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History of Abstract Art Movement

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 4887 words Published: 4th May 2018

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In order to explore the best way to present abstraction in works, I will review almost a hundred year history and theories, which developed during those periods, then I will analyze the detail of a couple of abstract artists who have had significant influence on me. Through this review and analysis of abstract art, I believe I can find a factor for successful abstract art works, and a fundamental element on which abstract will be kept alive and achieve further development in the future. These fundamental elements and criteria of abstraction are also the issues I am trying to explore and present in my own works.

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I want to start with the definition of abstract art, Herbert Read gave the following definition 'in practice we call "abstract" all works of art which, though they may start from the artist's awareness of an object in the external world, proceed to make a self-consistent and independent aesthetic unity in no sense relying on an objective equivalent' (Read, 1936: 150).

From the point of view of the definition above, abstract art first emerged between 1910 and 1920, evolving throughout the 20th, there is no particular moment when abstract art was born, and the form of the abstraction can be found in the earliest peoples with symbolic or present objective by signs in pottery, picture in textiles and rock, it is made of line and circle, It is showing the certain communication of abstract. The abstraction in aesthetic could also be traced back to Plato, who in his dialogue philebus said '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 and absolutely beautiful.'(Jowett,1907: 191).

However, the element of abstraction applied in painting was found in the painting Grainstack by Claude Monet, founder of French Impressionism. Between the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth, France was the undoubted art centre of the west, French impressionism was the origin of initial abstraction, the subject became less important than before, As Paul Gauguin said, 'Do not paint too much after nature. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than nature.'(Gauguin,1888: 60). Vincent van Gogh was inspired about by abstraction from music, he regarded music as a self-contained language without reference. This point may help me understand the application of colour in painting, "a more general development of abstract art, an art that should deal with colours as music does with sound." (Santayana, 1955: 47). Those practices by the impressionist artists had a comprehensive impact on 20th century art, which broke the rules of academic painting, and focused on visual effects instead of details, this led to the advent of abstraction in art.

Impressionism was reinforced by symbolism and other art movements, and this developed abstraction. Maurice Denis, a French symbolism painter, he is also a writer he said in his proposal: "Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order" (Chipp,1968: 94).His theories have fundamental contribute to the cubism and fauvism. Those art movements also took the process of abstract art further.

There are other new models among the other arts not just the form of art traditional painting and sculpture, which affect the development of abstraction in this period. I have mentioned music above, which was respected by visual artists and critics. Architecture can also be seen as a model of application and abstraction in Bauhaus.

Poetry, in particular is worth mentioning in relation to abstraction, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, the symbolist poets are well known for finding relationship between the linguistic sign, reality and coded meaning. Those two symbolism poets have common ground in abstraction with the pioneers of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian who will be discussed later, 'all four poets and painters in respective art forms provoked awareness of the problematic nature of the relation between sign and object' (Reynolds, 1995: 1)

The pioneers of abstraction were Wasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian - two Russians and a Dutchman. They relied less on the form of the uncertain, and more on universal values, based on philosophical or mystical doctrines.

It is worth mentioning before talking about those pioneers that the German historian Wilhelm Worringer's doctoral dissertation "Abstraction and Empathy" was published in 1907 by the publisher, Reinhard Piper. Abstraction and empathy were two opposing poles, "this counter-pole to the need for empathy appears to us to be the urge to abstraction. My primary concern in this essay is to analyse this urge and to substantiate the importance it assumes within the evolution of art" (Worringer, 1907:14) For Worringer, empathy relates to three-dimensional space while abstraction is a flat, crystalline. Empathy is individual; abstraction is collective. Where empathy is curves, abstraction is the direct and straight line. "Such abstraction does not make use of any natural object as a model, and the geometric line is distinguished from the natural object precisely by the fact that it does not stand in any natural context." (Worringer, 1907:20). Additionally, empathy is like ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, while abstraction is like ancient Egypt and medieval Europe. For Worringer, Greek temples are about empathy, and the pyramids are the sum of abstraction.

Worringer was influential to abstract art because he thought abstract art is not secondary or lower than "realist" art, and worthy of respect. His theories lift up the application of abstraction in pre-war European art. Although the abstract art pioneer Kandinsky did not refer to Worringer in his books, he was familiar with Worringer's work, and their books were published by the same editor, Reinhard Piper, because Kandinsky had a very strong personality, he did not owe anything to Worringer.

