A Short and Fragmented Story of Abstract Art

Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran


Around the turn of the last century, many remarkable discoveries, technological innovations and previously unknown concepts appeared that shed new light on the world of man. Einstein first proposed his theory of relativity in 1905; Freud revealed ‘the inner man’; Darwin’s demonstration of human evolution in the chain of life had become widely accepted; Nietzsche had pronounced, ‘God is dead’.

In the light of this new reality, doubts arose about the value of conventional art and its relationship to the real world. People began to question the widely accepted notion that the role of art is to depict concrete reality on the canvas. Reality at this time seemed to be something else, something greater, and artists adopted various approaches in their quest for a new pictorial language that was best suited to the new situation.

By 1910, Picasso had already produced paintings in France in which concrete reality was broken down into its basic elements on the two-dimensional pictorial surface. The concepts of the Cubist movement that he heralded were partly based on studies by Cézanne, who rejected the Renaissance theory of perspective and assimilated the pictorial construction to the two-dimensional canvas, while in his later works, he introduced multiple viewpoints into the same painting. Under Cubism, the painting shifted from being a straightforward reconstruction of visual perception towards being a conceptual invention that acknowledged the many viewpoints onto an object. Imitation was abandoned, although the subject, and its three-dimensionality, was suggested. Picasso’s and Braque’s most extreme transformations of the subject are cryptic, but never purely abstract. Fernand Léger undoubtedly took the Cubists’ explorations of form to one of its farthest limits when he rejected concrete reality with the post-1914 works in which he simply expresses the dynamism of modern life. Through its process of disintegration and its compositions of fragmentary images, Cubism can be said to have been a decisive path towards abstract painting.

In 1909, the Italian Futurists published their manifesto in Le Figaro, announcing new ideas of aesthetics and paintings. Their art was linked to various new technologies such as electricity and X-rays. In painting, they strove to move away from traditional subjects, and express in their place specific concepts such as the power of the machine, speed and sound. Like the Cubists’, the Futurists’ pictorial language, which partly borrowed from André Delaunay’s theories of light and colour, was difficult to read yet never became purely abstract. The Futurist reworking of subject was primarily an ode to modern technological society, not a breach with concrete reality. A few years later, in 1912, Nathalia Gontcharova and Mikhail Larionov created the Rayonnist movement in Russia, which is in many ways reminiscent of the Futurists’ play with form.

Certain scientific studies of the properties of light and colour also made an important contribution to this movement. In the nineteenth century, many notable discoveries had been made about the properties of colours and their relationship to light, which the post-Impressionists Seurat and Signac employed in their new representation of concrete reality. By the dawn of the twentieth century, various theories of chromatics presented artists with the possibility of assigning colour a function independent of the object. The Paris-based Czech Frantisek Kupka (1871–1957) painted pure colour abstraction in 1911, which was supposed to express ‘an emotional subject seen with the mind’s eye’. While Kupka, Delaunay and other French artists (whom the poet Apollinaire labelled ‘Orphists’ in 1913) were striving to describe the scientific principles of the painting with reference to the chromatic theories of scientists such as Ogden Rood and Michel-Eugene Chevreul, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was in Munich, reading Goethe’s theories of colour from 1810 and writing his book Uber das Geistige in der Kunst, in which he laid out the theoretical properties of colours.

By this time, once artists had consciously broken the link with concrete reality, they generally needed further theoretical grounds on which to base their painting. Most of them, like Kupka, Kandinsky and Delaunay, referred to music in both their theorising and their choice of titles. For artists and philosophers, music had long been the branch of the arts that stood out as an independent organic totality. In the 1930s, architecture became no less real a reference. Kandinsky’s writings also reveal his clear links to the German philosophers Hegel and Schopenhauer in his discussions of the ambiguity of form, which he saw as both a symbol and a purely concrete ‘categorical imperative’. These artists’ notions of the categorical imperative were further supported by the ideas of theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbetter. In his works from 1911, in which he allows the colours to break free from their forms and flow into each other on the canvas, Kandinsky is pictorialising Besant’s and Leadbetter’s ‘thought forms’. Like the theosophists, Kandinsky believed in the mystical power of form, and that colour and form, like music, generated waves that ennobled the soul.

