What is Abstract Art?
Abstraction is a visual aesthetic wherein colour and line are used to create an image of something that may exist in the real world. This is opposed to creating something which is effectively an illusion of reality. Abstract art is therefore any art which is non-realistic.
Historically by the end of the 19th century many European artists were under pressure to create realistic art, but simultaneously the invention of the photograph caused many artists to reevaluate their style and methodology of creating art. Thus with the advent of photography artists headed in a fundamentally different direction, away from realism and towards abstraction.
One of the noted early artists of this shift was French artist Edouard Manet, who created stylized paintings using an Oriental abstract aesthetic. Manet’s work inspired the Impressionists (including Claude Monet) who focused on creating art which was more about the colour and the ‘impression’ of the scenery they were painting. Typically Impressionists enjoyed painting outdoors so they could capture the feeling of the light and sometimes the movement of water, leaves, wheat and so forth.
As photography and other forms of technology (ie. film) grew many artists began to develop more abstract art. These technological changes resulted in many social and intellectual arguments about the role of technology and art in society.
Abstract Art Glossary
- Abstract art – Non realistic art.
- Nonfigurative art – Any art that does not show people or animals.
- Nonobjective art – Any art that does not show any recognizable objects.
- Nonrepresentational art – Any art that does not represent anything real, including symbols (ie. $, %, *) or any Jungian archetypes.
- Geometric Abstraction – Art which uses geometry to create abstract images, regardless of whether they are symbolic or completely abstract.
- Decorative Abstraction – Abstract art which is meant to be decorative, often repetitive. ie. Wallpaper.
- Symbolic Abstraction – Art which uses abstraction to create symbolic images representative of ideas, people, creatures, objects, etc. Often used to represent abstract concepts such as sound waves and other things which cannot be seen.
During the 19th century the avant garde of abstract art was best seen in the art movements of Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism. Abstraction was largely about artistic independence for artists as they pursued more personal and less realistic styles. Often artists felt restricted by their patrons (ie. the Catholic Church) but during the Romanticist period many artists (ie. William Blake, Francesco Goya, John Constable, William Turner) turned to more alternative sources of patronage as the Catholic Church lost its power.
Advances in abstraction were not limited to European art. American artist James McNeill Whistler for example painted numerous abstract works. ie. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The falling Rocket (1872).
Expressionist painters used the surface of the canvas, distortions and vibrant colours to create emotionally charged paintings. Their work was often reactions to their contemporary experience and social changes, including reactions to Impressionism. The Expressionists also enjoyed depicting psychological states of being such as fear, anger and madness. ie. Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch and James Ensor.
Pioneer geometric artists like Wassily Kandinsky, and Hilma af Klint had an important influence on the early forms of the geometric abstract art, later influencing Piet Mondrian.
Abstract Art of the 20th Century
During the late 19th century and early 20th century Post Impressionism was more widely practiced and artists like Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne had a great impact on the artists who followed after, revolutionizing 20th century abstraction to the point that it became known simply as “Modern Art”.
Modern Art is any art which uses a contemporary style leaning towards abstraction and is often devoid of narrative storytelling. Post Modern Art in contrast is any art which uses a contemporary style, but leans towards realism and narrative.
At the beginning of the 20th century Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck revolutionized the Paris art world with their wild colours in which later became called Fauvism. This expressive use of colour used rawness (and primitive influences) of shape and colour to create a never before seen style.
Following Fauvism, Georges Braque continued to expand into Cubism (a style which attracted Pablo Picasso to the movement) using abstraction to portray objects from multiple angles. Analytic Cubism focused more on this angles concept, but later expanded to include Synthetic Cubism which was less worried about angles and incorporated collages of newspaper clippings and photographs.
This idea of collaging other sources would later influence Marcel Duchamp, DADA artists and other movements. Picasso borrowed heavily from other artists and sources, stealing ideas from primitive art and even copying painting compositions of other artists. ie. Diego Riviera once threatened to kill Picasso when he copied the composition of one of Riviera’s paintings.
Cubism attracted a following including Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp and countless other artists into the 1920s. Collage artists like Kurt Schwitters and Man Ray were instrumental to the development of DADA.
