What is Abstraction?

To be further developed as part of work on abstraction in following assignments.


  • Blazwick, I. ed. (2015). Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015. Munich, London, New York, Prestel and Whitechapel Gallery.
  • Elger, D. (2008). Abstract Art. Hong Kong, Koln, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, Taschen.
  • Harrison, C. (1993). ‘Abstraction’ in Abstraction. Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. C. Harrison, F. Frascina and G. Perry. New Haven and London, Yale University Press and the Open University. pp. 184-264.
  • Moszynska, A. (1990 reprinted 2004). Abstract Art. London, Thames and Hudson.
  • Nickas, B. (2009). Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting. London and New York, Phaidon Press Ltd.
  • Wikipedia
  • http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-art

What is Abstraction?

Abstraction (from the Latin abs, meaning away from and trahere, meaning to draw) is the process of taking away or removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics. (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/abstraction)

The term ‘Abstract Art’ is used to designate the art form that liberated itself from the representational, reality-oriented portrayal. Abstract Art does not illustrate concrete, visual reality, but rather abstract or abstracted movement, form, colour, structures or patterns. In doing so, the pure composition becomes the focus of artistic endeavours. (Elger 2009, back cover)

Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-art

Ad Reinhardt  Abstract Art cartoon emphasises the importance of the interpretation of the viewer. Changing the question from ‘What does IT represent” to ‘What do YOU represent”

‘We Futurists […] want to carry out this total fusion in order to reconstruct the universe and make it more joyful, that is, to re-create it. We will give flesh and bones to the invisible, the impalpable, the imponderable, the imperceptible. We will find abstract equivalents for all the forms and all the elements in the universe: we will combine them according to the whim of our inspiration, to create plastic compositions that we will set in motion’ (Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero 1915 quoted Blazwick ed 2015 p12)

‘It is my conviction that humanity, after centuries of culture, can accelerate its progress through the acquisition of a truer vision of reality. Plastic art discloses what science has discovered: that time and subjective vision veil the true reality…It has become progressively clearer that the plastic expression of true reality is attained through dynamic movement in equilibrium. Plastic art affirms that equilibrium can only be established through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions. The clarification of equilibrium through plastic art is of great importance for humanity…It demonstrates that equilibrium can become more and more living in us.’ Piet Mondrian 1941 quoted Blazwick ed 2015 pp. 12-13)

‘if pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has made this necessary.’ Fernand Leger 1914.

Evolution and approaches

Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, colour and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Abstraction exists along a continuum.

  • All art is in some degree abstraction. Even figurative art  involves varying degrees of selection, interpretation and  transformation of the ‘reality’ as perceived by the artist into an image that is then subject to further interpretation by the viewer.
  • Partial abstraction through obvious alterations of eg colour or form. The artist selects a form and then progressively simplifies it until the image bears only stylized similarities to the original, or is changed almost entirely beyond recognition. 
  • Total abstraction bears no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. This may be the end product of an abstraction process, or the art may not have started with any specific external reference.

Abstraction has been evident in the art of many cultures throughout history.

In Western art it emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century as part of/reaction to the social, intellectual and technological upheaval that took place at the turn of the century. Science was creating very different perceptions of the world with discoveries like X-rays and quantum theories that were outside our visible world. Motorcars and airplanes gave a new speed and freedom of travel to those who could afford them. “Artists sought new ways of responding to the world around them, sometimes by rejecting it, or by pursuing strategies of dissolution, flux and fracture in place of Western notions of aesthetic unity and wholeness…”(Moszynska 2004 p7) Theodor W. Adorno –  abstraction is a response to, and a reflection of, the growing abstraction of social relations in industrial society. Frederic Jameson sees modernist abstraction as a function of the abstract power of money, equating all things equally as exchange-values. The social content of abstract art is then precisely the abstract nature of social existence – legal formalities, bureaucratic impersonalisation, information/power – in the world of late modernity. (Wikipedia)

The emergence of abstract art also relates specifically to changes that were occurring within painting itself.
– the development of photography from the 1840s led to a re-evaluation of the artist’s role as depictor of reality. But also a freedom to focus on depiction of more subjective, interior realities, and of emotions…. Gauguin’s advice to ‘paint by heart’.
– the commercial availability of wider range of paint colours from mid 19th Century (photography being only monochrome) and discoveries about the nature of perception of light and colour encouraged artists to focus on qualities essential to painting: colour and surface texture. Maurice Denis 1890 ‘a picture…is essentially a plane surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’
– increasing awareness of non-Western art in which spatial perception and artistic depiction were based on different premises.
(Moszynska 2004 p8)

Blaswick (2015 p9) makes a distinction between biomorphic abstraction, geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism, although these categories are often fluid and individual artists may not easily fit into any one ‘school’ and/or may combine more than one approach.

