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Abstract art - what is meant by it and how to assess it

Definition and meaning

The term “abstract art” - also called “non-representational art”, “non-representational” or “geometric abstraction” - is a rather vague generic term for any painting or sculpture that does not depict any recognizable objects or scenes.

However, as we shall see, there is no clear consensus on the definition, types, or aesthetic meaning of abstract art. Picasso thought that there was no such thing, while some art critics believe that all art is abstract - because, for example, any painting is nothing more than a rough synopsis (abstraction) of what the painter sees.

Even well-known art critics sometimes disagree on whether a painting should be called “abstract” - for example, the water lilies series by Claude Monet (1840-1926). In addition, there is a gradual scale of abstraction: from naturalistic to semi-abstract to completely abstract.

While the theory is fairly clear that abstract art is detached from reality, the task of separating abstract from non-abstract art can be problematic.

Basic idea of ​​abstract art

The basic premise of abstraction is that the formal qualities of a painting (or sculpture) are just as important, if not more important, than its representational qualities.

Let's start with a very simple illustration. A picture can be a very poor drawing of a person, but if the colors are very beautiful it can still appear to be a beautiful picture to us. This shows how a formal quality (color) can surpass an objective property (drawing).

On the other hand, a photorealistic painting of a row house can show excellent naturalism, but the subject matter, color scheme, and overall composition can be completely bland.

The philosophical justification for the appreciation of the value of the formal qualities of a work of art results from Plato's statement:

"Straight lines and circles are not only beautiful, they are eternal and absolutely beautiful."

Basically, Plato means that non-natural motifs (circles, squares, triangles, etc.) have an absolute, unchangeable beauty. A picture can be valued for its line and color alone - it does not have to depict a natural object or scene.

The French painter, lithographer and art theorist Maurice Denis got the same idea when he wrote: "Remember that a picture is essentially a flat surface covered with colors that are put together in a certain order."

Abstract Art: Six Basic Types

To keep things simple, we can divide abstract art into six basic types:

  • Curved, linear
  • Color or light-related
  • Geometric
  • Emotional or intuitive
  • Gestural
  • Minimalistic

Some of these types are less abstract than others, but all deal with the separation of art and reality.

Curved abstract art

This type of abstraction is strongly associated with Celtic art, which used a range of abstract motifs, including knots and spirals. These motifs were not typical of the Celts - many other early cultures had used these designs for centuries: see for example the spiral engravings on the Neolithic passage grave in Newgrange in Ireland, which were made about 2000 years before the appearance of the Celts. However, it is fair to say that Celtic designers breathed new life into these patterns, making them much more complicated and sophisticated.

These patterns later reappeared as decorative elements in early illuminated manuscripts (c. 600 to 1000 AD). During the Celtic revival in the 19th century and the influential Art Nouveau movement of the 20th century, curvilinear abstraction returned: especially in book covers, textile and wallpaper designs. This form of abstraction is also exemplified by the “infinite pattern”, a common feature of Islamic art.

Color related or light related abstract art

An example of this type are works by Turner and Monet, who use color in such a way that they detach the work of art from reality when the object dissolves in a swirl of pigment. Examples of this are the last series of water lily pictures by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Le Talisman by Paul Serusier (1864-1927) and several Fauvist works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

Some of Kandinsky's expressionist pictures, which were created during his time with the Blue Rider, come very close to abstraction, as do Rehe im Walde II by his colleague Franz Marc (1880-1916).

Czech painter Frank Kupka (1871-1957) created some of the first colorful abstract paintings that influenced Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), who also relied on color in his Cubist-inspired Orphism style.

Color-related abstraction reappeared in abstract expressionism in the late 1940s and 50s in the form of color field painting developed by Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Barnett Newman (1905-70). In the 1950s, a parallel form of color-related abstract painting known as lyrical abstraction emerged in France.

Geometric abstraction

This type of intellectual abstract art emerged from around 1908. An early rudimentary form was cubism, particularly analytical cubism - which rejected linear perspective and the illusion of spatial depth in a painting in order to focus on its two-dimensional aspects.

Geometric abstraction is also known as Concrete Art or Non-Objective Art. As you would expect, it is characterized by non-natural imagery, typically geometric shapes like circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and so on. In a sense - in that it contains absolutely no reference to or is associated with the natural world - it is the purest form of abstraction. One could say that concrete art stands for abstraction in the same way as veganism relates to vegetarianism.

The geometric abstraction is perfectly illustrated by the black circle by Kasimir Malewitsch (1878-1935); Broadway Boogie-Woogie by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944); and Composition VIII (The Cow) by Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931).

Emotional or intuitive abstract art

This type of intuitive art encompasses a mix of styles whose common theme is a naturalistic tendency. This naturalism is evident in the type of shapes and colors used. In contrast to the geometric abstraction, which is almost hostile to nature, the intuitive abstraction is often reminiscent of nature, but in a less representative way.

Two important sources for this type of abstract art are:

Probably the most famous painter to specialize in this type of art was Russian-born Mark Rothko. Further examples are paintings by Kandinsky such as Composition No. 4 and Composition VII; Plate, fork and navel by Jean Arp and Woman by Joan Miro.

