Abstract Art: A General Guide Definition, Types, History, Characteristics

Surrealist and Organic Abstraction

In parallel with the development of geometric-style concretism, during the 1920s and 1930s, exponents of Surrealism began to produce a range of fantasy-like, quasi-naturalistic images. The leading exemplars of this style of Biomorphic/Organic Abstraction were Jean Arp and Joan Miro, neither of whom - as their many preparatory sketches confirm - relied on the technique of automatism. Their fellow Surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-89) also produced some extraordinary paintings like The Persistence of Memory (1931, MoMA, NY) and Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Jean Arp was also an active sculptor who specialized in Organic Abstraction, as did the English sculptors Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). (See: Modern British Sculpture 1930-70.) A number of European abstract artists later sought sanctuary in America, where they encountered and influenced a new generation of indigenous abstract painters. These influential emigrants included painters like Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Andre Masson (1896-1987), Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Yves Tangy (1900-55) and others. As it happened, despite the controversy surrounding New York's Armory Show in 1913, the city was developing a keen interest in abstraction. The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929, and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum), in 1939.

Note: For two collectors of abstract painting and sculpture of the first half of the 20th century, see: Solomon Guggenheim (1861-1949) and Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979).

Note: For avant-garde abstraction in Britain (c.1939-75) please see: St Ives School.

Abstract Expressionism - More Colour, No More Geometry

Although post-war European artists maintained their interest in abstract art through the Salon des Realites Nouvelles in Paris, by 1945 the centre of modern art had shifted to New York, where the avant-garde was represented by the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Arising out of the Great Depression and World War II, this movement, never associated with a coherent program as such, was led by Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Willem De Kooning (1904-97), Clyfford Still (1904-80), Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The next generation included painters such as Robert Motherwell. The name of the movement was coined by Robert Coates, art critic of the New Yorker. Offshoots include Pollock's 'Action Painting' and Rothko's 'Colour Field Painting', and the curious 'Abstract Impressionism' of Philip Guston (1913-80).

Abstract Expressionist Painting remains a vague term - often confusingly applied to artists who are neither truly abstract, nor expressionist - which describes a form of abstract painting (non-figurative, non-naturalistic) in which colour takes precedence over shape; the latter being no longer geometric. Early works in this style typically filled large scale canvases, whose size was designed to overwhelm spectators and draw them into another world. The preoccupation of abstract expressionists with visual effects, especially the impact of colour, was a reflection of their main goal - to involve and explore basic human emotions. Thus an abstract expressionist painting is best felt intuitively rather than understood: the question posed being typically: 'what does it make you feel?' - rather than, 'what is it saying?'

It must be emphasized that this was a wide movement, encompassing differing styles, including (as mentioned) works that were either semi- or non-abstract, as well as those characterized by the way paint was applied, such as Jackson Pollock's paintings (dripped and poured), and Willem de Kooning's works (gestural brushwork). For two interesting early works that illustrate the differing styles of these two artists, see: Seated Woman (1944, Metropolitan Museum of Art) by Willem de Kooning and Pasiphae (1943, Metropolitan) by Jackson Pollock. The fact that it was the first major art movement born in the USA, gave it added weight and significance: at least in the minds of critics.

Later, Abstract Expressionism spawned a number of individual styles under the umbrella of Post-painterly abstraction, an anti-gesturalist trend. These individual styles included: Hard-Edge Painting, Colour Stain Painting, Washington Colour Movement, American Lyrical Abstraction, and Shaped Canvas. Abstract Expressionism also provoked avant-garde responses from several other artists including Cy Twombly (1928-2011), whose calligraphic scribbling is part-drawing, part-graffiti; and the Californian

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abstract sculptor Mark Di Suvero (b.1933) noted for his large scale iron/steel sculptures.

