What is abstract art?

Key Takeaway: Abstract art is anything that’s not a photographic representation. Sort of…

Number 1 (Lavender Mist) by Jackson Pollock. 1950. Image source: WikiArt

What does it mean to be abstract?

Most aspects of art are subjective, including how we define abstraction. One definition I like comes from the Tate Gallery in London: Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. An excellent reference for understanding the basics of abstract art, I also like this abstract art reference from the Saatchi Art blog called Canvas.

The earliest abstract artists manipulated color (Fauves), modified form (Cubists), and used painting technique to obscure or emphasize specific qualities of a scene (Impressionists and Post Impressionists). These early abstractionist ideas and their successors led to movements of total abstraction where artists painted what they imagined or felt, as opposed to what they saw.

Different Abstract Art Movements

Descriptions below come from this handy timeline of Modern Art at TheArtStory.org.

  • Futurism – Pre-war (WWI), Italy. Notable artists: Boccioni and Severini. Influenced by Cubism, “Futurism celebrated advanced technology and urban modernity. Its members wished to destroy older forms of culture and to demonstrate the beauty of modern life — of the machine, speed, violence, and change.”
  • Suprematism – Pre-war (WWI), Russia. Notable artists: Malevich and Rodchenko. “Radically abstract art of simple geometric forms”
  • Surrealism – Between the wars, around Europe. Notable artists: Ernst, Dalí, and Miró. “Called on artists to bypass reason by accessing their unconscious via automatism or dreams.”
  • Abstract Expressionism – Post-war (WWII), America. Notable artists: Pollock and Rothko. “Committed to expressing profound emotion and universal themes.”
    • Color Field Painting – Considered part of Abstract Expressionism. Notable artists: Rothko, Newman, Frankenthaler, Still, and Albers. “The first style to avoid the suggestion of a form or mass against a background… figure and ground are one.”
  • Op Art – 1950s, everywhere. Notable artists: Calder, Stella, and Vasarely. “Focused on optics and visual perceptions… were launched by artists seeking to create more interactive relationships with the viewer.”

Levels of Abstraction

Abstraction lies on a continuum. At one end is art that is barely abstracted —a reasonable attempt to copy exactly what one sees. At the other end, total abstraction includes no identifiable real-world objects or figures. I like to think of it this way: a photograph has the least amount of abstraction possible and Jackson Pollock represents complete abstraction.

Here are a few examples of the different levels of abstraction:

If you like abstract art, it’s entirely possible that you don’t like art from everywhere on that continuum. You may prefer certain styles or levels of abstraction. The types of questions you can ask yourself when considering where on the continuum your preferences might lie:

  • Can I recognize the subject?
  • Can I instantly recognize it or is there some looking required to see it?
  • Is my only clue about the subject in the title?
  • Is the subject completely open to interpretation?

Styles of Abstraction

With such a broad definition of abstraction, I find it helpful to loosely define subsets of abstraction. One way to think about it is geometric vs organic. In this framework, geometric abstract work is dominated by lines, circles, and color fields. Organic abstract work is loose, often with visible brush strokes and more resembles nature than geometry.

You may find that this paradigm isn’t useful to you because you have a broad range of interests. In that case, instead of thinking about the lines, shapes, and color fields of a piece, you might focus a color scheme, the size of the work, or the kind of work (drawing, painting, collage, etc.).

Additional Reading and Viewing

I am unabashedly a huge fan of PBS’s The Art Assignment, a collection of short videos about art. One particular thread of their work is called “The Case For…” and covers all kinds of interesting topics like Jackson Pollock, Conceptual Art, Surrealism, etc. Their video entitled “The Case for Abstract Art” is a terrific place to dig deeper into the history and context of Abstract Art and why we should all embrace it.