Futurism was another interesting turning point, inspired in part by rapidly changing technology and increased abstraction towards glorifying speed and movement using a similar aesthetic to Cubism. Examples of Futurism art include Natalia Goncharova’s “Cyclist” (1913) and Giacomo Balla’s “Abstract Speed + Sound” (1913-1914).
These changes in the art world influenced the Russian Constructivists, the German Bauhaus movement and from 1917 to 1921 there was a period abstract revolution amongst artists (partially in reaction to the horrors of WWI).
By the 1930s however a backlash happened, with some art galleries refusing to show abstract art because it was considered frivolous and “not real art”. In Russia for example Social Realism became the only art approved by the state, mostly because it was seen as a propaganda tool.
As totalitarianism grew artists in regions unaffected by this political shift continued to use more organic / geometric forms, seeking to make “pure art” devoid of symbols.
By the end of WWII many artists had fled Europe to settle in the United States, making New York City the new centre of the art world. This melting pot of different artistic movements combined all the concepts of modern art, expressionism, cubism, abstraction, surrealism, and DADA. Amongst the artists is New York City were:
Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ernst and Andre Breton.
Their artistic influence spread to artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, the New York School, the Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, teachers John D. Graham and Hans Hofmann and artists like Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning.
With the rubberstamping of Abstract Expressionism (considered the height of abstraction) as an art movement abstraction had reached the pinnacle. Everything since then (Pop Art, Graffiti Art, etc.) has been the result of that pinnacle having already been reached
Post-Abstraction in the 21st Century
Today abstract art is sometimes taken for granted. Artists don’t need to read the theories of what came before, but instead can follow their gut instinct for what they think will make a good painting.
Post-modern abstract artists therefore are balancing several things: The need to create images which are aesthetically pleasing; the need to create artworks which are interesting to look at (regardless of whether they are using narrative / symbolism / theory to do so); the need create artwork they themselves enjoy making.
As artists we can give thanks to the rich history of abstract artists who came before us, but we don’t need to pay homage to them by emulating them. We can create our own art within our own aesthetic guidelines. No totalitarian dictator standing over our shoulder telling us what is and isn’t good art. (The interview below with Laura Warburton demonstrates this concept.)
As an artist myself I frequently use abstraction in my paintings in an effort to create a specific style which I feel adds to the mood of the painting. Its not meant to look real. Its meant to get a particular feeling across and to create an iconic look. I don’t paint for money either. I paint because I enjoy it and like to challenge myself to create images people will instantly enjoy.
– Charles Moffat
The Art History Archive, July 2011.
An Interview with Laura Warburton
The following is a series of questions conducted by myself [Charles Moffat] with Laura Warburton in June 2011 regarding her own history and influences within abstract art. Laura Warburton is “very much a lone wolf when is comes to painting / art” having never formally studied art in an academic setting and avoids likening herself to other artists who came before her.
When did you first start doing abstract art? (What year and age?)
I first started painting in 2007, well actually I painted one piece in 1992, just one and then nothing for 15 years. I began again, or really for the first time in 2007, amongst personal strife and stress.
Why do you choose to make abstract art?
I love the freedom, the acceptance to “paint outside the lines” so to speak. Abstract work makes you as an artist really feel the art , and abstract work makes the viewer work. It is not a given. Abstract is not as easy as ‘Oh, it is a beautiful landscape or a portrait.’ Not to diminish the enormous skills required in those works… abstract for me however is all about the viewer and what they see… not what I paint.
Which artists do you feel have influenced your work?
I quite honestly can not give you a name of one artist that I can say has influenced my work. My academic background is in the human sciences and psychology… so maybe Rorschach ink blot. [laughs] No, seriously I truly cannot think of anyone. I don’t know enough about art and art history to have an opinion. I certainly admire the works of various artists, but as to influencing my work… no.
Besides artists, can you name some of your other influences (political/aesthetic/personal) for your work?
From a personal standpoint I was truly motivated into painting through what might be termed a crisis. An unhealthly corporate workplace with unbearable stress… Painting provided a cathartic emotional escape and release. The more I painted the better I felt! As to political some of my series work on the female form can certainly be taken as social commentary and better yet in my mind be discussion point regarding the objectification of women word wide.
What other styles of art do you enjoy? Why?
I appreciate photography, particularly black and white [photography], as it seems to have more of an emotional impact on me.
Where did you study art?