Europe: Art Informel, Tachisme & Cobra Group Gesturalism

In Europe, a new art movement known as Art Informel emerged during the late 1940s. Seen as the European version of abstract expressionism, it was in reality an umbrella movement with a number of sub-variants. These mini-movements included: (1) Tachisme, a style of abstract painting marked by splotches and dabs of colour, was promoted as the French answer to American Abstract Expressionism. A key influence was the avant-garde American artist Mark Tobey (1890-1976), whose all-over calligraphic painting style anticipated that of Pollock. Important members included Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), Pierre Soulages (b.1919), and the Portuguese artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92) as well as the American abstract expressionist Sam Francis (1923-94). (2) The avant-garde Cobra Group, which practised the gestural or "action painting" style of American Abstract Expressionism. It was founded by painters, sculptors and graphic artists from the Danish group Host, the Dutch group Reflex, and the Belgian Revolutionary Surrealist Group, including: Asger Jorn (1914-73), the Belgian writer Christian Dotremont (1922-79), Pierre Alechinsky (b.1927), Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Constant (C.A. Nieuwenhuys) (1920-2005). Pol Bury (1922-2005) was also a member, but in 1953 he quit painting to explore kinetic sculpture. (3) Lyrical Abstraction, a quieter, more harmonious style of Art Informel. Leading members included: Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) (1913-51), Hans Hartung (1904-89), Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-60), Pierre Soulages (b.1919), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), and Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002). Other sub-groups included Forces Nouvelles, and Art Non Figuratif.

Op-Art: The New Geometric Abstraction

One of the most distinct styles of geometric abstract painting to emerge from the modernist era, was the Op-Art movement (an abbreviation of 'optical art') whose hallmark was the engagement of the eye, by means of complex, often monochromatic, geometric patterns, to cause it to see colours and shapes that were not actually there. Leading members included the Hungarian painter and graphic designer Victor Vasarely (1908-97), and the English painter Bridget Riley (b.1931). The movement disappeared by the early 1970s.

Postmodernist Abstraction

Since the start of postmodernism (since the mid-60s) contemporary art has tended to fragment into smaller, more local schools. This is because the prevailing philosophy among contemporary art movements has been to distrust the grand styles of the early 20th century. An exception is the Minimalism school, a back-to-basics style of geometric abstraction exemplified by postmodernist artists like sculptors Donald Judd (1928-94), Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), Robert Morris (b.1931), Walter de Maria (b.1935), and Carl Andre (b.1935). Another important minimalist sculptor is Richard Serra (b.1939) whose abstract works include Tilted Arc (1981, Federal Plaza, New York) and The Matter of Time (2004, Guggenheim Bilbao). Noted abstract painters associated with Minimalism include Ad Reinhardt (1913-67), Frank Stella (b.1936), whose large scale paintings involve interlocking clusters of shape and colours; Sean Scully (b.1945) the Irish-American painter whose rectangular shapes of colour seem to imitate the monumental forms of prehistoric structures; as well as Jo Baer (b.1929), Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923), Robert Mangold (b.1937), Brice Marden (b.1938), Agnes Martin (1912-2004), and Robert Ryman (b.1930).

In part a reaction against the austerity of minimalism, Neo-Expressionism was mainly a figurative movement which emerged from the early 1980s onwards. However, it also included a number of outstanding abstract painters such as the Englishman Winner Howard Hodgkin (b.1932), as well as the German artists Georg Baselitz (b.1938), Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), and others. Among several other internationally acclaimed abstract artists who achieved recognition during the 1980s and 1990s, is the British sculptor Anish Kapoor (b.1954), noted for large-scale works in rough hewn stone, cast metal and stainless steel. Both Hodgkin and Kapoor are Turner Prize Winners.

Collections of Abstract Art

Non-representational art can be seen in most of the best art museums around the world. Notable collections are held by the following institutions

• Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
• Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York.
• Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
• Tate Gallery, London.
• Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris.
• Guggenheim Bilbao.
• Guggenheim Venice.
• Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Category: Abstract

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