The Dutchman Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) was another artist inspired by theosophy. At first, he adopted the pictorial language of post-Cubism, dissolving his subject and systematically reconstructing it on the canvas. Later, he would develop an abstract composition based on vertical and horizontal forms and the use of three primary colours: yellow, blue and red, presented in ‘dynamic equilibrium’. Mondrian’s formal world also contained mystical allusions to the writings of the philosopher and mathematician M.H.J. Schoenmaeker.

In Russia, Kasimir Malevich (1878–1935) painted eight red rectangles on a white background, geometric works whose inspirations included the Russian philosopher Ouspensky’s meditations on the Fourth Dimension. Unlike the Cubists, his subject was not time, but a new plane of consciousness, between death and eternal life. Malevich saw visual possibilities for the painting in the philosopher’s ideas, making the forms float on a white background, the only colour that could grant insight into the infinite depth. Like Mondrian, Malevich believed that abstract painting had the power to transport the individual to a higher plane of consciousness.

Discussions of abstract art tend to highlight Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian as its theoretical pioneers in the second decade of the last century. Despite their different approaches, they shared a desire to explore the nature of reality, reflect the inner life and allow the spectator to partake in the pure lyrical outflow of the work of art. Art historians disagree about when abstract art made its debut – some date it from 1909, with Francis Picabia’s abstract watercolour Caoutchouc, and others from 1910, with Kandinsky’s first abstraction, also a watercolour, while most recognise it as originating from 1912–13. On one point, however, they all agree: abstract art revolutionised earlier notions of art. This was a new pictorial language that sprang up simultaneously in many parts of the world and instead of continuing to imitate concrete reality, aimed to express the artist’s own emotions and thoughts.

In 1945, a retrospective exhibition was staged in Paris under the title ‘Art Concret’ that marked the debut of the genre that would feature most prominently in Parisian art during the following decades. In 1946, the Salon de Réalites Nouvelle was set up, which adhered strictly to the geometrical surface. The group staged annual exhibitions and consisted of artists of various nationalities and at one time had more than 400 members. The most prominent and influential at this time included August Herbin (1882–1969), Serge Poliakov (1906–1969), Jean Dewasne (1921–1999), the Hungarian Victor Vasarely (1908–1997) and the Dane Richard Mortensen (1910–1992). They also gained access to an influential forum when art dealer Denise René began displaying and promoting their works. The main ideologist of the geometric two-dimensional painting was the critic Léon Degand, who emphasised that art should be pure and independent, with an appeal to artistic perception instead of inspiring sensations or allusions that were alien to the painting. Another major representative was Andre Bloc (1889–1966), editor of the magazine Art d’aujourd’hui, which was launched in 1949 and became an important platform for this new genre.

The main characteristic of the geometric two-dimensional painting is that forms should carry no allusion to reality but are inherently concrete, hence the name ‘concretism’ for the style of these works. According to its precepts, the artist should only use ‘the pure language of art’. The art-historical roots of the strictly geometrical painting that appeared in Paris after the war primarily lie in Russian Constructivism and the De Stijl movement of 1910s and 1920s. However, while the main feature of works by De Stijl artists such as Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) was harmonic and immobile forms, the new postwar geometric style hinged on a complex pictorial space involving illusions of time and motion. In terms of formal composition, these works show strict geometry and smooth planes of a single colour, while the ideologists of this new painting emphasised the basic elements of pictorial language such as form, colour and construction in their writings. This approach can clearly be seen in the works of Herbin, Mortensen and Vasarely. Later on, Vasarely would develop the properties of form and colour still further and produce paintings based on optical illusions, a branch of abstract art dubbed ‘Op Art’ by a critic in Time Magazine in 1964. Such works are based on the impact of composite colours on the retina and the illusion created by the merging of colours and forms, which gives the impression that forms are in motion, lines are rippling or the completely pictorial surface is expanding and contracting.

