Abstraction as an approach has had a major impact in developments within art. An exploration into abstraction in art is faced with an almost irresistible urge to collapse back into lists of artists who have used abstraction; schools of abstract art; and well-recognised works of abstract art ie an art history approach to abstraction. Instead, this exploration will attempt to get at some understanding of the nature of abstraction; the thinking behind any approach that can support the use of abstraction, in varying ways; the use that has been made of it by artists over the last two hundred years; and the role or function that abstraction may have in art today, and what future, if any, abstract art may have.
Abstraction has its roots in a number of threads that have run in parallel, sometimes crossed over each other, and sometimes become entangled with each other – producing different approaches to, and use of, abstraction in art at different times and in different contexts.
Abstract art is seen as more challenging to many viewers, simply because of an apparent unrelatedness to the real world. In this alternative to figurative art, there is an uncertainty about what is to be focused on. It is something viewed as more cerebral than simply an art work to be appreciated. All of this places it at some remove from the traditional expectations of art. A counter view is that all works of art are abstracted in some way, and it is therefore simply a matter of degree.
Abstraction can be perceived not simply as a move away from the precise reproduction of objects but, more positively, as attempts to represent abstract ideas and feelings. This can maybe take us closer to understanding the human condition. Abstract art then becomes the attempt to capture the intangible more directly than by mediation through some realistic painting. It is not that abstract art is not about something. It can still be about the nature of something being portrayed or projected or sought after. It may just be about a different subject (ie emotion can be a thing, a something that art can ‘mean’) or a different way of approaching a traditional subject. Without any meaning, in either sense, art maybe is simply decorative and abstract art, just as with any other kind, can be made well or can have weaknesses.
If abstract art, of any kind, is less directly about what is visibly in front of us, it is open to being more about how things can be perceived, imagined or experienced. Such impressions or expressions can go straight to connecting with the emotions of the viewer by working through composition, light, repetition, balance, depth and openness, space, shape, colour, etc to create tensions, calmness, dynamism and so on. These are the usual artistic skills – technical skills, painterly skills, expressive skills – the artist’s feelings for the traditional elements of art. This implies that abstract art can be in any medium, any style, on any kind of surface or no surface at all.
An argument can be made that much of art activity has gone through a generalised historical arc: From attempts at the depiction of things we made now consider as abstract notions but which were then absolute realities directly impacting on everyday life (the god-nature of divinities; the power of natural patterns and influences) … through the perceived skills of capturing exact likenesses of people and places (even if there was some incorporation of symbols and signifiers) … to wanting to capture complexities (from different aspects, mixing real and imaginary, things as dreamt or remembered rather than some essential existence) … to wanting to get beyond surface appearances to appreciate underlying universalities … to expressing an artist’s emotions, feelings and condition through swathes of colour, or swirling patterns or gestural movements … to surface realism that is heavy on allegory and metaphor … and on to an inward looking preoccupation with selfhood. Another, simpler expression of this might be to track art from Idealisation, to Representation, to Impressions, to Expressions, to Abstraction, to contemporary developments in art.
Abstraction can be seen as having arisen in different forms, at different times, because of a variety of drivers that are not mutually exclusive, and that have included the following:
- A reaction to perceived limits on realistic representation with the impact of photography, which became a more precise medium for capturing things as they were or as they occurred.
- The feeling that realism and rationalism had taken humanity to dark places and that more abstract approaches might put things back on better pathways.
- A deep sense of personal spirituality, a sense of immensity, ‘the abstract sublime’, the esoteric and unfathomable – better done through colour, pattern, shape and style; and the wish to capture this in art that turns the artist and the viewer away from the external towards the internal.
- A desire to show the multifaceted complexity of things; breaking forms into facets to get at an underlying abstract structure; wanting the viewer to piece things together rather than just ‘see’.
- A wish to depict the passage of time or the expansions of space without doing separate multiple images.
- Reactions to technologies: wanting to move away from simple figurative humanity by incorporating a sense of mechanisation and robotics.
- Retaining some visual references to realities but working stepwise towards increased abstraction. This could be as simple as idealisation through the human form, in the way that Vera Mukhina ‘Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Girl’ instrumentalised an ideology; or can be very abstract with mere hints at realistic forms.
- The development of colour theorisation, as science began to show how colour was processed in the brain. Colour and form being reduced to a simple symbolic language. Attempts to get at the pure sound of colour, and colours being synchronised like musical notes: Stanton McDonald Wright played colour combinations on his piano, trying out ‘colour chords’.
- Music can offer profound effects on the listener, so wanted an art that did the same visually.
- Arising from the spiritual and somewhat esoteric ideas of Theosophy. Belief that art activity was directed from some higher plane, sometimes working through automaticity of actions. Kandinsky’s (1912) ‘The Spiritual in Art’.
- Altered mental states affecting the ways things were perceived, or processed by the brain, resulting in particular ways of expressing these.
