Abstract Art - What to Look for

Updated: Feb 16

Introduction

The world of abstract art can be a little confusing when you're new to the art world. What does it mean? How do I know if I should buy it? Who are the big names? What makes it good or not so good? Well read on. After reading this blog - you'll be a little wiser and more confident when facing this art form.

Joan Miro, Peinture (Etoile Bleue), 1927. Image courtesy of The Observer.

 

What is Abstract Art?


The most simple description I know of is that abstract means art without a subject. If you want a little more than that - it is art that does not represent an accurate depiction of visual reality, communicating instead through lines, shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks.


Abstract artists do not deal with the representational interpretation of a subject.


It is an incredibly versatile genre that has allowed for its vast evolution, and can now be categorized in hundreds of different ways and yet still be classified as abstract art. This includes genres such as Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Colour Field, Post-painterly Abstraction, and even Minimalism and Contemporary Art.

Hilma af Klint: Group IV, No. 7. The Ten Largest, Adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas. Image courtesy of Art in America.

 

How did it Evolve?


It’s almost impossible to determine when the abstract art emerged. It’s also very difficult to point out to one or more individuals that could be considered as “founding fathers” of this big movement. There is a big debate between experts about when abstract art was born. The majority of them argue that the 1910s should be considered as a period that can be celebrated as a birth of abstract art, or to be more precise with the famous Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Picture with a Circle from 1911. More recently, the rediscovery of Hilma af Klint's abstract paintings has changed the course of art and art history. You can read more about that here.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Picture with a Circle 1911. Image courtesy of galleryIntell


On the other hand, we cannot understand the emergence of abstract art without a given historical context. As other experts argue, the origins of the abstract art can be found in the 19th Century, in the works by James McNeill Whistler and even Claude Monet. These experts argue that Whistler and Monet placed greater emphasis on visual sensation than the depiction of objects, and that they can, in some manner, be considered as abstract artists. Still, we could definitely say that from the 1910s, abstract art began to attract many.


There were two golden periods of abstract art: the first one between 1912 and 1925; the second one between 1947 and 1970. What is in common for these periods? The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the First World War, and the horrors of the Second World War. In these periods, the artists found it quite difficult to “realistically” represent all sufferings humans experienced during the wars and economic crisis. Because of that, they had a feeling that they had to discover a diverse range of new voices that communicated emotion, memory, inner strength, and spiritual beliefs. Or as Adorno put it: "There can be no poetry after Auschwitz", implicating that there can be no (realistic) art after Auschwitz.

 

Who are the Big Names?

Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930. Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.


Abstract art reached its peak in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. New York was the center of this important phase in the development of abstract art and a whole new generation of abstract artists known as the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School (names like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, among others) embraced it to spectacular effect. Sometimes, abstract expressionism is presented as the “purest” example of abstract art. But in reality, abstract art covers other art movements and all sorts of different types of abstract art as well: neo-Dada, fluxus, happening, conceptual art, neo-expressionism, installation, performance, video and pop art – all these important art movements have characteristics of abstract art.


Ben Nicholson OM, 1934 (Relief), 1934. Image courtesy of the Tate.


Jackson Pollock, Convergence, 1952. Image courtesy of jackson-pollock.org.


Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952. Image courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao.


Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, Oil-on-canvas, c. 1989 Image courtesy of Keno Auctions

 

Should I buy it?


Ask yourself does it have charisma? How do you know if it does or not? If you can say it stopped you in your tracks - drew you in from the other side of the room - made you curious and to want to understand more - and finally if it evoked some kind of emotion or feeling within you - then the simple answer here is - yes. You love it and that's the only reason you need - buy it.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic 108, 1965-67. Image courtesy of MoMA.

 

What to Look For


Although some abstract work can look very random, there is often a lot of thought from the artist, that has gone in to make it appealing. Here are the main elements to consider and decide if you like the art.


Design Shapes

Are the shapes interesting?

Edges well defined vs diffuse

Large vs Small

Curvilinear vs Rectilinear

Geometric vs organic

Random vs Pattern


Value (how light or dark a colour is)

A good artist understands value is actually more important than colour (hue). Stand back then squint at the art and you will see the values

Dark vs light vs midtones

Is there a dominance of one?

Are the values leading your eye around the picture



Colour

Are the colours appealing to you?

Highly saturated vs muted

Warm vs cool

Transparent vs opaque


Line

A variety of lines makes the work interesting

Horizontal vs vertical

Diagonals create energy

Thick vs thin

Hard vs soft

Straight vs broken vs frenetic


Texture

Smooth vs rough

Quiet vs busy


 

I hope you've enjoyed finding out a little more about the world of Abstract Art.


If you're interested in some more reading you may find these helpful:

The First Abstract Artist? and it's not Kandinsky

Tate - Abstract Art

What is Abstract Art and Why Should I Care?

Khan Academy - Abstract Expressionism - lots of great videos and art examples

 

Acknowledgements

Information for this blog was combined with information from:

Most Famous Abstract Artworks In The Last 100 Years May 24, 2019 by The Artling Team

What is Abstract Art November 18, 2015 Lorenzo Pereira, WideWalls

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