Abstract art indicates a departure from reality in the depiction of imagery in art. Abstraction relies on the presence of the viewer to bring possibilites of meaning to its presentations of forms, colours, patterns, forms, shapes and textures. Abstract art demands the effort of imagination, a creative response. The departure from accurate representation can be only slight, partial, or it can be complete.
‘Abstract 2 The Bridge’ by Jan Rippingham
Western art, from the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century, had been underpinned by the logic of perspective and an attempt to reproduce an illusion of visible reality. From the early years of the twentieth century, painters and sculptors in the European traditions of art consciously sought radically new ways to represent their experience of the world. They set out to create an art that would reveal aspects of reality that seemed inaccessible to the techniques and conventions of figurative art, which was seen by many artists as a limitation on their capacity to represent the actualities of experience. New realities discovered by science, the new politics of social democracy, industrial technology, and advances in photography and film, all entailed rejection of those old forms of art which sought to imitate the appearance of things and invention of new forms that would reveal hidden revelations. The words ‘new’ and ‘modern’ were to become keywords. The Modernist The poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 injunction was “Make it new!.
There was no ‘abstract art movement’ as such, but many manifestations of a powerful trend in modern art away from the representation of recogniseable objects in pictoral space.
Expressionist painters explored the use of distortions, exaggerations, and intense colour, producing emotionally charged paintings that were reactions to contemporary experience, and included reactions to Impressionism and other more conservative directions of late 19th century painting. Expressionists sought to change the emphasis from subject matter to the portrayal of psychological states of being.
In the 20th century, it was Cubism, along with Fauvism, that directly opened the door to abstract art. Cubism had not set out to abolish representation, but was intent on reforming it. Pablo Picasso’s first Cubist paintings were based on Cézanne’s idea that all depictions of nature can be reduced to three solid forms: cube, sphere and cone.
The first major exhibition to survey the various international tendencies towards abstract art and the trend for abandoning traditional representation was put on at MOMA NY April 1936. The title given by the catalogue was ‘Cubist and Abstract Art’ with the description;
‘The pictoral conquest of the external visual world had been completed and refined many times and in different ways during the previous half millenium. The more adventurous and original artists had grown bored with the painting of facts’.
The selector and author of the catalogue was Alfred H Barr. Barr acknowledged that the term ‘abstract’ was inexact but possible alternatives were rejected. ‘Non-objective’ and ‘non-figurative’ were considered unacceptable on the grounds that the image of a square can be as much of an ‘object’ or ‘figure’ as the image of a face landscape. The work within the exhibition was not purely ‘abstract art’ but the intention was to demonstrate the various paths taken by painting towards abstraction.
The trends have continued, artistic movements ever since have experimented with the limits of pure representation, and the freedom of expression provided by abstract art is something that many artists have responded to. Arbitrary colour, vehement brushwork and exaggerated textures, collage and other disruptions of the surface, distortions of the figure and other forms are among the diverse devices adopted. In many cases, what would once have been regarded as preliminary techniques, or rough workings, has come to be regarded as artwork in its own right.
Ultimately it can be argued that abstraction has not superseded representational art but has taken its place alongside it, discovering new possibilites of vision.