I have never formally studied art. The first studio tour I ever participated, an art professor from OCAD had come by looked through my studio and then asked where I had studied art, I told him I had never taken an art class in my life, he then turned to me and said ‘Don’t!’ I took it to mean a good thing … [laughs] We spoke further and his thoughts were that working my abstracts and expression would be better off not influenced by academia of art. I suppose there is pro and con of both.
What motivates you when painting?
I am very certain I don’t know what motivates me other then I enjoy it. It allows me to not think of anything else. I liken it to the explanation that author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gives in his book “Flow”. Single minded immersion. A total loss of self awareness, time distortion, in the IT world it might be called ‘the zone or Hack mode’. [In zen meditation its known as a zenshin moment. – CM]
Can you describe your methodology when creating your abstract art?
No. [laughs] (See article on PROXART.)
How would you describe your theories about abstract art?
I don’t have a single theory. It’s not about what you look at, it’s about what you see…. it’s about what you ‘feel’. Certainly not a completely intellectualized theory, but a theory nonetheless. I would however apply this to all art, not just abstract.
What are your favourite abstract art pieces? Why?
I love to view Pollocks work, large scale, for me it is chaotic but at the same time an element of… not control… but awareness of the space and canvas exists. I love that you can view his work over and over and get a different sense of it each time. Perhaps it is the lack of obvious focal point. Of course, as many might say Number 31 which hangs at the MOMA is one of my favourites.
What abstract art pieces by other artists do you enjoy most and why?
I also love the work of Elsha Leventis, a colleague of mine, She uses washes of oils on frosted mylar and she captures the light effects, it is quite striking. As to specific works of hers, “The Feminine Perspective” is a beautiful piece.
What colour combinations do you like best and why? (You seem to use a lot of orange and yellow.)
I never really noticed until you mentioned the use of orange and yellow. I do love that combo and I tend to use whatever colour I feel, am drawn to at the time I paint. It all sounds so esoteric but it isn’t really. If I am liking the blue and greys at that time I will use the blue and greys… I have noted that during periods of my life when I was under more stress or perhaps not effectively dealing with it my works are darker in colour, cloudy almost… reflection of the mind space perhaps.
How do you feel about different abstract art movements? ie. Abstract expressionism?
Again as I mentioned above I have no comment mainly due to the fact I haven’t formed an opinion on the basis of a lack of knowledge and interest in, does that make me an idiot artist? [laughs] I don’t know, I am not connected to the outside art world that way… I am loving doing my work… Perhaps it has benefit in not studying art, in that I don’t bring any judgement, baggage or diversion to my own work? Don’t know.
How do you define yourself as an artist?
Self taught, self represented… an artist by serendipity perhaps.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing off a large show, 26 pieces for a corporate client office in Toronto. As well I am just jumping into a 6.6 ft x 8 ft commission for a wonderful couple with a brilliant home just West of Toronto.
I have several other projects on the go as well, including perhaps opening a solo artist studio/gallery in the [Toronto] distillery… a few things being discussed. Don’t tell anyone!
What would you like to do in the future?
What I am doing right now, painting large scale works.
Opening my own studio gallery space, don’t get me wrong I love the multi gallery I am in, but being able to do my loft artwork paintings requires space space space… And I am messy, no one would put up with that I am sure. A studio gallery allows public engagement and I think it demystifies, to some degree, and provides accessibility to art that otherwise doesn’t happen now a days. I think we as a culture could very easily lose touch / understanding / tolerance of the arts, in fact we have done so in many ways already.
How do you choose your titles?
Always always always after the work is completed, sometimes it comes to me right away, other times it make take a few days, weeks. I also ask my son and partner sometimes what they see , what they would title the work. I have accepted those titles before.
Have you ever tried abstract sculpture or other mediums?
No, not yet. I am intrigued by metal sculpture work. Edward Falkenberg created large scale sculptures. Henry Moore, of course, I love the lines and flow of his work.
What do you think about the role of abstract art in Canadian art history?
Quite honestly I do not spend time thinking about the role of art in Canadian history at all, perhaps I am missing an art historian perspective on “art”, current art, my art, however I have no interest in intellectualizing a Canadian art role.
Do you have any favourite Canadian artists?
No favourites. I do like the ones I have mentioned prior, Moore, Falkenberg, Leventis… I am certain I could name more and more but not one it a favourite. I enjoy man of them.
