Technically, It's Not Abstract Art

Tableau I, oil on canvas, Piet Mondrian
Tableau I.

Piet Mondrian [Public domain]

Nonrepresentational art is another way to refer to abstract art, though there is a difference between the two. Fundamentally, nonrepresentational art is work that does not represent or depict a being, a place, or a thing in the natural world.

If representational art is a picture of something, nonrepresentational art is the complete opposite. The artist will use form, shape, color, and line—essential elements in visual art—to express emotion, feeling, or some other concept.

It's also called "complete abstraction" or nonfigurative art. Nonobjective art is often viewed as a subcategory of nonrepresentational art.

Nonrepresentational Art vs. Abstraction

The words nonrepresentational art and abstract art are often used to refer to the same style of painting. However, when an artist works in abstraction, they are distorting the view of a known thing, person, or place. For example, a landscape can easily be abstracted and Picasso often abstracted people.

Nonrepresentational art does not begin with a "thing" or a subject from which a distinctive abstract view is formed. Instead, it is "nothing" but what the artist intended it to be and what the viewer interprets it as. It could be splashes of paint as we see in Jackson Pollock's work. It may also be the color-blocked squares that are frequent in Mark Rothko's paintings. 

The Meaning Is Subjective

The beauty of nonrepresentational work is that it is up to us to give it our own interpretation. Sure, if you look at the title of some art, you might get a glimpse into what the artist meant, but quite often that's just as obscure as the painting.

It is quite opposite of looking at a still life of a teapot and knowing that it is a teapot. An abstract artist may use a Cubist approach to break down the geometry of the teapot, but you may still be able to see a teapot. If a nonrepresentational artist, on the other hand, was thinking of a teapot while painting a canvas, you'd never know it.

Many artists, such as Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) used a spiritual inspiration for their paintings. He's often classified as a nonobjective artist, though his work is also nonrepresentational. Some people view the spiritual nature in his pieces and others do not, but few will disagree that there are emotion and movement in his paintings.

This subjective point of view to nonrepresentational art is what bothers some people about it. They want the art to be about something, so when they see random lines or perfectly shaded geometric shapes, it challenges what they're used to.

Examples of Nonrepresentational Art

The Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) is a perfect example of a nonrepresentational artist and most people look to his work when defining this style. Mondrian labeled his work "neoplasticism" and he was instrumental in De Stijl, a distinct Dutch abstract movement.

Mondrian's work, such as "Tableau I" (1921), is flat; a canvas filled with rectangles painted in primary color and separated by thick, amazingly straight black lines. On the surface, it has no rhyme or reason, but it is captivating and inspiring none the less. Part of the appeal is the perfection and part is the asymmetrical balance he achieves in a juxtaposition of simple complexity.

Here's where the confusion with abstract and nonrepresentational art really comes into play. Many artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement were technically not painting abstracts. They were, in fact, painting nonrepresentational art.

If you look through the work of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), and Frank Stella (1936–), you will see shapes, lines, and colors, but no defined subjects. There are times in Pollock's work in which you're eye grabs onto something, though that's simply your interpretation. Stella has some works that are indeed abstractions yet most are nonrepresentational.

These abstract expressionist painters are often not depicting anything, they are composing with no preconceived notions of the natural world. Compare their work to Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Joan Miró (1893–1983) and you will see the difference between abstraction and nonrepresentational art.