From 1910 to 1914, Kandinsky broke through traditional art ever more than before both in practice and theory, he started art forms based on the nature; and then he transformed those to the completed abstract form. He was the first artist to publish theories about abstraction, in 'Concerning the Spiritual in art' and for him, it seems, abstraction is synonymous with symbol.

Kazimir Malevich is another pioneer Russian abstract artist, and he is also the founder of the Avant-garde Suprematist movement, which focused on fundamental geometric forms. In 1916, he supposed his art was pure and without any trace of the objects found in nature.

Piet Mondrian had significant influence to the De Stijl art movement, and he seems to be different in development from Kandinsky and Malevich, not only in forms but also in style of composition. He had started to use the words "abstract' and "abstraction" since 1915. He wanted art to be a high reality which was beyond nature and would help viewers to reach the greatest understanding and knowledge.

Nevertheless, Mondrian shared the same inspiration with other two pioneers Kandinsky and Malevich, and they all have their ideas in the teaching of Theosophy, which was founded by Madame Blavatsky in modern society in New York 1875. Theosophists insist that those activities such as the philosophy, science, arts, commerce, religion and philanthropy, make people much closer to "the Absolute." Kandinsky and Mondrian intended to use the painting to help people to get a spiritual revival.

They have other similar points as well, firstly, Kandinsky and Mondrian found a certain connection between painting and music, which is the nearest art form to abstraction; it can convert the emotion purely without any external references. Secondly, they all use colour as language, representing certain meanings, for instance Kandinsky defines red as blood, blue as heaven, Mondrian named red as outward, and blue as inward. Finally, they all wanted to utilize abstraction to achieve freedom of expression.

After World War I, Constructivism was a major postwar abstract movement in Europe, which had utopian and political implications for abstraction, and new technology and new media also had an effected like as radio and cinema. As a result, a much wider range of public could be reached and affected by abstract art. There were three groups of constructivism in different countries, De Stijl in the Netherland, Bauhaus in Germany, and the Constructivists in Soviet Union respectively.

De Stijl was a Dutch movement founded by Van Doesburg in 1917, and artists shared certain ideas about geometric abstraction. As Van Doesburg said: ' we speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line , a colour, a surface' (Balj, 1974: 181) They used pure abstraction to make the objective to basic pattern and colour; and simply visualised them to the vertical and horizontal directions, coclour h black and white were basically applied. De Stijl was of great importance in spreading abstraction throughout Europe during that period.

Walter Gropius, A German architect set up the Bauhaus in 1919 in the city of Weimar. The teaching program was seen to unite all relevant arts, which are including architecture, painting, weaving and stained glass. Abstraction was clearly the language of all aspects of the Bauhaus. Kandinsky was one of the teachers, and during this period, he developed his theories in arts, he emphasized that the "resounding triad: Romantic, Germanic, Slavic" would be the basis for all future developments in abstraction.( Lindsay, 1982: 514). The most important influence on Bauhaus is modernism, which can be traced back to the later 19 century and early 20 century. Modernism are whose who think in different and board way compared to traditional way in many fields such as religious faith, literature, social organization, architecture, and daily life. Modernism has appeared in Germany before world war …¡, though conservatism was still dominant. The design innovations commonly in Bauhaus is the much more simplified patterns, functional architecture, and the idea about reconciliation of massive production. The Bauhaus style was one of the most significant trends in modern design and Modern architecture in the United Sates, Western Europe and Canada in decades.

Constructivism in Soviet Union was fund in Russia from 1919 onward, the artists hoped that abstract art would became a function of a socially approved goal and was utilitarian. Vladimir Tatlin was the most important artist of Russia constructivism, he attempted to build The Monument for the Third International, which functioned symbolically as a sign of the new government, but was never built.

During the 1920 and 1930, lots of artist refugees moved to Paris due to abstract art being banned in German and Russia by Hitler and Stalin. Paris became the center of abstract art, dedicated here by some abstract groups flourished, such as Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création. Abstraction-Création published its journal at this same time, and in the first of issue,Abstraction-Création pointed out the meaning of the title; Abstraction represented the artists who arrived at the concept of non-figuration by the abstracted form of nature. Création showed that artists came with a pure geometric order. Abstraction became an acceptable and even popular art choice in that period. However, there are also problem with abstraction in Paris, because Paris was part of too many difference abstract tendencies, there were certain disagreement between them.

