Arts and Entertainment

The Emergence of Abstract Art

The history, creation, and evolution of abstract art.

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By Cadence Li

How can abstract art be defined? Some may describe it as a conglomerate of colors and indiscernible lines of varying degrees with no inherent meaning, while others may describe it as meaningful and inventive. Whether it’s oversimplified or too obscure, there are overwhelming numbers of critiques and interpretations of an abstract artwork’s meaning. But how did abstractionism come to be? It’s unlike previous art movements, including the representational art movement, in which painters typically depicted recognizable real world events. One representational art movement in particular was the Rococo movement in the 18th century, which featured soft and delicate subjects in blithe acts of enjoyment. It differs from the unfocused objects of abstractionism, which relies on subjecting oneself to a state of compos mentis (a sound mind) to intuitively figure out a piece of work that is simultaneously devoid of meaning and filled with answers.

Abstract art blossomed during the beginning of the 20th century, and one of the earliest contributors to this movement was Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). In 1935, Kandinsky wrote to his gallerist that he had created the first abstract painting in 1911, an experimental watercolor piece. However, mystery surrounds this notion because in 1906, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) had created a series of abstract paintings in Sweden. Controversy over whether Klint or Kandinsky was the first creator of abstract art still remains. The answer is still unclear, as Klint’s gender could have very much prevented her from gaining public recognition for her inventive art. However, though both Klint and Kandinsky created some of the first works of abstract art and propelled the movement to where it is today, slight abstractionism has been prevalent throughout history: cave paintings. They were used as a way for cavemen to mimic their surroundings in a visual way and recreate their beliefs, represented with symbols of various specific meanings, such as the herd of a certain animal or the weather.

Why was the 20th century abstract art movement so vastly different from almost every art form preceding it? Though abstractionism was influenced by surrealism, impressionism, and fauvism, the “style” is nonetheless undeniably distinct. The rise of intense industrialization and an era of modernization factored into the appeal of abstract art. Straying away from the portrayal of the world’s naturalistic pleasures, artists tried to reconcile with the changing times and created art to complement the emerging culture. Abstractionism emerged from the waning of realism, as the independence that artists possessed during the 20th century aided in the genesis of these dissonant yet captivating pieces. Artists could be commissioned by the public, as well as patrons, to extensively experiment with colors, textures, and mediums within their art. Soon enough, the beliefs of this new era led to the ethos of the time period being carefree and the resulting experimentation with one’s art, a basic tenet of abstractionism.

During the 1940s and 1950s, a new form of abstract art emerged: abstract expressionism, which was created by Americans and popularized after World War II. Famous abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) were distinguishing figures within this movement. Pollock’s famous drip technique, which he used to paint “Autumn Rhythm,” is one of the most recognizable pieces of abstract art to date, and Kooning’s beautifully amalgamated cubist and expressionist art paved the way for more to come. In the 1960s, optical art (“op-art”) and minimalism began gaining popularity among artists. Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), the creator of op-art, dabbled with color, shapes, and light in order to craft enthralling visual illusions. For the case of minimal art, artists utilized simple but geometrically complex shapes.

Abstract art’s different styles are representative of the freedom to experiment with different aspects of art for every artist who participated in the movement. Abstract artists today play with the ideas of their predecessors and redesign them in their own idiosyncratic ways. A modern abstract artist, Osamu Kobayashi, delicately paints converging colors that seem to swallow the canvas in a calm, minimalistic way, and viewers can’t help but get consumed by each whirl of the paint and its billowing gestures. Another abstract painter, Ruairiadh O’Connell, uses components from op-art to create bright, geometric illusions that look like otherworldly prints. His usage of light, in pieces such as “The Pursuit” and “The Adieu,” alter the painting itself, as they seem to illustrate the passage of time between dawn and dusk. With how much abstractionism has changed throughout history, there’s no question that it will continue to evolve and surprise us with new creations.