Abstract Expressionism was from the beginning a loose, heteroclite movement. Jackson Pollock was the front figure, while Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Clifford Still are usually cited as the core members. It was all about the direct expression of emotion through physical action. Similar artistic ideas can be found among many Paris-based artists at the time like Hans Hartung, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jean Messagier and Pierre Soulages (Art informel) and Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, Henri Michaux and Georges Mathieu (Tachism). All these artists had their origins loosely in Surrealism, as did the North European artists who formed the group CoBrA.

Although Abstract Expressionism was the dominant form on the American art scene for many years from the 1940s on, it is scarcely possible to talk of a movement of geometric abstraction there on the scale of postwar Europe. But several individual artists, such as Rothko, Still and Barnett Newman, made a considerable impact on abstract art over the following decades.

Certain links with 1930s European geometric abstraction can be found in Newman’s works, although he denied this. He emphasised the dramatic emotions inherent in his works and that their formal composition was based on entirely different principles since his works did not involve the interplay of geometries, but were ‘formless’. Rejecting aesthetics in the accepted sense, he spoke instead of the sublime elements of formal composition. This approach first appears in the works where he contrasts large, decisive monochrome surfaces with a vertical line or form in a different colour, which he called the ‘zip’. The vertical line at once opens the painting and holds it together. Furthermore, these works have very rich symbolic signification derived from the artist’s Jewish background, as shown by their names, most of which are taken from the Old Testament. The zip generally symbolises the light, and serves to underscore Newman’s notions of the sublime. In his later works, he placed greater emphasis on pictorial surface, using strong, glossy colours to fill the spectator’s entire field of vision, at which point the space occupied by the work and by the spectator becomes confused. This new spatial role and the total impact of the formal composition would prove a decisive source of inspiration for Minimalism.

Two other American artists were key figures in the development of formal abstract art over the following decades. One was Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967), who adopted an abstract style from the start and in the 1950s painted two-colour works with almost indiscernible forms. Both the simplicity in formal composition and the scale of his works would have a decisive influence on the pictorial and the spatial concepts of Minimalism in the mid-1960s. The other was Frank Stella (1936), whose 1960 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York marked a turning point in abstract art. Stella emphasised the renewal of formal composition, which he achieved above all by altering the conventional rectangular pictorial form to allow it to interact with the formal composition. All these paintings were done in black-and-white enamels. The formal composition was shaped by white lines lying parallel to the frame, which prevented the formation of any hierarchy in these pictorial worlds, a logical arrangement that is simple in presentation, with no difference between the foreground and background. Stella himself described his art as non-relational, while European geometrical abstraction was primarily based on the creation of context and relation in an inner pictorial world. Although this idea is reminiscent in many ways of the works of Newman, Stella’s works are above all anti-metaphysical, impersonal and free from all emotion.

In 1966, the exhibition ‘Primary Structures’ was held in New York, featuring abstract works that emphasised the simplification of the formal structure into its primary elements. While  continuing to develop the historical geometrical composition, the participating artists also produced original ideas about the role of the pictorial space and the relation to the spectator. This informal group identified as ABC art or Minimalism, was headed by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Larry Bell and Dan Flavin. Although most of these artists had their roots in painting, they all exhibited sculptures. The Minimalist object was sharply distinguished from other sculptures in terms of its constructional location in the space, industrial techniques and rejection of symbolism.

