The Case for Abstraction | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

of human history, when people set out
to make art they did so by trying to represent
things as they appeared in the world around them. And then about 100 years
ago, a bunch of artists stopped trying to do that. It was shocking. This is not what art was
supposed to be or do. And no one was given
a compass really for navigating this new art
terrain, for interpreting it, for appreciating it. It’s less shocking now, but
it’s still upsets and confounds. How are we supposed to deal with
an art completely untethered from the world of
recognizable objects? And more importantly,
why should we? This is the case
for abstraction. It’s important to note
that we didn’t just dive headlong into complete
abstraction in art. JMW Turner’s
Seascapes, for example, demonstrate that things
that exist in the world can often look abstract. James McNeil Whistler’s
“Nocturne” show this too. As do Victor Hugo’s
ink drawings. But as the 19th century unfolded
with the Industrial Revolution and the invention
of photography, life in European and American
cities changed dramatically. And it should come as no
surprise that representations of that life changed too. Artists were increasingly
interested in depicting things non-naturalistically. Setting about
abstracting things, i.e., starting with worldly
subject matter but stylizing it, simplifying
it, flattening it. By the 20th century,
Matisse and Andre Derain were painting familiar things,
but in unfamiliar ways. Using such intense
colors in broad brush strokes that a critic dubbed
them the Fauvs or wild beasts. Picasso and Georges Braque
pioneered the Cubist style, painting much of the
usual still life fodder, but breaking it up
into geometric shapes, fragmenting the picture plane,
and showing multiple sides of a thing a once. Cubism simultaneously
revealed more than what the eye could see,
fusing multiple perspectives and moments in time, while
also drawing attention to the flatness of
the canvas itself. The Italian Futurists
wanted to reflect the speed and over-simulation
of modern urban life, also collapsing space
and time into one image. German Expressionist
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner used abstraction and
rich unreal colors to depict the chaos and
anxiety of the city street. His contemporaries Franz
Mark and Wassily Kandinsky cited influences as
diverse as tribal art from Africa, medieval German
woodcuts, Russian folk art, Art Nouveau, and art by children. But while Mark
pursued abstraction to connect with
the natural world, Kandinsky’s interest was to
commune with the spiritual. He claimed his art was quote,
“What the spectator lives or feels while under the
effect of the form and color combinations of the picture.” For Kandinsky, abstraction
was not opposed to Realism. It was Realism. I mean, there are real things
that can’t be seen, after all. Emotion and consciousness
are realities. And maybe they could
be painted too. Kazimir Malevich
called his brand of abstraction Supremitism,
saying his geometric elements alone and in
arrangements constituted to zero a form beyond which
laid the quote, “supremacy of pure artistic feeling.” In the years leading
up to World War I, all these groups with names
give the false impression that what was happening
was cohesive or organized. It wasn’t. Abstraction did emerge through
an international network of artists who followed
what each other we’re doing. But then again, we now know
that Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was painting mostly
abstract works as early 1905. She was part of a group called
The Five who conducted seances to communicate with
spirits through pictures. Klint’s abstractions came from
this interest in the spiritual and occult as well as
science, and the depiction of invisible forces
like recently discovered electromagnetic fields,
x-rays, and infrared light. Theosophist Annie Besant
and Charles Leadbeater had published images in 1901
they called Thought Forms. Illustrating their belief that
ideas, emotions, and sounds manifest as visual auras. Kandinsky and many
others read this work and also saw in music
an important parallel, an art form considered
on its own terms and freed from the burden
of representing things in the world. Kandinsky liked
Wagner and Schoenberg. Paul Klee loved Bach. Frantisek Kupka also
drew a strong connection between music and
painting, believing that without the distraction
of subject matter, art could act
directly on the soul. But Robert Delaunay was quote,
“horrified” by music and noise and said I never
speak of mathematics and never bother with spirit. He was more concerned
with the immediacy and pictorial realities
of color and contrast. And his first disk
was considered the purest abstraction
at the time. His wife, Sonia Delauney,
illustrated an influential book of poetry, combining
abstraction and typography, a style she extended
into painting and later into fashion. Piet Mondrian found his
own way to abstraction, translating his
favorite subjects like trees and architecture
into gridded arrangements. Spacial illusion is replaced
by what Mondrian termed truth. For him, everything
could be processed into horizontal
and vertical lines, revealing the
structure of the world through binary oppositions. So abstraction was
