Almost all artwork in the western world has depicted a subject easily recognizable to the viewer up until the beginning of this century. Art without a recognizable subject matter, known as abstract art, is unique to this period. Abstract art hasnt been analyzed on its own in as much detail as other styles of art more easily defined. Instead it often times gets placed in a more general category called Modernism.
This, perhaps, is a result of its diversity. Artists working in the abstract genre dont belong to a single movement, which makes the true definition difficult to arrive at. If we were to say abstract art is non-representational or non-objective, we would be implying that it has no relation to natural objects. (Rosenthal 1) Terminology therefore becomes almost a barrier when analyzing art and especially abstract art.
The word abstraction is primarily used because it is widely accepted in contemporary usage and isnt necessarily the single, most appropriate term. Artists of our time have begun creating works of art without any apparent subject matter at all and basing them essentially on formal composition. Many of the artists whom work in this manner are expressing their emotions while reducing or eliminating references to the physical world. For someone new to this form of art it offers very little clues as to its content or subject matter. Without an understanding of what the artists are trying to express we can experience certain difficulties when viewing an abstract piece of art. This is what causes people not to take it seriously and why only very few people could say that abstraction takes on a seriousness and complexity equivalent to the great masterpieces of the past.
(Rosenthal 1) Artists of abstract paintings put a lot of demands on the observer for they give them no starting place in the natural world. The observer is required to fully absorb him or herself in the painting. The artis usually tries not to exclude the observer from the piece instead he / she tries to affect or communicate with the observer by use of traditional visual language. If they wanted to convey serenity they might use soft symmetrical compositions or sharp diagonal lines to emphasize struggle. (Rosenthal 3) In order to appreciate and judge any work of art it is first necessary to understand the artists intentions.
Once the viewer has a firm understanding of what the artist meant to do or tried to express they can then judge the degree of success the artist had. One of the earliest abstract painters, Wassily Kandinsky, is an important figure because he was also one of the first to try and explain why he was doing it. He described one of his first experiences with abstract art which to him was very personal and unique, he said: I was returning, immersed in thought, from my sketching, when on opening the studio door, I was confronted by a picture of indescribable and incandescent loveliness. Bewildered, I stopped, staring at it. The painting lacked all subject, depicted no identifiable object and was entirely composed of bright color patches. Finally I approached closer and only then recognized it for what it really was my own painting, standing on its side on the easel One thing became clear to me that objectiveness, the depiction of objects, needed no place in my paintings, and was indeed harmful to them.
(Read 190) He felt that it was necessary for the viewer to learn how to look at his paintings, which in part meant disregarding the habits acquired from looking at representational art. The temptation to try and see a familiar object in a blob is often times irresistible. This urge makes it exceedingly difficult to create a truly abstract image. (Whitford 29-30) In his earlier work, his abstraction was never so pure that it did not have an implied or intentionally subliminal subject. Even in his pictures that he regarded as purely abstract one can see similar themes. If pure abstraction is the criteria, one could almost consider Kandinsky as more of a transitional figure then of an actual pioneer.
Though as with every abstractionist, this could be questioned. All abstractions even though they are abstract still will allude to or symbolize something because just in creating it the artist is saying something and expressing something. Without any apparent subject matter, abstract artists were left with finding a solution to replace the now missing object. Another influential abstractionist, Jackson Pollock stated that Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves.
they work from within. (Rosenthal 281) Pollock works were created with a fierce level of focus and they record the movements of the artist as well as his mental energy. He was trying to convey, without the time lag between the thought and response, his vital impulses of his mind and body. Subject matter now became open to the artist and often times became feelings or moods of the artist.
Kandinsky felt that all forms originate in genuine feelings and therefore he had significant amounts of content to work from. Even though Kandinsky gave his work an abstract appearance it always, as he claimed, had something being represented One of the most popular abstract painters Piet Mondrian tried emphasizing that it is not subject matter that the abstract artist is trying to portray, it is the stylistic breakthrough that makes abstract art so prominent. It is about the struggle of finding a style and once that is achieved the artist can then begin to express subject matter. (Rosenthal 39) Beginning his career as a painter of nature, Mondrian earlier works were landscapes dominated by a single object. He slowly began stripping down the objects from a relatively accurate copy to an abstract painting consisting of the objects essential form in a series of paintings.
Once he established this basic language of forms, he no longer needed reference to the physical world and his paintings were created entirely from his head. (Whitford 19) His goal was to discern a rudimentary structure in the world and show it with the fewest and clearest elements possible. (Milner 7) The subject of the abstract painter varies from artist to artist. Some like Jackson Pollock did not use any outside references and painted entirely from their head while others, such as Kandinsky, often used subject matter from the physical world and stripped it down till it was no longer visible. Mondrian as well as Kandinsky were involved in or at least influenced by the Theosophists belief in the mysticism of color and form. They believed that through the use of color and form one could enrich the soul by the vibrations they called forth.
The mystics felt that the transference of these vibrations was only possible through a clairvoyant, Kandinsky, however, saw the artist as a potential medium. Mondrian joined the Theosophical Society in 1909, but its influence was not apparent in his work until several years later. Later in Kandinsky life, his attitudes towards Theosophy changed. Its influence remained with him as an ideal and encouraged his change to geometric abstraction. (Moszynska 49) Abstractions emergence in the art world also relates to what was going on with the development of photography.
Photography forced, in a sense, artists to reexamine their ability to recreate a convincing depiction of reality. This freed artists from recreating the physical world and many turned to more subjective matter such as emotions and feelings. Abstract artists never belonged to any one movement in the art community and there are virtually as many forms of it as there are artists. Hence, abstraction is not a style rather it is an attitude. There are two modes of abstraction and all abstract works of art can fall into one of two categories, geometric or organic. (Whitford 128) Organic abstraction is based on the visual language of nature and suggests growth and change.
Geometric abstraction employs the use of geometric forms in its compositions. Essentially all artwork comes down to the same rudimentary elements, color, form, composition and expression being the most important. Art may be expressing anything from religious beliefs to a personal feeling of the artist. When portraying an image to the world, it is the approach the artist takes in solving and creating the image that makes it different. If we were to thoroughly analyze art of every genre and stylistic approach, we would find, that all representational artwork contains some form of abstraction and all abstract works of art contain some sort of representation.
All art therefore essentially is representational in that it represents something and equally all art is abstract in that it is never the pure object (s). (Moszynska 9) When the artist is creating non-representational art he is looking inward and one could say creating from the unconscious. The painting then, usually becomes a representation of the artists feelings, emotions, mood, energy or any other expression that is non-physical. Representational art is based on the world around the artist and we could say created from the conscious.
Often times this approach, which begins in the physical world, ends up evoking some of the non-material expressions that the abstract artist is trying to portray. Both artists are representing as well as abstracting and it is only a matter of what is more dominant in the work of art that categorizes it. Humans have a natural tendency to try and relate and compare everything they come across with something else, in order to categorize it. With abstract art this becomes a difficulty because we tend to put it all into one group despite its variances.
It then becomes nearly impossible to analyze and describe comprehensively which is why I feel it is so successful. As the evolution of art progresses further, the differences between abstract and representational art become less obvious. A picture - before it is a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. Maurice Denis Works Cited Milner, John. Mondrian. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992 Moszynska, Anna.
Abstract Art. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1990 Read, Herbert. A Concise History Of Modern Painting. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1974 Rosenthal, Mark.
Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline. NewYork: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1996 Whitford, Frank. Understanding Abstract Art. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.