During the Second World War, many Europe abstract artists moved to the United States, the world centre of art shifted from Paris to New York. At the end of the Second World War, Picasso became the artistic hero of France, so abstract painters were ignored, such as Klee and Mondrian whose exhibitions were closed by authorities. Nevertheless, a range of abstractions flourished in Paris supported by a small group of critics and gallery owners. The major branch at that time was geometric art, shown by Tachisme which is often thought be similar movement as abstract expressionism. In Paris, the expressive tendencies were partly inspired by Roger Bissiere, as a teacher at the Academie Ransom during the 1930s. He encouraged so many younger artists such as Jean Le Moal, Maria Elena Vieira da Silva. The ideas were to create the abstract works which original from the expressive qualities of nature.

During the 1930s and 1940s, abstract art was often attacked in the United States. Through the 1930s, abstract art was connected with Communism. Especially at this time, some artists thought that abstraction was suitable for ' decorative ' use, it did not meet the requirement of other art forms, the abstracts was thought to be too subjective. During this period, there were many Jewish émigré living in NY after Nazi occupation. Among them, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were in the leading position of critics in the new American painting; they were Jews, Marxists, anti-Stalinists. As Marxists, they looked forward to the revolution that would usher in socialism, as modernists, they supported the most advanced art in that period, There are connections between Marxism and Modernism, Marxism aim to make better life, Modernists strive to make things better in art. During the 1930s, the Communist party was dominated by leftist circles. Art was supported and promoted by Stalinists in America, dictated by Soviets who showed the art as ivory-tower escapism and tied to make the artist follow Social Realism styles. Greenberg and Rosenberg were in the opposition, they debated Social Realism as academic and banal. After that, Greenberg and Rosenberg lost the interest in Socialism and focused on Art-Modernism, "abstract Expressionism" was firstly used in Rosenberg's essay "American Action Painters" published in ART news of1952 December issue, 'Call this painting "abstract" or "Expressionist" or Abstract-Expressionist," what counts is its special motive for extinguishing the object, which is not the same as in other abstract or Expressionist phases of modern art.'(Rosenberg,1952:22). Greenberg also supported the abstract expressionist movement and was one of the first critics to appreciate Jackson Pollock art works. Greenberg compared abstract and representational art in his essay, he first pointed out that "What counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary." (Greenberg, 1961:133). He then said the image did not add value in the quality of art, "recognizable image will add conceptual meaning to a picture, but the fusion of conceptual with aesthetic meaning does not affect quality." (Greenberg, 1961:132), and " more and less in art do not depend on the intensity and depth of such significances, be they few or many , as are present." (Greenberg, 1961:132). So he claim the representational painting did no achieved major quality in recently , and abstract art was getting important, " And if the abstract is indeed improve, such improvement has now become necessary to important art." (Greenberg, 1961:135).

Abstraction was rescued by expressionism, 'with all of its visual and thematic diversity, would certainly remain one of the most widely discussed of any artistic movement in the United States. Simultaneously heralded and disputed both nationally and abroad, its deep radicality and reinvention of modernist forms would indelibly mark the history of post-World War â…¡art.'(Balken, 2005: 76) There were different European movements to influence the new generation of American abstract artists in 1940, Surrealism had the greatest impact. Arshile Gorky can be seen as the last of the great Surrealists and the first of the Abstract Expressionists. Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two branches in American, Gesture Painting represented by Jackson Pollock, De Kooning and colour-field painting and colour-field painting including Josef Albers, Barnett Newman.

Jackson Pollock was described as "breaking the ice'" in terms of creating the new American painting, he showed the new art technique; 'drip' paintings after 1947. And his large-scale paintings were to achieve a fuller, environmental impact. "Unlike earlier abstract work, such painting had no geometric or grid construction (as in Cubism); no biomorphic references (as in Surrealism or Gorky); no premeditated form (Kandinsky); no illusion of spatial recession ( Matta) ."(Moszynska,1990: 151)

De Kooning was alone among the American abstract expressionists in his persistent confrontation with human figure, from images of men in the thirties and forties to women whose embrace unfurls into a cross in the sixties. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, De Kooning started a new phase, and he moved the focus from pure abstractions in landscape to the human figure.

