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Abstract Art Throughout History

Updated on April 7, 2013
Abstract Art: Somebody's Smiling
Abstract Art: Somebody's Smiling | Source

Abstract art is a type of art referring to images based on nonrepresentational forms that do not imitate the viewed world. The roots of modern abstract art can be traced to 19th-century neoclassicism, which saw beauty in the Platonic solids, and Romanticism, which glorified the objectivity of the artist's individual interpretation. Since the mid-1870s onset of impressionism, many artists used looser brushstrokes, creating rhythms on the canvas independent of the subject depicted. Symbolist images based on interior visions also fostered the trend toward abstraction. Paul Cézanne's paintings, structured in a personal, nonscientific manner, such as Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902–1904; Philadelphia Museum of Art), influenced other artists to use underlying abstract shapes in nature as their subject.

Abstract art, first developed in Europe between 1910 and 1919, falls into two general categories: images that take as their starting point objects in the visible world, never completely eliminating recognizable details, such as the cubist art of Picasso and Braque, and nonobjective art, pioneered in the wake of cubism, which intentionally bears no relationship to visible reality, such as František Kupka's Amphora, Fugue in Two Colors (1912; Národní Galerie, Prague), the first purely abstract painting exhibited in Paris. Artists such as Kupka and Wassily Kandinsky viewed painting as the equivalent to nonvisual arts such as music, continuing the 19th-century concept of synesthesia.

Joan Miró's Birth of the World
Joan Miró's Birth of the World | Source

By the 1920s biomorphic abstraction—paintings, such as Joan Miró's Birth of the World (1925; Museum of Modern Art, New York City), that comprise irregular, curvilinear, cell-like shapes emulating forms from the biological world—emerged together with surrealism and its emphasis on art generated spontaneously from the unconscious. Geometric abstraction—regular, crisply painted shapes with hard edges—is often associated with the rational world of humankind, but it was also used to evoke spiritual aspects of nature, especially by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in his compositions of horizontal and vertical black lines with primary colors after 1920.

Following World War II American abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, synthesized earlier innovations and enlarged their abstract canvases to mural size, reflecting expanded ambitions for nonobjective art to communicate a wide range of emotional content, especially the sublime and the spiritual. In the 1960s minimalists Robert Morris and Donald Judd took the abstract cube to a different extreme, insisting on its presence as a pure object and emptying it of the meaning imposed on it by the previous generation. Artists in the later 1960s and the 1970s, who subsequently reinvested cubic forms with meaning, are often referred to as postminimalists. Since 1980, postmodern artists have appropriated abstract styles developed earlier in the century as their subject matter (a prime example is Sherrie Levine's Untitled (after Vasily Kandinsky) of 1985), forcing a reevaluation of the claims made on behalf of early modernism.


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