Abstract Art From its Origin to Present

Trends and historical progress of abstraction

BY Shane Lewis POSTED 28th of June 2018 17:00 GMT


abstract art painting


This article seeks to outline the various trends and historical progress of abstract art, most specifically painting, in the western tradition. From its beginnings in the early twentieth century, abstraction has baffled, outraged and been the site of a negotiation on the part of artists and spectators alike. We will trace these origins from French Fauvism and Picasso's and Braque's Cubism which respectively abstracted color and form from nature, and travel through the varying incarnations of abstract art, from the geometric, the Abstract Expressionist, the technological and the lyrical.

The 1980s, which we will briefly outline in terms of the evolution of abstract art, presented new challenges and indeed thereby new opportunities for abstract painting, and we will observe a few of the major names and styles from that decade onward.

Finally, we will present a case for the continued exploration of abstract art by artists and spectators into the twenty-first century and argue that this tradition is far from exhausted but is as vibrant and exciting as it was a century ago.


I - Abstract Art from its Origins

The roots of abstract art in the west stretch back to the early twentieth century. The rapid advance of technology in the previous century led many artists to observe a need for a new method and means to represent the world and man's place within it – both humanity and the world were thus felt to be changed by these advances.

Formally, that is, intrinsically to artworks, abstraction of at least some degree could be seen in ancient art and the art of non-western cultures. In the west, the influence of these cultures came to light in French Fauvis, which deployed non-naturalistic color in the depiction of scenes from the external world such as landscapes, and in Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braque's development of Cubism which broke up and fractured forms and spaces within the pictorial world. These two art-historical movements are generally considered to be the foundation of avant-garde Modernism in the west and represent a rejection or a dissolution of the traditionally accepted sense-data of the visible world.

Kasimir Malevich Black Square
 Kasimir Malevich's Black Square

A seminal moment for the abstract in painting came in 1923 with the Russian Kasimir Malevich's Black Square. Although linked by the artist with political inspiration, this work which contained merely a black square on a white ground set in motion a concern with the qualities of the painted surface itself and led to the sub-movement of geometric abstraction that is in evidence in American Modernist theory and practice from the 1940s on. This geometric abstraction favored the impersonal, the technological and the mathematical over the expressive qualities of most previous art. Simultaneously in Europe, abstraction took on a metaphysical or religious concern and cited color and form as the inspiration for a more meditative and humanist bent.

However, up until the 1970s, a celebration of science pervaded abstract art and held technological 'constructions' to be of paramount importance, as opposed to the inward-looking individual. Science was seen by many as most conducive to the absolutes of beauty and truth. This technological positivism in abstract art followed one of the pioneering and most canonical modes of abstract art in the U.S., i.e. Abstract Expressionism, with such painters as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler bucking the geometric trend and restoring to art mythic, religious and personal meaning.

Untitled by Mark Rothko deKooning Untitled1948
 Untitled by Mark Mark Rothko   Untitled by Willem de Kooning
Blue Poles 1952 Jackson Pollock helen frankenthaler canyon
 Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock   Canyon by Helen Frankenthaler

These meanings were established largely by the work's titles as their fields of color or 'all-over' painting techniques revealed a lyrical and individual use of color and form. These paintings – along with the High Modernist theory that championed them – showed a concern also with the literal objecthood of the painted canvas. However, Modernist theory conveniently ignored the additional mythic and extra-painterly concerns of much of this art. the impersonal, the technological and the mathematical over the expressive qualities of most previous art. Simultaneously in Europe, abstraction took on a metaphysical or religious concern and cited color and form as the inspiration for a more meditative and humanist bent.

Broadly, these trends within abstract art persisted up until the late 1970s, providing the ground for much contention and appreciation.


II - Strands of Abstraction

Abstraction in the art can either be complete or partial. Complete abstract art bears no resemblance to the natural world and is most identifiable with the aforementioned geometric abstract art, such as Malevich's Black Square. Yet it is also discernible in Abstract Expressionism, where fields or blotches of color are painted on the canvas. Partial abstraction is usually that which is taken from nature, for example, Helen Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea of 1952. Here, nature is not as it appears to the eye but its forms are flattened and Frankenthaler uses expressive sweeps of color that show, rather than merely a landscape scene, both the effects of the scene on the sensibility and the operations of the aestheticizing mind upon that scene. As such, this abstract artwork is as much evidence of an inner psychological state as it is of a landscape formation.

