Abstract art (sometimes called nonobjective art) is a painting or sculpture that does not depict a person, place, or thing in the natural world. With abstract art, the subject of the work is what you see: color, shapes, brushstrokes, size, scale, and, in some cases, the process itself, as in action painting.
Abstract artists strive to be non-objective and non-representational, allowing the viewer to interpret each artwork's meaning in their own way. Thus, abstract art is not an exaggerated or distorted view of the world such as we see in the Cubist paintings of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, for they present a type of conceptual realism. Instead, form and color become the focus and the subject of the piece.
While some people may argue that abstract art does not require the technical skills of representational art, others would beg to differ. It has, indeed, become one of the major debates in modern art.
"Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." –Wassily Kandinsky.
Art historians typically identify the early 20th century as an important historical moment in the history of abstract art. During this time, artists worked to create what they defined as "pure art": creative works that were not grounded in visual perceptions, but in the imagination of the artist. Influential works from this time period include "Picture with a Circle" (1911) by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky and Francis Picabia's "Caoutchouc" (1909).
The roots of abstract art, however, can be traced back much further. Earlier artistic movements such as the 19th century's Impressionism and Expressionism were experimenting with the idea that painting can capture emotion and subjectivity. It need not simply focus on seemingly objective visual perceptions. Going back even further, many ancient rock paintings, textile patterns, and pottery designs captured a symbolic reality rather than attempting to present objects as we see them.
Kandinsky (1866–1944) is often noted as one of the most influential abstract artists. A view of how his style developed over the years is a fascinating look at the movement as he progressed from representational to pure abstract art. He was also adept at explaining how an abstract artist may use color to give a seemingly meaningless work purpose.
Kandinsky believed that colors provoke emotions. Red was lively and confident; green was peaceful with inner strength; blue was deep and supernatural; yellow could be warm, exciting, disturbing or totally bonkers; and white seemed silent but full of possibilities. He also assigned instrument tones to go with each color. Red sounded like a trumpet; green sounded like a middle-position violin; light blue sounded like a flute; dark blue sounded like a cello, yellow sounded like a fanfare of trumpets; white sounded like the pause in a harmonious melody.
These analogies to sounds came from Kandinsky's appreciation for music, especially the works of the contemporary Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). Kandinsky's titles often refer to the colors in the composition or to music, for example, "Improvisation 28" and "Composition II."
The French artist Robert Delaunay (1885–1941) belonged to Kandinsky's Blue Rider (Die Blaue Reiter) group. With his wife, Russian-born Sonia Delaunay-Turk (1885–1979), they both gravitated toward abstraction in their own movement, Orphism or Orphic Cubism.
Today, "abstract art" is often an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of styles and art movements. Included among these are nonrepresentational art, nonobjective art, abstract expressionism, art informel (a form of gestural art), and even some op art (optical art, referring to art that makes use of optical illusions). Abstract art may be gestural, geometric, fluid, or figurative (implying things that are not visual such as emotion, sound, or spirituality).
While we tend to associate abstract art with painting and sculpture, it can apply to any visual medium, including assemblage and photography. Yet, it is the painters that get the most attention in this movement. There are many notable artists who represent the various approaches one may take to abstract art and they have had considerable influence on modern art.