- Use of the intricacies of patterns and repetitions to create particular visual effects.
- The desire to explore the flattening of the surface, freed from any ideas of perspective; ambiguities about what lies above a plane and what comes below it.
These can be interpreted as creating ever-diverging options for abstraction. Another framework for thinking about abstraction in art is to see it as being created at the intersections of various spectra, of interconnecting optional choices between emphases:
Geometries Free forms
Through all this variety there has been a steady flow of new forms of abstraction over the past hundred years or so. Even more, there has been a sense of abstraction as being continually at the edge of progressive avant-gardes with former taken-for-granteds being subverted by it. What were once taken as weaknesses, to be downplayed, got moved to the fore. The medium itself became a more explicit part of the work. There was an open acknowledgement of the flatness of the surface, the shape of canvas supports, the properties of the pigment or other material, the use of non-traditional surfaces and materials, the focus on textures for their own sake, the promotion of form over content, and the explicit role of the artist.
In practice, then, how is abstract art made? Particularly in relation to painting, various techniques have been described. Again, these are not necessarily discrete or mutually exclusive. Nor is this meant to be a comprehensive list of all possible tools for creating abstraction in practice.
With representational painting, one can imagine an artistic process that has some sense of where the work might end and the various options re colour, composition, perspective etc that might get the work to that place. In contrast, Jackson Pollock described his work on abstract painting more as being in the work, letting it emerge and only after some time seeing what the work has been about. Others have taken a much more planned approach.
One way is based on shapes in relation to each other: work being built from symmetries, diagonals, constellations, repetitions – radiating, grid-based, organic, scattered, overlapping etc.
Another way is to focus on the way the medium meets the surface: in spatters, drips, highly visible brushstrokes, all-over colouring, freely applied from differing angles, with strong gestural movements of the arm or the whole body or applied using the artist’s (or a model’s) whole body. The application of medium to a flat surface has been by spreading, dragging, adding to, taking away from, by soaking and staining, by shooting or throwing, maybe adding minerals or shredded materials, and so on.
Or the artist can lay down intense rectangles of pure colour in more or less formal compositions that can be austere and hard edged or can be softer, with colours merging.
There has been work that relies on reducing and compressing things to a minimum. This can involve simplifying shapes or the use of a single hue: the subject being the ability of the shape or colour to express things. At the extreme, this has been black on black, or a white square on a white background: supremely expressing pure aesthetic feelings.
Rodchenko’s ‘Representation is finished. It is time to construct’ leads the artist to arranging things in approaches where all traces of artistic expression are removed and there is little or no trace of the individual. The focus is on the appropriateness of the material for fabricating or constructing new ways of thinking or being.
Others have talked about doing enquiries into what colour can do. They may put colours next to each other in ways that create rhythmic pulses of colour: ‘optical vibrations’ creating some new sense of reality.
Abstract art is most often associated with painting but applies to all art forms. Sculpture has had its own journey from the figurative statues; through the constructions, assemblages and ready-made rearrangements; to shapely aesthetic contemplations in marble or metal; to colourful abstracted constructions and mobiles; to resin casts of negative spaces; to use of body fluids and preserved animals; to the minimalism of a crumpled ball of paper, or neon light going on and off, or stacks of boxes, or vacuum cleaners arranged in plexiglass to go beyond their materiality as commodities and get to something closer to cultural signs.
Conceptual art is an ultimate abstraction in itself. There is nothing but the concept.
From a postmodern perspective there may be no absolute object or idea to be represented. Art then moves more in the realm of images of images, copies of copies, abstractions of abstractions. At its most rarefied, abstraction tends to encompassing everything and nothing.
In the 1970s, abstract art was declared dead. Not that abstract art wasn’t being made, rather that it had nothing more to say in the ongoing developments of cultural practices. It had reached a dead-end and was staying there. At the turn of the century there was a tentative resurgence but for the past decade figurative work has fully come back to the art scene. Has abstraction had no significance in the contemporary art being made in the last decade or so?
Certainly, there are new media – electronic art, virtual reality art, and so on, that can lend themselves to abstraction. Additionally, one might expect abstract art to be coming from a wider set of geographies and cultures, and one might expect this to potentially open up new forms and new ideas. Some young artists are indeed going back to the painterly style and palette of the early C20th abstractionists or to the geometric/ suprematist/ constructivist aesthetics of the Bauhaus era. To what extent are these simply updated replays of old forms of abstraction?
Abstract art being created now, even if using established methods and approaches, is being made in social and political contexts that are similar to, but possibly more urgent than, the ones that gave rise to the modernist precursors. Significant new works will reflect particularly contemporary understandings around global crises, movements of populations, threats to security, rapid scientific and technological changes, widening inequalities and a sense of shifting world orders. This opens up a potential for abstraction to continue to have a valued role in art making and art development.