Abstract art is a style of art of the 1900's that discards
identifiable subject matter. Abstract art is sometimes called nonobjective art or
Abstract art broke with a long tradition in Western culture that considered art a kind of
refined illustration. Works of art were often admired because of the importance given to
the story or theme they represented. This view began to change in the first decade of the
1900's. At that time, painters allowed the means of imagemaking--brushstrokes, color, and
shapes--to overshadow or distort the subject matter. They discovered that the formal
characteristics of painting were interesting in their own right.
The first abstract art was produced by painters identified with such movements as Fauvism,
expressionism, cubism, and futurism. Their paintings were called "abstract,"
though subject matter could still be recognized in their work. After about 1910, some
artists eliminated all subject matter in favor of pure forms. Two distinct and opposite
theoretical defenses of totally abstract art emerged. The spiritualists worked from the
belief that the elements of art could stir the soul and spirit directly. For these
artists, references to the material world hindered their ability to convey emotional
messages directly and powerfully. Leading artists of this conviction were Wassily
Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich of Russia and Piet Mondrian of the Netherlands.
The other major theory of abstract art was grounded on materialism. It appeared first in
the work of the constructivist artists in Russia about 1915. Their art essentially dealt
with textures, shapes, colors, and patterns. Their paintings rejected storytelling,
poetry, or emotional experiences. To portray objectively the new age and its scientific
basis, artists stressed geometric forms; flat, unmodulated colors; and an impersonal
approach to their art. Leading Russian constructivists included Vladimir Tatlin, El
Lissitsky, and Alexander Rodchenko.
The term abstract art was originally confusing because it could mean art with altered but
still recognizable content, or totally nonfigurative or nonobjective art. However, by the
end of World War II in 1945, the term was used primarily as a synonym for art completely
without recognizable subject matter. Total abstraction was given wide publicity through
the work of the abstract expressionist, or New York School, artists such as Jackson
Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell.
Contributor: David Cateforis, Ph.D., Assistant Prof. of Art History, Univ. of Kansas.