What is Abstract Art?

Q: What is abstract art?

A definition of abstract art:

In abstract art, the artist uses a visual language of shapes, forms, lines and colors to interpret a subject-matter, without necessarily providing the viewer with a recognisable visual reference point. 

This contrasts dramatically with more traditional forms of art which set out to achieve a literal and more representational interpretation of a subject and communcate a ‘reality’ to the viewer.

What is Abstract Art, Red White by Ellsworth Kelly
Red - White, Ellsworth Kelly: Image from Easyart
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Munich 2.16.96, Sean Scully
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For many, understanding abstract art and addressing the question ‘what is abstract art’ get in the way of appreciating the art itself.  The magic happens when we let go of this need to know.

Abstract art engages and challenges the intellect but it also engages and challenges the emotions and to fully appreciate it the viewer has to let go of a need to understand what the artist is trying to say and instead tune into their own ‘feeling’ response to the piece.   That’s the important connection.

What is abstract art? - The birth of abstract art

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Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso
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Artists have always sought new ways to express their changing world but the arrival of the twentieth century brought with it unprecedented scientific and technological developments that demanded an even bigger response.  New ideas and more progressive thinking had to be reflected in art.  Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso had already begun to move away from more traditional painting techniques and were moving towards abstraction in their work.

Russian-born artist, Wassily Kandinsky quickly followed suit, taking his art a step further and producing a work of total abstraction in 1911.

In France, Robert Delaunay had already recognised the potential of the new Cubist movement and begun to incorporate its principles into his work, moving a step further in his colourful abstract art paintings where he explores the energy and vibrancy of nature through juxtaposing primary colors.

The need to push against existing boundaries and take art into new territory continued throughout the early part of the twentieth century with artists such as Piet Mondrian and members of the De Stijl group exploring the spiritual through art. 

What is abstract art? - The Abstract Expressionists

What is Abstract Art - Jackson Pollock Screen Print Number 11A
Number 11A, Jackson Pollock
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It is not surprising then that following the Great Depression of the 1930s and the onset of the Second World War, artists again searched for a visual language that would express the difficult, dangerous and changing world around them. The language of abstract art enabled artists to discover a diverse range of new voices which communicated emotion, memory, inner strength, spiritual beliefs and provided a dramatic platform for them  to have their say. 

New York was the centre of  this important phase in  the development of abstract art and a whole new generation known as the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School (artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, among others) embraced it to spectacular effect.

Artists who had grown up in America met, worked and socialised with artists who had fled persecution in Europe, bringing together the two traditions of the abstract art movement and paving the way for yet another ‘second generation’ of abstract artists (artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell).

The Power of Abstract Art

All aspects of life lend themselves to interpretation through abstract art – beliefs, fears, passions, a response to music or to nature, scientific and mathematical complexity, to name but a few, can all be used as subject matter and expressed freely and uniquely.

The abstract artist communicates with us in a way that allows us to find our  own personal response to the work.  Anyone who has stood before a Mark Rothko for the first time will recognise this feeling. A Rothko painting commands respect from the outset – you know immediately that it has something important to convey to you.  As you stand before it, you feel yourself drawn in, surrounded by it and brought to a place of stillness,  both in the painting and in yourself.  It’s a feeling you might experience in meditation and it’s wonderful.  You are there with the painting, with yourself and with all the emotion and spiritual energy Mark Rothko felt as he was making the piece.  It is a humbling experience.

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Brown, Blue, Brown. Mark Rothko
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What is abstract art?: A Rich Visual Language

For the music-lover, Wassily Kandinsky offers a visual interpretation of the harmony and melody of a piece of music and demonstrates perfectly through art the inter-connection of sounds and feelings.

Franz Kline paintings inspire a powerful sense of energy and their large-scale encourages expansive thinking and feelings of possibility.

The abstract art of Arshile Gorky which was inspired by memories of the garden of his childhood home is delicate and tender and lovingly communicates the special quality of that place.

For artists such as Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers, the language of geometric abstraction was the key to expressing their view of the world.

The rhythmic swirls and splattered paint of a Jackson Pollock painting, without beginning and without end, put us in touch with a life free of boundaries and limitations.