never monolithic. In the traumatic years of World
War I, artists like Paul Klee can be seen as
consciously turning away from the material world. Serving in the German
army, Klee wrote in 1915, “the more horrifying
this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” After the war, Klee and a
number of abstract artists taught at the Bauhaus
School, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. It was organized
around the principle that the crafts were on
equal footing with art. And they sought to elevate
the quality of life through architecture and
objects as well as art. This focus on function
as well as form was also adopted by Theo
von Doesburg and members of the Dutch De Stijl group. There was quote, “a
new plastic art.” A simplified
geometric style they could serve as a universal
aesthetic language for everyday life. Abstraction also found its way
forward through explorations of chance, with Dada artists
Hans Arp, collaging squares he dropped arbitrarily onto paper. It wasn’t all just painting
and drawing either, abstract sculpture took hold,
for instance, in Russia, with the work of Vladimir
Tatlin and his professed truth to materials before the war and
Aleksandr Rodchenko after it. Rodchenko exhibited three
monochromatic paintings in 1921, after which he
wrote “It’s all over. There is to be no
more representation.” He then denounced painting
and fine art altogether, and with the Productivists
aimed to integrate art into life, focusing on the
design of posters and ads. But of course, the enterprise
of abstract painting would continue to go on
and on and on, and all with different motivations. There was El Lizzitzky,
Marsden Hartley, Juan Miro, Alexander Calder, Arshile
Corky, and many others in many parts of the world. During World War II, many
European artists fled to the US and worked there, including
Josef and Anni Albers, Fernand Leger, Mondrian, Jacques
Lipchitz, Hans Hofmann, Andre Masson, and Max Ernst,
bringing new approaches to Abstraction with them. That influx of
avant-garde thinking is considered to be an important
precondition for the success of the abstract expressionists
in New York in the 1940s and ’50s. Many of those guys
looked to ancient myths and archaic cultures in search
for timeless subject matter and were influenced by Jungian
psychology as well as jazz. This largely
improvisational approach imparted a kind of
directness and immediacy meant to provoke strong
emotional responses through large scale and
either dynamic gesture or expansive fields of color. The Gutai group in Japan also
embraced the canvas as an arena for action. Kazou Shiraga even
painting with his feet. There was post
painterly abstraction with Helen Frankenthaler
and Morris Louis. And hard edge abstract
painting which can be used to describe the
work of Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Felrath Hines, Agnes
Martin, and Ad Reinhardt. There was Op art, and
of course Minimalism, which seemed to boil down art
to its most basic materials. And then Post Minimalism,
which emphasized unconventional materials and
the physical process of making. There was Neo-expressionism
in the 1980s, Conceptual Abstraction in the ’90s. We’re skipping over scads of
important and interesting work here. But as we hurtle
toward the present, it becomes clear
that abstraction has been deployed by a
wide range of artists toward innumerable ends. Abstraction is no longer
an iconoclastic choice, but it has nonetheless
proved itself to be a productive field for
those who commit themselves to it. The most compelling abstract
work being made today often builds upon the
traditions of the medium, recycling and reinterpreting
prior approaches toward the creation
of something new. Abstraction can be used
to think about technology, its forms and functions. And also the denial of
technology through an emphasis on tactility and
physical presence. It also continues to ask us
what is the right and wrong way to make art? In what ways can we still
intrigue the eye and mind? There’s a fair bit of
grumbling today about how the current inflated
art market unfairly privileges abstract painting. But there’s something
important at play in that fact. Much can be contained
in abstraction. It’s not just one thing. It can be a mirror or a window. And it can shift depending
on who is looking at it and where and when. It is done well and
it is done poorly. But the flexibility that makes
it open to interpretation also makes it market friendly
and international. When it’s good, it rewards
longer stints of looking. It changes as you change. But that expansiveness can
also be frustrating, too wide. But if we zoom out,
we can see that many of the core ways we have of
interacting with the world are abstract– religion,
markets, currency. And humans have always
liked abstractions. We see abstract patterns
way early on cave carvings and as marks on
pottery and textiles. Geometric marks and forms
have been with us all along, often dismissed as
decoration or relegated to the world of craft. This whole narrative is a
farce if we consider how long abstraction has been with us. That it was not invented so
much is discovered or accepted. When looked at a different way,
what’s strange maybe the period when humans did not
embrace abstraction.

Dereck Turner

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