as abstract, but in normal usage the term refers to modern painting and sculpture that abandon the traditional european conception of art as the imitation of nature. abstract art in this sense was born and achieved its distinctive identity in the decade 1910–20 and is now regarded as the most characteristic form of 20th century art. it has developed into many different movements and ‘isms’, but two or three basic tendencies are recognizable.

in cubism and abstract art (1936), alfred h. barr, ‘at the risk of grave oversimplification’, divided abstraction into two main currents: the first (represented by malevich) he described as ‘intellectual, structural, architectonic, geometrical, rectilinear and classical in its austerity and dependence upon logic and calculation’; the second (exemplified by kandinsky) he described as ‘intuitional and emotional rather than intellectual; organic or biomorphic rather than geometrical in its forms; curvilinear rather than rectilinear, decorative rather than structural, and romantic rather than classical in its exaltation of the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational’. looking at the subject in a slightly different way (and from a later viewpoint than barr's), it is possible to see three main strands in abstract art:

1. the reduction of natural appearances to radically simplified forms, exemplified in the sculpture of brancusi (one meaning of the verb ‘abstract’ is to summarize or concentrate); 2. the construction of works of art from non-representational basic forms (often simple geometric shapes), as in ben nicholson's reliefs; 3. spontaneous, ‘free’ expression, as in the action painting of jackson pollock. many exponents of such art dislike the word ‘abstract’ (arp, for example, hated it, insisting on the word ‘concrete’), but the alternatives they prefer, although perhaps more precise, are usually cumbersome, notably non-figurative, non-representational, and non-objective.

the basic aesthetic premiss of abstract art—that formal qualities can be thought of as existing independently of subject matter—existed long before the 20th century. ultimately the idea can be traced back to plato, who in his dialogue philebus (c.350 bc) puts the following words into socrates' mouth: ‘i do not mean by beauty of form such beauty as that of animals and pictures…but understand me to mean straight lines and circles, and the plane or solid figures which are formed out of them by turning-lathes and rulers and measures of angles; for these i affirm to be not only relatively beautiful, like other things, but eternally and absolutely beautiful.’ more explicitly, in his tenth discourse (1780) to the students of the royal academy, sir joshua reynolds advised that ‘we are sure from experience that the beauty of form alone, without the assistance of any other quality, makes of itself a great work, and justly claims our esteem and admiration’; and in discussing the belvedere torso he referred to ‘the perfection of this science of abstract form’. several notable critics followed this line in the 19th century.

in 1846, for example, charles baudelaire wrote that ‘painting is interesting only in virtue of line and colour’; in 1890 in a much quoted remark maurice denis said: ‘remember that a picture—before being a war horse or a nude woman or an anecdote is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’; and in 1896 george santayana, after noting that colour may produce unpleasant as well as pleasant effects, ‘almost like a musical discord’, proposed that ‘a more general development of this sensibility would make possible a new abstract art, an art that should deal with colours as music does with sound’ (the analogy with music was often pursued; whistler, for example, sometimes gave his paintings pseudo musical titles, as later did kandinsky, kupka, and other artists, including the lithuanian composer painter m. k. Čiurlionis (1875–1911)). many of the leading painters of the 1890s notably the symbolists stressed the expressive properties of colour, line, and shape rather than their representative function, and this process was taken further by the major avant garde movements of the first decade of the 20th century especially cubism, expressionism, and fauvism.

by 1910, then, the time was ripe for abstract art, and it developed more or less simultaneously in various countries. kandinsky is often cited as the first person to paint an abstract picture, but no artist can in fact be singled out for the distinction. (a work by kandinsky known as ‘first abstract watercolour’ (pompidou centre, paris) is signed and dated 1910, but some scholars believe that it is later and was inscribed by kandinsky several years after its execution. this kind of problem arises not only with kandinsky: several early abstract artists were keen to stress the primacy of their ideas and were not above backdating works.) among the other artists who produced abstract paintings at about the same early date as kandinsky were the american arthur dove and the swiss augusto giacometti, cousin of alberto giacometti.

the individual pioneers were soon followed by abstract groups and movements among the first were orphism and synchromism in france. there was a particularly rich crop in russia, with constructivism, rayonism, and suprematism all launched by 1915. with some artists, abstraction represented merely a brief phase in their careers (among them the british artists vanessa bell, duncan grant, and wyndham lewis), but with others it was a vocation or even a mission. the almost religious fervour with which some of the russian artists pursued their ideals was matched by the members of the de stijl group in holland, founded in 1917. to such artists, abstraction was not simply a matter of style, but a question of finding a visual idiom capable of expressing their most deeply felt ideas. mondrian, for example, believed that his art of clarity and balance would lead to a society in which life would be governed by a universal visual harmony.

in the period between the two world wars, the severely geometrical style of de stijl and the technologically orientated constructivism were the most influential currents in abstraction (they came together in the bauhaus). paris was the main centre of abstract art at this time, partly because it attracted so many refugee artists from germany and russia, where abstract art was banned in the 1930s under hitler and stalin. there was also a strong abstract element in surrealism, which was born in paris. the first exhibition devoted solely to abstract art was held there by the cercle et carré group in 1930, and its successor, the abstraction-création association, founded in 1931, brought together a large number of abstract artists of various types and provided a focus for their activities. however, in general figurative art was dominant in the inter-war period and abstract art won little public acceptance. it was very much a minority taste in britain and the usa, for example, in spite of such outstanding individual contributions as the sculptures of hepworth and calder and the efforts of groups such as unit one (founded in 1933) and american abstract artists (founded in 1936).

the second heroic period of abstract art came after the second world war, when the enormous success of abstract expressionism in the usa and its european equivalent art informel made abstraction for a time virtually the dominant orthodoxy in western art. abstract art no longer seemed to need philosophical justification of the kind given by kandinsky and mondrian (although several of the abstract expressionists were equally high-minded in approach); however, abstraction was sometimes invested with a moral dimension as an embodiment of western freedom of thought, as opposed to the totalitarianism that had banned avant garde art in nazi germany and soviet russia (see degenerate art and socialist realism). in this respect it is significant that many of the abstract expressionists were influenced by european surrealists who had fled to new york during the second world war to escape the fear of such repression. thus, in the usa particularly, support for abstract art could be regarded almost as a form of patriotism. abstract expressionism represented a great watershed in art and many later developments were either evolutions from it or reactions against it. these included a revival of figuration, in the form particularly of pop art, but also new styles of abstraction, including post painterly abstraction, op art, and minimal art, all of which flourished in the 1960s.