Biomorphic abstraction

Bases itself on forms found in nature and the psyche. This type of abstraction is seen in many ancient art traditions including simple, geometric and linear forms on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock which had a symbolic or decorative purpose. In the twentieth century European artists developed a range of abstraction styles including:

  • Impressionist paintings like the water lilly paintings of Claude Monet
  • Paul Cézanne began as an Impressionist started to experiment with still life in multiple perspectives and landscapes based on flat areas of modulated colour
  • Cubism Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso further developed this focus on multiple perspectives in analytic Cubism. Synthetic cubism and Dada practised by Braque, Picasso, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schitters produced abstract collages of  different textures, surfaces, papier collé and a large variety of merged subject matter.
  • Picasso went on to more emotional and shaped forms of abstraction like his paintings of Guernica and female nudes, notably the painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907 and his paintings of 1932. These drew on cubism and also African art. This abstraction was reflected in his many monoprints, linocuts, lithographs, drypoints and etchings.
  • Expressionists explored the bold use of paint surface, drawing distortions and exaggerations, and intense colour and to produced emotionally charged paintings that portrayed psychological states of being. Fauvist paintings of André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck were “wild”, multi-coloured, expressive, landscapes and figure paintings. Woodcuts of the German Expressionists produced powerful abstracted portraits and landscapes.
  • Henri Matisse uses expressive colour and free and imaginative drawing in French Window at Collioure, (1914), View of Notre-Dame, (1914), and The Yellow Curtain from 1915. Then takes this expressive use of colour and shape further in his cut-outs.
  • Futurists and Vorticists: with their preoccupation for speed and energy of modern urban life. The Italian poet Marinetti published ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ in 1909, which inspired artists such as Carlo Carra in, Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells and Umberto Boccioni Train in Motion, 1911. These then influenced Vorticists like Wyndham Lewis and printmakers like Sybil Andrews , Claude Flight and Cyril Power of the Grosvenor School.
  • Georgia O’Keeffe‘s highly abstract forms based on flowers.

Geometric abstraction

Characterised by pure forms based on mathematically defined systems and monochromatic and non-representational surfaces.

Geometric abstraction has characterised Islamic art for many centuries – deriving from both development of geometric theories themselves, and the banning of figurative art in certain Islamic religious cultures. Geometric abstraction has been further developed by contemporary  Arab artists as part of identity and political art.

In the West geometric abstraction originated in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe mysticism and early modernist religious philosophy as expressed by theosophist Mme. Blavatsky, Georges Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky who popularised for a Western audience the sacred texts of India and China. They proposed that certain universal and timeless geometric forms like the circle, square and triangle and colours had intrinsic spiritual meanings as fundamental systems underlying visible reality, pointing to a ‘higher truth’.

Geometric abstract artists include:

  • Wassily Kandinsky, and Hilma af Klint who were heavily influenced by theosophical theories.
  • Piet Mondrian whose interest in relationships between geometry, colour and balance was also influenced by spiritualist ideas.
  • Paul Klee
  • St. Ives group in Cornwall including Barbara HepworthBen Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Patrick Heron.
  • Constructivist and Suprematist artists like Malevich and artists of the Russian Revolution who saw geometric abstraction as a way of promoting Utopian social change.
  • Sonya Delaunay with her interest in colour
  • Bridget Riley and Op Art

Abstract Expressionism

Emphasises the existential act and process of producing the image.

Gesture artists:  Jackson Pollock focus on gesture.

Colour field artists: Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newmann and Clyfford Still focus on the emotional impact of colour fields.

Abstraction in the 21st century

John McLaughlin

Sam Francis

Cy Twombly

Richard Diebenkorn

Helen Frankenthaler

Joan Mitchell


Women abstract artists