Both Pollock and De Kooning are not only for the abstraction, they did representational paintings as well, which was unlike the early abstract artists. De Kooning utilized figuration with his Woman series, and Pollock had the return of imagery in his late works such as Lavender Mist and Autumn Rhythm.

Color was abandoned by some gesture painters such as De Kooning, contrasted to this, the colour-field painters focused on chromatic values and discovered the effects of colours as opposed to the expressive impact of line. Barnett Newman tried to seek an original model of abstract terms, reducing his compositional elements to a large field of uninflected colour with narrow vertical column. In his first works featuring zips, the color fields are not pure, but later the colours are pure and flat.

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By the 1960s, abstraction was moving away from the subjective and the expressive to a cooler sensibility. Most abstraction works were restricted to straight lines and minimum colour. In the mid-1960s and after, Minimalism are those who described movements in different forms in art and design, particularly visual art and music. Major artists are considered as the leader in this movement include Donald Judd, Agnes Martin; Robert Morris. Minimalist sculptures avoid the challenges about illusionism due to its inherent material literalism, which the abstract painter who attempted to show the spiritual or emotional possibilities had to confront. The Minimalists wanted their work to become a part of the environment, like every day work, and artists want the viewer to move the attention from the works themselves, and concentrate on the relationship between them and environment.

Conceptual art was an extension of Minimalism, idea was fundamental point of the whole object, even an idea can be the work of art without an object, Sol Lewitt describes conceptual art as 'In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.' (Lewitt, 1967: 80).

In that period, abstraction started to attract the attention of artists who wanted to explore the basic premises, including a pure form of world appearances, compositional unity and balance and freedom. The latter was attacked as an impossibility that no art can ever completely evade worldly references and no artist can remain free of the influence of their cultural environment. At the beginning of 1970s, lots of artists were affected by certain development links to structuralist philosophy, part of a trend now commonly referred to as Postmodernism. One of the most fascinating postmodern artists was Gerhard Richter, Richter made his paintings in a multistep process, and most of them begin with a photograph, and the art works present both natural but illusionistic space and the physical activity and material painting which are mutual interferences. For him, the most important features of abstraction were its deliberate lack of meaning, and subject is essential. Richer said that abstract art provides 'a better possibility of approaching what is non-visual and incomprehensible, because it portrays nothing directly visually, with all the means available to art.'(1991)

Abstract art now seems to have entered into a new era -pluralism, and there is no certain representative style, made of diversity modes, digital art, pop art, op art and so on. The attitude of an "anything and everything going on" are popular, which means artist tried as possible much as art forms to present their work, but this lead to a "nothing going on". Contemporary artists now no longer make a clear distinction between abstraction and figuration. In the works of Chris Ofilli for example he used decorative motifs and abstract patterns sometimes with a reference to 'OP' art alongside grotesque figurative image. Peter Doig uses technique developed by colour-field painters such as flatness and large area of colours stained into the canvas to produce his landscape.

In the following paragraph, I will analyze three abstractionist works and theories in detail, Wasily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock and De Kooning respectively.


Kandinsky can undoubtedly be described as the most significant founder of abstract art, he studied economics and law before becoming a painter in age of thirty. In the book 'On Spiritual in Art' which I have mentioned in the history of abstract art, Kandinsky for the first time systematically expounded the theory of abstract painting. He explored the possibility of abstraction in another very important essay called' On the Question of Form'. (1912) Kandinsky set up art work which was made of an inner and outer form, outer form was less important in the art works, the content of the work was determined by the inner feeling of artist, soul (inner sound).

Kandinsky may well have absorbed and concurred with the Theosophists' belief in the mysticism of colour and form. Kandinsky believed that painting was like music, abstract painting is in the use of colour analogy music notes, in his view, and the colour also has the effect of sound and melody, and even has a symphony of shock strength. Using colour in arts seems to the music effects of shocks to soul, and directly reaches the depths of the spirit. 'Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the Keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul' (Kandinsky, 2004: 32)

Kandinsky's work can be divided into three period, his residence in Munich (1896-1921), at the Bauhaus (1922-1932) and in Paris (1933-1944). The styles of painting during those three periods are not same. The works in Munich were influenced by Symbolism and Fauvism. The Bauhaus work is more geometrical and paintings in Paris were much more organic and have a mark of return to the decorative detail of his early years.

