Born in the early twentieth century, abstract art is by definition opposed to the representational art that had prevailed until that time. Subjects depicted by painters and sculptors could sometimes be difficult to construe, but previously it had been inconceivable for them to deliberately compose images that did not depict recognizable objects. Some artists now set out to create a completely nonrepresentational art, among them the leading pioneer of abstraction, the Russian Expressionist Vasily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky reported that one day, as he looked at one of his paintings hung on its side, he perceived that, although the subject was unrecognizable, it nonetheless retained considerable expressive force. This insight spurred him to prolonged reflection that bore fruit in 1912, in a book entitled On the Spiritual in Art, considered a fundamental text of abstract art. The history of painting is full of instances in which artists found ways to break free of the constraints of visual reality. They distorted forms, illuminated their subjects intensely, or worked with high-keyed colors to give their compositions greater visual impact, and to emphasize their own imaginative understanding of what they were painting. However, a complete rejection of mimesis – the imitation of reality – had never been attempted. Now, with the invention of photography in the mid- nineteenth century, technology offered an excellent means of recording the appearance of objects. Kandinsky thus took the final step, abandoning representation altogether, and vastly expanding the horizons of artistic investigation. Henceforth, abstraction, which offered artists a virtual universe of new expressive possibilities, flourished in a host of guises.
Of course, abstract art was not generated solely by Kandinsky. Other artists in other places were moving in the same direction at about the same time: the Czech artist Franz Kupka (187-1957) exhibited abstract canvases with musical titles (Fugue in Red and Blue); the Frenchman Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), intoxicated with color, painted chromatic disks; and in Italy, Alberto Magnelli (1888-1971) also produced abstract paintings. But it was in Russia and Holland that abstraction was first pushed to its limits.
In Russia, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his wife, Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), founded Rayonism, a movement that while short-lived, was important in the development of abstraction. As early as 1911 Larionov exhibited the first work in this style (Glass), dominated by colored “rays.” Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), a theorist and of a strictly geometric style called Suprematism, is one of the major figures of early abstraction. In 1915 he exhibited in Petrograd, at an exhibition entitled “0.10,” his famous 1913 canvas Black Square on White Ground, along with thirty-seven other Suprematist compositions consisting exclusively of rectangles, circles, triangles, and crosses. The movement peaked in 1918, when Malevich exhibited White on White at the Tenth State Exhibition in Moscow. In response to Malevich’s experiments, the Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) used ruler and compass to produce geometric compositions, notably Black on Black of 1918.
Around 1913, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) rapidly passed from a Cubist-inspired style to one based on vertical and horizontal lines. Soon thereafter he began to produce compositions consisting of rectangles in primary colors (red, blue, yellow) delineated by black lines of various widths and set against white grounds, a style called Neo-Plasticism. Mondrian quickly joined forces with another Dutch artist, Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), and together they founded the magazine De Stijl (Style) to publicize their theories, which influenced many architects and designers.
Abstraction was briefly eclipsed in the 1920s, when many artists were attracted to Surrealism. In 1936, however, the first international exhibition of abstract art was held in Paris. Sponsored by the magazine Cercle et carre (“Circle and Square”), it brought together works by Kandinsky and by various geometric abstractionists. While the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War inspired artists to embrace Expressionism as a way of communicating their outrage at the atrocities that occurred during these conflicts, the postwar years generally were a period of expansion for abstraction.
Postwar abstraction can take many forms, from the geometric images of the German artist Josef Albers (1888-1976) and the Americans Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Ad Reinhart (1913-67) to the energetic, intensely gestural work of such Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock (p. 257) and Willem de Kooning.
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