What is Abstract Art? | Definition, History, and Examples

This is a guide covering abstract art.

Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes… — Arshile Gorky

A painting, to the abstract artist, is not bound to be a mirror to reality or a representation of something in our physical environment, in fact, it can exist on its own and be completely free to interpretation.

In this article, we will start with the definition and meaning of abstract art and then move on to the historical origins, features/characteristics, the purpose of abstract art, and finally, some famous abstract artists.

abstract art

What is Abstract Art (Definition)?

Abstract art is the kind of art that emphasizes the use of non-representational forms to create meaning and reality — meaning that it doesn’t necessarily represent objects in the physical environment, like the sun, trees, or people. Consider the use of lines, shapes, and colors in the works of famous abstract artists — Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, et cetera — and you will realize that meaning can be conveyed through the use of these elements as well.

Coming up with an all-comprehensive definition of abstract art is problematic because abstract art has meant different things to different people.

If you look at abstract art produced by Mondrian, you will find that to him abstract art was in geometric shapes; on the other hand, if you look at the abstract art of Mark Rothko, you will find that his paintings reflect the power of the colors.

What do we mean by abstract art then? There is no single definition, but there are certain rules to it that can help us delineate abstract art from the impressionist, realist, or representational art forms.

Although the abstract painting may represent a physical object or a person, the accurate depiction is not the purpose.

If you were to look at the painting series Woman by the abstract expressionist artist William de Kooning, you will realize that there is a recognizable figure of a woman in his paintings.

But the idea in William de Kooning’s mind was not to capture the form or figure of a particular woman.

It is abstract art because it does not try to show a woman accurately, but is based on the artist’s imaginations that don’t have anything to do with reality.

Willem de Kooning
Woman I
1950–52

Why is it Called Abstract Art?

It is this deviation from accurate depictions of things in the vicinity to the depiction of things lying dormant in the subconscious and images that represent the abstract form.

There is a gap between the thing itself and how it looks and feels and the way the painter has produced it on the canvas.

Abstract art is not always purely imaginative.

As we have seen in William de Kooning’s case, the artist is inspired by things in his environment, which he molds into his imagination, bringing the elements of abstraction to it from his own self.

It is called abstract art because it is a deviation from that which seems real to our senses, i.e. our eyes. Our eyes may find a recognizable figure inside the painting, but that is not always a given.

Some abstract art relies solely on the use of colors to convey feelings (color field paintings), whereas others represent the artist’s moods and passions, i.e. Jackson Pollock’s seeming chaotic squiggly lines.

Why is it Called Abstract Art

What is the Purpose of Abstract Art?

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, “implicit to abstract art is the notion that the work of art exists in its own right, and not necessarily as a mirror of reality”

It is true that art is the reflection of the events and situations of a particular period, but art is free in how it wants to depict the mood and feel of those times.

Take the example of abstract expressionists, they were a product of a time that saw mankind suffer the greatest tragedies, i.e. the Holocaust, the Great Depression, the First and Second World Wars.

Coming from such a depressing situation, the artists thought that how could they depict reality as it is.

The reality was much more somber to be reflected in art as it was. On the other hand, abstract artists saw abstraction as a means of artistic discovery.

The time in which abstract art really gained traction was the time when Freudian and Jungian philosophies on the subconscious and the archetypes.

Abstract artists focused on depicting the collective consciousness of society. Numerous studies have shown that there is such a thing as collective consciousness: the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of members of a society (Emile Durkheim)

The abstract artists also believed in the uninhibited expression of inner thoughts, feelings, and passions.

To bring to the fore ideas that lie dormant in the subconscious, the abstract artists involved themselves in a free association exercise known as automatism, which is the intentional suppression of conscious control to let the subconscious take over the reins of the creative process.

What is the Purpose of Abstract Art

Who Invented Abstract Art and When?

Abstract art is said to have originated in the early 20th Century, and it is the painter Wassily Kandinsky who is most widely believed to be the founding father of abstract art.

Kandinsky’s Komposition V, created in 1911, is said to have been the first abstract painting, and according to Moma.org, “it effaced referential content more thoroughly than anything yet exhibited in public.”

However, Kandinsky is not believed to be the sole originator.

In his book, Conceptual Revolutions In Twentieth-Century Art, David Galenson, an art historian, believes that abstract art was independently created by the artists Malevic, Kandinsky, and Mondrian.

One cannot say for sure who or when exactly abstract art came into being, but one thing all art critics, researchers, and historians agree on is that it originated around the early 20th Century, and the majority consensus favors Kandinsky’s work to be earliest of the abstract paintings.

Who Invented Abstract Art and When

Features/Characteristics of Abstract Art?

The defining feature of abstract art is that it does not focus on representation to convey feelings or ideas.

The art is non-representational and uses elements like lines, shapes, forms, or gestural brushstrokes to a deep primal response in the viewer.

That is to say that it is a representation, albeit of deep-seated feelings, passions, and ideas that could not be conveyed through non-abstract art.

According to Paul Hackett, the author of Psychology and Philosophy of Abstract Art, abstract art is “shrouded in reconfiguration and breaking down of the habitual practices of painters…”

Abstract art is also highly subjective. It is this subjectivity of the art that makes it so appealing to a wide range of audiences.

It is open to interpretation. The abstract artist is not married to the work.

The artist lives for the process of creating the art and not for the end product. Art, for an abstract artist, is a form of self-revelation.

Therefore, the artist lets the world decide what they feel about the painting and refrains from putting any labels on it.

Features/Characteristics of Abstract Art

Famous Abstract Artists

Here are some of the most influential abstract artists:

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky is considered the father of abstract art. Kandinsky was born in Russia moved throughout Europe during his life.

From the year 1911 to 1913 Kandinsky really developed his abstract art style and created some of his finest work.

The Komposition VII, made in 1913, is his most famous painting.

Wassily Kandinsky

Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian used geometric shapes in his paintings. He was known for using the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.

Mondrian also used composition creatively.

The Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–1943, is one of his most famous paintings.

Piet Mondrian

Franz Kline

Franz Kline was known for his monochromatic painting style with black paint on a white canvas.

He was part of the abstract expressionism movement or the New York School.

He was deeply influenced by Japanese calligraphy and emulated the same in his paintings.

Final Remarks

Abstract art upended previously-held beliefs about art. Before abstract art, paintings used to represent objects in our immediate vicinity or recognizable figures.

But with the introduction of abstract art, art became more subjective, and elements like lines, shapes, color, and gestures began to be used in ways that prioritized these elements alone rather than some representation.

Abstract art is a form of discovery more than a mirror to our environment.

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