Proxart Interview with Laura Warburton
PROXART – June 24, 2011.
Abstract painting is generally born from emotion, the act of creation itself, and the ability (or even lack thereof) to express both. Yet there is still an urge by some to find deeper meaning and complex concept within an artwork – especially in abstract work. Through the combination of muted and vibrant colors, Laura Warburton isn’t afraid to simply express and create; and as a result, she creates wonderful abstract ‘loft’ paintings that contain both an energy and a stillness. Warburton also, as most contemporary painters do, combines several different techniques and tools to conjure up her work.
What drove you to creating and painting?
Painting came into my life more as a ‘lifeline’ than a calling or long term personal dream or desire.I truly enjoyed my career in the corporate world; however, it was time to move along.I had been painting in my spare time since the mid-2000s as an outlet for stress, an expression, and eventually for the love of picking up the brush.So jumping right into a full- time artist role was a natural and welcome progression. All the aspects of my art career have really fallen into place so easily with little struggle on my part. I am enjoying the experiences that go with it.
How do your experiences and study of psychology come into creating your work? Do your undergraduate studies also affect the final presentation?
Academically, my background is psychology and the human sciences. Has my formal education affected the end result of my work? Yes, of course; but maybe not to the degree of ‘Oh, I learned this is in Psychology 101, and see how it shows itself in this painting.’ Rather, formal learning helps to mould a person, the intellectual affects the emotional. So as part of who I am and how I see and understand myself, yes, studying psychology and continuing to learn shows in my work.
Can you explain your concept of ‘loft artwork’? What do you think the scale of a painting contributes to the interior design of a space?
I came up with the concept of loft artwork as a way for me (and others) to categorize my work artistically without the common limitations of style, genre and schools of painting. It is human nature to categorize; it makes understanding easier. I am not saying it is a good thing – it just is.
I do find it disadvantageous for artists to be categorized. So often we tend to box and label an artist to a style. I think this may hold the artist back and limits their creativity. Painting very obviously developed for me as an emotional outlet. Emotions change; they shift. It is virtually impossible to keep an emotion within any genre or style.’Loft’ or ‘loft-like’ is often described as raw, unfiltered, organic, pure, exposed, beams, large, open – it’s a feel. The act of painting and the ‘seeing’ of a painting is really a ‘feel’ of the painting. I love the quote, “It’s not about what you look at; it’s about what you feel.”
The scale and size of a painting in a space is related to impact and balance. Larger scale can set a tone, and dramatically enhance a feeling. I suppose these are paintings you can’t just overlook; they need to be sized up – so to speak – and acknowledged. Loft artwork is about scale, size, and importantly, the feel that accompanies that.
Can you describe your experiences and the relationships with the RedEye Studio Gallery and Station Gallery?
RedEye Studio Gallery is an artist-run gallery showcasing various contemporary art styles. There are nine artist members, of which I am one. This gallery is located in a tourist-driven portion of Toronto – the vibrant, cutting edge Distillery District. As a member, I am able to show works with the group or in solo exhibitions. I also have the opportunity sit in the gallery and greet, meet and speak with the public coming through. Seeing behind the scenes of a gallery like this, as well as that public interaction, has given me a much wider understanding of other artists, art, the access to art, and public perception of art.
The Station Gallery is a gallery that is provincially funded and provides different exhibitions throughout the year. I am also a patron of the Station Gallery and enjoy viewing the exhibitions there.
What is the relationship between the final aesthetic you aim to achieve and your process to get there? How much preparation and time do you put in before and during the process of creating a painting?
In many instances, I do not preconcieve what I will paint; rather, I pick a canvas. And interestingly enough, there is more thought on the size of canvas than on any aspect of the painting. I have an abundant amount of tools, brushes, things that scratch, line, spray, pour, blend and rag at my finger tips on the floor of my studio surrounding the canvas (which is often on the floor as well). Then I paint. One colour or texture leads to another. I’ll add in this, and then that. I can’t explain the process beyond that and honestly think trying to is attempting the impossible. Words and explanations are one thing, painting and expression are something else completely – and the two shall never meet. My studio is on the main floor of my home, so it is easily accessible and requires no set up or prep time. This is a fantasttic approach to living your art. However, this close proximity has the ultimate challenge of learning to walk away from a painting when it is time to walk away. With the good always comes the challenge.