In sculpture, this type of abstraction is exemplified by Constantin Brancusi's The Kiss; Mother and Child by Barbara Hepworth; Giant Pip illustrated by Jean Arp and Three Standing Figures by Henry Moore.

Gestural abstract art

This is a form of abstract expressionism where the process of creating the image becomes more important than usual. The paint can be applied in unusual ways, the brushwork is often very loose and quick.

Famous American exponents of gestural painting are Jackson Pollock, the inventor of action painting, and his wife Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning, famous for his Woman series of works. In Europe this form is exemplified by both Tachisme and the Cobra group.

Minimalist abstract art

This type of abstraction was based on the fundamental elements of art, which blocked out all external references and associations. It's exactly what you see, nothing more, nothing less. Often it takes on a geometric form and is dominated by sculptors, although some great painters have also used this form of abstraction.

Origins and history

Stone age abstract painting

As far as we know today, abstract art began around 70,000 years ago with prehistoric engravings: two boulders engraved with abstract geometric patterns that were found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. This was followed by the abstract red and ocher colored dots and hand stencils discovered under the paintings of the El Castillo cave, dated 39,000 BC. BC, the Neanderthal engraving in the Gorham Cave in Gibraltar and the club-shaped image under the paintings of the Altamira Cave (approx. 34,000 BC).

From academic realism to abstraction

By the end of the 19th century, most paintings and sculptures followed the traditional principles of classical realism as taught in the great academies of Europe. These principles envisaged that the first task of art was to create a recognizable scene or object. However much a work of art was influenced by the requirements of the style or color medium, it had to mimic or depict external reality.

However, in the last quarter of the 19th century, things began to change. Impressionism proved that the strict academic style of naturalistic painting was no longer the only authentic way of creating paintings. Then, in the 1900-1930 period, developments in other areas of modern art provided additional techniques to be used in the quest for abstraction.

Artists are increasingly moving away from reality

The first of the great modern art movements to subvert the academic style of Classical Realism was Impressionism (c. 1870-1880), the colors of which were often downright unnatural, although their art remained clearly derived from the real world, even if Claude Monet's last The work of water lilies was more like pure abstraction. The emergence of abstract art was also influenced by the Art Nouveau movement.

Kandinsky, Expressionism & Fauvism


Wassily Kandinski, The Cow, 1910 The use of color and shape to move the viewer was paramount to the development of abstract art. Impressionism, including the variants of pointillism and post-impressionism, had already drawn attention to the power of color, but German expressionism made it the cornerstone of painting.

Kandinsky was convinced of the emotional properties of form, line and, above all, color in painting. He even had abnormal color sensitivity that he could both hear and see - a condition known as synesthesia. He believed that a painting shouldn't be analyzed intellectually, but rather should reach the parts of the brain that are addressed when listening to music.

Nevertheless, he warned that serious art should not be guided by the desire for abstraction in order to become mere decoration. Most German Expressionists were not abstract painters, but their lively color variation - along with Kandinsky's theoretical writings - made other more abstract artists aware of the power of color.

The parallel Parisian avant-garde style of Fauvism (1905-08) merely underscored the effect of color with works by Henri Matisse.

Cubism rejects perspective and depth

Cubism was a reaction to the decorative beauty of Impressionism. Picasso and Georges Braque developed this new style in stages:

Her basic idea was to evolve from the handsome but trivial art of Impressionism to a more intellectual art form that explores new methods of representing reality.

In particular, they rejected the academic method of representing reality through the use of linear perspective to create the usual three-dimensional effect in a painting. Instead, they kept everything on a two-dimensional flat plane on which they worked out different views of the same object: a process similar to photographing an object from different angles, then cropping the photos and pasting them onto a flat surface.

This method of using a flat surface to represent three-dimensional reality shook art to its foundations. Although most Cubist works were still derived from objects or scenes in the real world and therefore cannot be viewed as entirely abstract, the rejection of traditional perspective has completely undermined naturalism in art, thus opening the door to pure abstraction.

The Italian Futurism movement (1909-13), founded by Marinetti and embodied by Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, was also influenced by Cubism and in turn inspired numerous painters with their focus on movement and technology. In sculpture, futurism had the greatest impact on the development of kinetic art.

Suprematism and De Stijl introduce new geometric shapes

The traditional painting and sculpture of the visual arts relies on forms from the real world, of which there are limitless examples. Abstract artists, on the other hand, are obliged to rely on non-natural forms. Abstract art, for example, typically deals with the production of various geometric shapes. And the size and character of these forms, their relationship to one another and the colors used throughout the work become the determining motifs of abstraction.

Russian suprematism

Russian Suprematism, which was given this title by its leader Kazimir Malevich for its claim of superiority in sensation in art, emerged in 1915. Undoubtedly influenced by Kandinsky, who had already begun the production of a number of specific works, Malevich created a whole series of outstanding avant-garde abstract paintings - rectangular blocks of simple color on a white background - that were decades ahead of his time. He saw them as the successor to the traditional icon images of the Russian Orthodox Church in the flat Byzantine style of antiquity.