Jackson Pollock

In 1936, Pollock inspired by David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Mexican muralist and started to use liquid paint at an experimental workshop. After this, he used the 'dripping' painting technique which was one of his techniques; the represented works are "Male and Female" and "Composition with Pouring I." At the late stage of his painting, Pollock removed the canvas from the frame and put it on the floor; he then dripped black and blue-white paint on the surface of canvas with a arcs controller. This drawing technique challenged the traditional drawing function. By 1950, this action of pouring and dripping became mature, as shown by 'Lavender Mist', the whole painting was operated on the floor and all surface covered by interlacing trails.

This new technique of drawing was known as 'all-over painting', because his unique painting style, "Jack the Dripper" appear in Time magazine- 'Pollock's finest paintings… reveal that his all-over line does not give rise to positive or negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure, whether abstract or representational, against another part of the canvas read as ground. There is not inside or outside to Pollock's line or the space through which it moves…. Pollock has managed to free line not only from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational, on the surface of the canvas.'(Karmel, 2002: 132)

De Kooning

In 1938, when he in his thirties, De Kooning focused on images of men, including Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male), he often use his own image in the front of mirror, ' I took my trousers, my work clothes . I made a mixture out of glue and water, dipped the pants in and dried in front of the heater - I made a little plaster head. I made drawings from it m and had it for years in my studio.' (Kooning, D. 1976. )

In 1946, he turned his style to only black and white painting a series of large abstraction such like Light in August (c. 1946) and Black Friday (1948). These are essentially black with white elements and these abstracts of feature were by a forceful and energetic approach.

The feature of de Kooning's style focuses on complex figures with a background which overlaps other figures causing them to appear in the foreground, which in turn might be overlapped by dripping lines of paint. He considered painting an experience, expression, the process of the realization of freedom.

In 1953, he gained attention from the public with his theme of woman, those works were representational paintings. So De Kooning kept to both abstraction and representational paintings through out his career.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, De Kooning's works entered a new period, his style is back to the nearly pure abstractions, he made more landscapes than the human figure. These paintings showed brushstrokes and calligraphic tendencies, such as Bolton Landing (1957) and Door to the River (1960)

I have been looking over the past hundred years about abstraction in art both historically and theoretically, and I also analyzed some abstractionists which have large influence to me, and so I come to a conclusion.

When a abstract work is successful, the language of abstraction is achieved by form and content which is consistent or one, and the form can carry a specific meaning, From Kandinsky to Pollock, artists created their own style and through which they present their personal belief, abstract art has been around almost a hundred years, it still continues to produce a new form and style, and has a leading position in art. It also affected and developed in other areas such as science, and technology. It proves that abstract art can have a large capacity to absorb meanings, so it can be assumed that it will emerge in a new form in the future.

Abstract art needs to have freedom from the outside material world, the abstraction is about mind and it is about spirit, I don't mean that the abstract artist should completely eliminate representational paintings, which early abstract artist such as Kandinsky and Mondrian did, but Pollock and De kooning did not, what I am try to say is that artists need to focus on heightening emotions, and freedom must be a primary element for abstraction. However, those freedoms seem to have conditions, it depends on whether the artists are popular, if the artists are not popular, they may not able to live in that situation.

Abstract art can not be only sensuous without relevant meaning, if the abstract art just wants get the attention from the public; it will lose the audience who demand culture. Abstraction can not get an instinctive response like music from viewer, and it must set up a connection between the works and audience and have the ability to deal with a viewer who does not wish to make the effort.

The new generation artists have to take risks to create a new style of abstraction, there is no kind of universal language of art which can be utilized for long. In this age , we are living in a varied society, and abstraction belongs to high level art, any high level art is easily to be overwhelmed by advanced and popular culture if it remains the same. Successful abstraction can be achieved by artists who confront and create their own time, and this will keep abstract art alive and continue going.


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