Art History  •  Movements and techniques

What is Abstract Art?: A Primer by Singulart

Abstract art is any art that is non-representational and does not intend to portray an accurate representation of visual reality. Artists who work with abstraction often employ color, form and mark-making in order to achieve the desired effect and to convey a message, emotion or their own perception of reality.

What Makes Art Abstract?

Abstract art is a broad and varied movement that exists on a continuum. To abstract something is to explore it separately from something else, or indeed to remove it from its original source. In this way we can apply the term to art that is based on objective reality, where the artist has taken an object, figure or a landscape as their source but has simplified and reorganized the forms in such a way that the image is no longer a faithful visual representation.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950. Pollock was an important abstract artist of the 1950s
Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950

Abstract art can also describe works of art that have no source at all and are not derived from external, objective reality. Artworks of this nature play with an imagery made up of shapes, forms and gestural marks. Some artists believe this type of non-objective abstract art to be the purest form of abstraction; however, distinguishing between the two can often be complicated and so the term Abstract art covers a wealth of modern and contemporary paintings. Since its arrival in the early 20th century, Abstract art has often been associated with possessing a moral element, symbolizing notions of purity, spirituality and order.

Why did Abstract Art Become so Popular?

Representational imagery that focused on perspective and creating a faithful, illusionistic depiction of the visual world underpinned the whole of Western art, from the Renaissance up until the mid-1800s. By the end of the century, society was making rapid changes and many artists felt that traditional, representative painting was no longer suitable and did not embody the contemporary experience. Major changes in science, technology and philosophy provided the inspiration for this new and radical visual language and attempted to reflect the shifts in the social and intellectual spheres.

Origins in Impressionism and Cubism during the 20th Century

 Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, considered to be a major step towards the founding of the Cubist movement which informed the abstract art movement in turn.
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, considered to be a major step towards the founding of the Cubist movement.

It is commonly accepted that Abstract Art has its origins in Impressionist painting, with the likes of J.M.W Turner, Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet exploring a more abstract style of painting. The highly stylized, two-dimensional landscapes of Paul Cézanne that would go on to influence the Cubism movement, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, all have a huge role to play in the development of Abstract art as we know it today.

Cubism signaled a clear move away from recognizable forms. Many Cubist artists sought to take apart discernible objects and reduce them to their fundamental forms, re-imagining figures into geometric compositions. While the works of Picasso and Braque retained some representational value, the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Fernand Léger are among the first that truly explored ‘pure’ abstraction. These remarkably innovative abstract canvases used intense colors, gestural and non-naturalistic brush marks, geometric and linear forms and sought to explore ideas of spirituality and interiority.

Wassily Kandinsky, famous abstract art, Swinging, 1925, Image via the Tate.
Wassily Kandinsky, Swinging, 1925, Image via the Tate.

In addition to Cubism, the influence of Abstract art with its freedom of style and expression informed a number of art movements during the second half of the 20th Century, where this non-objective approach was adopted to varying degrees: from the more representational end of the spectrum, with movements like Cubism and Fauvism, to the pure aesthetics of Suprematism, Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl movement, founded by Piet Mondrian.

Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, a precursor the abstract art, specifically Cubism
Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930

Although representational art remains fundamental in many modern and contemporary movements, the power of this pure aestheticism and a move away from traditional representation has formed the backbone of almost all major artistic movements of the late 1900s such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism and indeed, Conceptual Art.

See contemporary abstract art on Singulart