In 1927, his Suprematist theory was published in a book entitled “The Objectless World”. Along with Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova was one of the founders of Russian constructivism, which was another important part of Suprematism.

De Stijl

De Stijl was the name of a Dutch design and aesthetic magazine and an avant-garde art movement devoted to geometric abstraction founded and directed by Theo Van Doesburg. One of the most important figures in this art movement was Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), who is known for his series of simple rectangular grids that only use black, white, and primary colors - a style he called neoplastism. As one of the most influential pioneers of Concrete Art, he developed his precise geometric style as a countermovement to the emotional chaos and uncertainty of the first half of the 20th century.

Van Doesburg was less dogmatic and introduced a more relaxed form of neoplastism called elementarism. In 1930 he was also responsible for coining the term “Concrete Art”. Unfortunately he died in 1931, but his ideas were continued not only by students from the Bauhaus Design School, but also by the Abstraction-Creation group, led by the Belgian artist Georges Vantongerloo and the French painters Jean Helion and Auguste Herbin.

Surrealistic and organic abstraction

Parallel to the development of geometric concretism, representatives of surrealism began to produce a series of imaginative, quasi-naturalistic images in the 1920s and 1930s. The leading exponents of this style were Jean Arp and Joan Miro, neither of whom rely on the technique of automatism.

Her surrealist colleague Salvador Dali also created some extraordinary paintings such as “The Persistence of Memory”. Jean Arp was also an active sculptor who specialized in organic abstraction.

A number of European abstract artists later sought refuge in America, where they met and influenced a new generation of native abstract painters. These influential emigrants included painters such as Hans Hofmann, Max Ernst and Yves Tangy.

Abstract Expressionism - More Color, Less Geometry

Although post-war European artists maintained their interest in abstract art through the Parisian art scene, the center of modern art shifted to New York in 1945, where the avant-garde was represented by the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. After the Great Depression and World War II, this movement, which was never tied to any coherent program, was led by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, and Clyfford Still. The next generation of abstract expressionist artists included painters such as Robert Motherwell.

Abstract expressionist painting remains a vague term that is often confusingly applied to artists who are neither truly abstract nor expressionist. Abstract Expressionism describes a form of abstract painting in which color takes precedence over form. Early work in this style typically filled large-format paintings, the size of which was designed to overwhelm viewers and draw them into another world. The Expressionists' preoccupation with visual effects, especially the effect of color, reflected their main goal: the inclusion and exploration of basic human emotions. This is how an abstract expressionist painting is best felt intuitively and not understood.

It should be noted that it was a broad movement that encompassed a variety of styles, including works that were either semi-abstract or non-abstract, as well as works that were distinguished by their particular application of paint, such as Jackson Pollock's Drin Paintings or Rothko's Color Field Painting.

How to look at abstract art

So how do you actually assess and understand abstract art?
Realizing that there are different ways to approach and criticize art is important in trying to understand abstraction. It is easy to appreciate a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt as the mastery of the technique is clearly visible. In order to appreciate abstraction, however, our focus should not be on how realistically the artist painted something or someone, but rather on how successful a work of art is at evoking emotions.

Abstract painting can also be understood in terms of the individual elements of art: color, shape, line, texture, space, value, etc. An abstract artist's skills lie in his ability to use colors and textures to their best visual strength and to create a composition from these elements.

Here are some things to keep in mind while viewing abstract art:

  • Don't look at the clock. However, it is also not necessary to stand in front of an abstract work for hours to really understand it. Watch it for as long as you want and as long as it carries you away.
  • We all know that art is subjective and sometimes there are pieces that we just can't identify with, especially when it comes to abstract art. However, that does not mean that the work could have been painted by a child.
  • Do not offend the artist's imagination. Instead, think about what it is that makes you feel this way when you have nothing to do with the artwork.
  • Don't worry about the title. Abstract paintings often have an extremely vague title, such as "Number 4". Don't let that bother you. Most artists purposely don't use revealing titles because they want you to interact with the art and eventually find your own meaning. On the other hand, you don't need to completely ignore the title; sometimes they can be very helpful in stimulating your imagination.
  • Let the picture come towards you. Free your mind from all other thoughts, give it a little time and just let the picture convey its emotion. Pay attention to the colors and textures. What do you feel, what impression do they convey on you? Jackson Pollock said, “Abstract art is abstract. It confronts you. " Let the picture ask the questions and not the other way around.
  • Don't worry about feeling anything while looking at it. It is not necessary for an abstract painting to have a content side, nor is it necessary that you can feel every single emotion it is meant to convey. If it doesn't do anything for you, then so be it.
  • Don't ask all questions at once. Thinking too much about what the painting means can be disturbing or tiresome. Instead, focus on how the picture makes you feel and what emotions it gives you. Think about how the artist's background or situation might have affected his painting. Try to work with the things you know instead of questioning everything.
  • Remember, abstraction doesn't have to mean anything. While maintaining the meaning of a work of art evokes a momentary sense of victory, bathing in its secret brings joy for much longer.