“Abstract art has been with us in one form or another for almost a century now and has proved to be not only a long-standing crux of cultural debate but a self-renewing, vital tradition of creativity. We know that it works, even if we’re still not sure why that’s so, or exactly what to make of that fact.” -Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe
What is Abstract Art?
You may like abstract art outright, hate it or not understand exactly what it is, but since you’ve started reading this, I can at least assume you’re curious about this perplexing art form that evades definition and artistic classification.
Abstract art has been around for well over 100 years. Some might even assert that abstraction started with the cave paintings of thousands of years ago—and has held its own against changing art movements, manifestos and testimonials for all these centuries.
The definition. Abstraction literally means the distancing of an idea from objective referents. That means, in the visual arts, pulling a depiction away from any literal, representational reference points. You can also call abstract art nonrepresentational art.
The first signs. Abstraction can be traced to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. All three helped realize the idea that art could be non-representative.
The movement. Modern abstract art was born early in the 20th century. It was completely radical for its day. Artists began to create simplified objections with little or no reference to the “real” world.
The father. The first artist to create abstract art as we know it will always remain a mystery but Wassily Kandinsky is often credited by historians as he created paintings of floating, norepresentational forms as early as 1912. His work brought abstraction to America during the Armory Show in 1913.
The present. Abstract art now lives in the art world in many forms. It is two- and three-dimensional. It can be vast or small. Abstract art can also be made with many materials and on many surfaces. It can be used in concert with representational art or completely abstract. Artists creating it often focus on other visual qualities like color, form, texture, scale and more in their nonobjective work.
What Is Abstract Art?
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Why Should I Care?
The continuing interest in abstract art lies in its ability to inspire our curiosity about the reaches of our imagination and the potential for us to create something completely unique in the world.
A major obstacle to making an abstract artwork is the barrier in your mind that questions whether abstract art is a legitimate art form—legitimate for you at least. This block may be because you still wonder, “Is abstract art really ‘art’ at all?” Possibly you think you have to master realism before you can work abstractly? Or it could be that you worry your friends and family won’t approve?
The Quick Answers
1. Historically, abstract art is a “legitimate” art form, and that judgment was settled well over a century ago.
2. No, you don’t have to earn a diploma in realism before you make abstract art. And no one checks your “artistic license” credentials at the door.
3. If you routinely did everything your friends and family approved of, you probably wouldn’t even consider making art at all. Put aside the dread of any incoming judgment. You can’t please everybody all the time–but you can please yourself.
Still, there is our frustration with the fact that there’s no universal agreement to the answer of the question: What is abstract art? What’s important here is to look at that artistic dilemma as an opportunity rather than a roadblock. The opportunity is that abstract art can mean anything you want it to in your personal work, giving you boundless territory to create.
“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes.” ―Arshile Gorky
What Is Abstract Art To You?
In the last chapter of my book, Creating Abstract Art, I ask 50 artists, “What is abstract art to you?” The results show no two answers are the same, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be!
A way of seeing…
“The more I attempt to make something real as a painter, the more abstract it becomes. I love this paradox. As each year goes by, I’m increasingly engaged with the way abstraction and depiction, or realism—or whatever you want to call it—are actually intimately joined, and in constant struggle with [one another]. It comes down to how the world is perceived. Can I paint a forest without rendering a single tree? Or show the entirety of the forest with just one tree?” —Eric Aho
“I enjoy playing with and rearranging colors, lines and shapes to create images that I want to look at. I want my work to be surprising, playful and provocative. Some of my paintings are doors, others windows. They are all portals. I continue to use these symbols because they are a joyous and mysterious language that is somehow both deeply personal and universal.” —Adria Arch
“For me ‘abstraction’ is not an art movement, a moment in art history or a style of painting. It is a crucial integral connector to the vitality of painting. What is extraordinary for me is that as I go out past what I know—past where I am controlling what I do—to find coherency and form. Contact with this wordless coherency, the gift of form is a profound homecoming.” —Timothy Hawkesworth
“I want to express a certain feeling and emotion by creating an entire environment for the viewer to walk into or observe from afar. I use materials in a direct and simple way, not transforming or altering them greatly from their natural state. Why? I prefer to keep my pieces as broad and non-objective as possible to allow the viewer to bring in their own interpretations drawn from their own experiences.” —Chris Nelson
An emotional outpouring…
“When I am engaged in art making I am fully caught up in the medium and tools and mission. I’ve learned not to think about the product that I will end up with because the time spent engaged in the creative activity is what is most important to me. I enjoy the detached feeling I get when working in the abstract—it’s like a dance with my hand and my mind and they take turns leading.” — Janet Stupak
“Abstraction, like poetry, does not dictate a clear narrative but rather, quietly offers a fragment, a piece of a mysteriously familiar narrative. In my paintings, there has continued to be a paring down of recognizable natural forms, which now have given way to a personal abstract vocabulary of shapes, colors and forms. The prominent use of abstraction has allowed me to distill and better communicate my emotions and ideas about life, nature and our respective place within it.” — Nicholas Wilton
A personal point of view…
“I am always interested in a discovery process in art making rather than working for something I am familiar with. I also want to express internal feelings and thoughts in my works. Something more elusive, poetical and imaginative in my work is my goal. As a result, my work tends to be abstract rather than representational.” — Yuriko Yamaguchi
A point of discovery…
“Though my pictures are abstractions that don’t resemble conventional Chinese paintings, I still work from observation and I present my own honest feelings or ideas through colors and brushstrokes that have become my own tradition as an artist.” —Yuan Zuo
What is Abstract Art for Creative People and Artists?
Keep in mind artists of whatever stripe are rebels against the grain of society no matter what they choose to do. You should think of making abstract art as an outsider’s merit badge that sets you apart from the crowd.
WATCH: How to Interpret Sound to Create Abstract Art
What is abstract art? Abstraction in art can be anything you want it to be. It can not only be an interpretation of what you see or what you feel, but also what you hear. In the video demonstration below, watch as I use sound to create abstract art.
If You Love Art History…