Delaunay Robert Rythm Color
Rythm Color by Robert Delaunay

Abstraction from nature has a long historical tradition – from ancient cave paintings to Robert Delaunay's experiments with light effects in the early twentieth century. Italian-originated Futurism in the 1920s carried with it elements of abstraction from nature in their paintings also, with artists like Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla manipulating scenes from nature or the street according to their aesthetic visions.

With the advent of Malevich in Russia and Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands in the 1920s, however, pure or complete abstract art set off in earnest. In the 1960s Abstract Expressionism gradually relinquished its canonical status to the likes of Optical abstraction which could be seen as a more rigorous successor to the earlier art of Delaunay with its concentration upon pure color and light effects. Optical abstraction directed the spectator to fixate on the process and the data of visual perception, with light itself becoming the form for artists like Kenneth Noland. His abstraction has been termed 'post-painterly abstraction' because it eradicates personal expression.

Ohne Titel by Gunther Uecker PIET MONDRIAN abstract cubes squares rectangles Kenneth Noland
Ohne Titel by Gunther Uecker Piet Mondrian  Kenneth Noland

At the same time, however, a more metaphysical abstraction was evinced in the work of painters like Gunther Uecker. Uecker produced at this time paintings of dark monochromatic fields of color that induced in the spectator a spiritual state of meditation.

In all, abstrac art is a spectrum, along which attitudes to nature, color, form, technology and the real or desired status of the artist, artwork, and viewer are situated.


III - Since 1980

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a resurgence of figurative 'Neo-Expressionism' in painting that was a return to depictions of the external world. As this return was characterized by the lyrical and individualistic application of paint, however, even this moment could be seen to be part of the abstraction tradition. Domestic or outdoor scenes were recognizable here, but only through the prism of a particular artist's sensibility.

Howard Hodgkin Absent Friends
Howard Hodgkin

With the return to figuration and the increasing pluralism of influences, media and styles came the decline of the pre-eminence of High Modernist abstraction. Yet from the 1980s onwards abstract painting persisted, this time in a riot of color and varying textures that reflected new preoccupations – sometimes within a single artwork. These works could either be expressive, putting the artist at the center of the work or materialistic and utterly concerned with the painted surface itself as an object. Prominent practitioners from this decade on were Howard Hodgkin, John Hoyland, Peter Halley, Gerhard Richter and Frank Stella whose pursuit of the progress of formalism had already extended over a long career.

Devilaya John Hoyland Abstract Painting 750 1 Art Gerhard Richter Peter Halley Explosion 2
John Hoyland Gerhard Richter  Peter Halley

Gerhard Richter's work has been described as more in the 'metaphysical' abstract art tradition. His paintings show the results of paint being poured and dripped on as well as swiped and painted. This fact itself could be a comment on the varied, perhaps limitless, the potential of human choice and agency.

Artists like Frank Stella – a painter, sculptor, and print-maker – that explored Minimalism and post-painterly abstraction have developed a more syncretic or hybridized approach to art-making since the 1980s, as the deep reliefs of his paintings were transformed into sculptural elements incorporated in his abstraction. This culminated in his design of abstract free-standing public sculptures that renounced the perceived exclusivity of abstraction in the 1990s.

Similarly, syncretic is the late work of Cy Twombly who began to use calligraphic marks and graffiti over solid fields of color. Combined with this was his use of inscriptions to tie meaning to the symbolism of classical myth.

Cy Twombly Last Paintings Frank Stella The Funeral
Cy Twombly Frank Stella

These recent developments in the abstract art show it to be a resilient medium or style and rich in associative potential. Also, due to increasing globalization of influence in the digital age, abstraction cannot be summarised in its current inceptions, with artists across the world bringing both transcendent and local concerns to abstract art.


IV - The Trend that Persists

While with the invention of photography in the 1840s there occurred an initial pessimism about the validity of painterly representation on canvas, and again in the 1960s with the recession of the influence of Abstract Expressionism in America, painterly abstraction and indeed painting has proven to be especially current and persistent up to the present day.

Technology, despite its visual exhaustiveness, when separated from expressive and lyrical abstraction, presents only an image of the world. It cannot cover, explain or articulate the gamut of interior human emotion or thought. A lyrical and expressive abstract art – that which includes the individual, artist, and spectator, is of a necessary humanist tradition. It restores the individual to the world and the world to the individual as part of a conspectus of existence: what it means to be alive and to perceive and share. This abstraction's democratizing nature, its invitation to a productive discourse makes it, despite its age, thoroughly new.


 

 

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