Three factors in particular can be identified as the precursors of American Minimalism. One is the interest shown by 1950s artists in the theatre, happenings and other performances that opened a previously unknown field of experience: the conscious relation to the space, as on the stage. Secondly, there was the simple pictorial world of Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings, and Stella’s black, aluminium and copper works from about 1960. Confronted by these vast works, the spectator was invited to enter the pictorial space, or rather to identify his own space with that of the work. The Minimalists rejected the inner logic of the work and conventional pictorial construction in favour of a new arrangement in which the pictorial space served at once as a plane and an axis between the work and the spectator. The third principle behind Minimalism is undoubtedly the legacy of Russian Constructivism and Brancusi. The Minimalists purged Brancusi’s works of their mystical archaic sense and saw them as pure formalism, in which the forms had no other signification than to exist in the pictorial space, as specific material in a specific space.

The Minimal object is not based on internal relations of forms; it is the totality confronting the spectator that is crucial. The object is simplified in material terms down to frames or constructions or intangible phenomena such as light. These forms are invariably neutral, geometrical and horizontal (not vertical since this would provide a point of human contact and tend to lend them a symbolic value). Everything is precisely measured out and these works cannot be enlarged or reduced. They are factory-made and the artist’s hands is nowhere to be seen.

Until this time, pictorial and sculptural space had been defined within the frame of the painting and within the sculpture itself. The frame and the pedestal separated the space of the work from that of the spectator. In this context, the term ‘visual space’ is often used, since the spectator’s experience of the work is primarily visual. However, the Minimalists removed the pedestal from beneath the sculpture to create a new type of pictorial space, shared by the work and the spectator, sometimes called ‘existential space’, where the spectator and the work operate jointly. Following on from concepts that had already appeared in connection with the large works of Newman and Reinhardt, the spectator became a physical part of the work.

Along with their uncompromising ideas about formal construction and the role of the space, the Minimalists strongly questioned conventional aesthetics from the standpoint that human emotions and experience had become systematised. Rejecting accepted aesthetic definitions, they believed that Minimalism should aim to link the spectator’s perception of the art object with that of his own body in the space. Despite Minimalism’s rejection of aesthetics as such, there is no mistaking the influence that they had on the aesthetic experience and general presentation in the world of art and in fact society in general. Minimalism was, and is, a widespread art form, not least due to the writings of the artists themselves.

In the early 1980s, abstract art was repeatedly in the spotlight, but in a different guise. Now, the modernist orthodoxy about the special value of form had been abandoned for work playing with the stylistic devices of geometry, known as Neo-Geo, and the emphasis shifted to adoption and imitation in the spirit of postmodernism. An important element in the ideology of Neo-Geo was to bring together opposing poles from what has been classified as high and low culture, i.e. accepted movements documented in art history such as abstract art, alongside the popular culture of modern industrial and consumer society. The new abstract, as it appeared in the works of artists such as Tim Ebner, Ross Bleckner, Sherrie Levine, Philip Taaffe and Peter Halley, was therefore generally formal but contains at the same time clear fields of signification. Everything was done to expose the universality of form and the systematic development of consumer society and object culture (often in a sharply critical manner), with conscious reference to aesthetic clichés, familiar styles and even other works of art, often with an ironic undertone. In this way, the formal world of conventional abstraction became the real subject and content of Neo-Geo.

In the last years  a century-long history of abstract art has once again been re-empowered by artists who have, through their learning and their own artistic experience, assimilated the different premises of various artistic genres and movements like Conceptual art, Fluxus, Minimalism  and Land art. This has given them new tools with which to address and reinvent abstract art. At the beginning of new century we had artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Ernesto Neto, Sarah Morris and Liam Gillick, to name a few true heirs of modernism, who presented their works with a new kind of conceptual intention, but made clear visual references to the historical abstraction that had grown throughout the previous century as the supra sign of modernism. In the last years, with international artists such as Wade Guyton, Liu Wei, Tauba Auerbach, Oscar Murillo and Sergej Jensen, we have witnessed new abstraction gaining more space and attention worldwide, becoming one of the most dominant artistic movements of our time. 

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