You are on page 1of 14


It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract
art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But
the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that
Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect.
The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of
it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction
is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art,
past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the
Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European
abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art,
Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of
the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history
of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented
“Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20
abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the
Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in
“Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis
has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S.
and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA
DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.

How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years
ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal
evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but
in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture
are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists
work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture.
Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or
sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art?
How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social,
political, and spiritual experience of our own time?

We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature:
cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics,
architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens,
for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images
inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.

Chris Martin’s Seven Pointed Star for Isaac Hayes, 2009, touches on cosmology and

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs,

orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering
abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the
Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of
revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a
rational utopia in outer space.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, 2004, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, reflects and distorts the surrounding landscape.

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian
Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the
paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of
the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such
Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime
may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the
hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the
same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places
it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its
environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to
absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.

Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural
environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it
suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures
glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside.
His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his
nonfigurative compositions.

At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to
avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her
stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of
waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new
technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and
branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in
the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline
Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili
Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford
Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.

Jonathan Lasker’s The Quotidian and the Question, 2007, suggests anatomical structures.

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are
occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences”
have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive
heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late
Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image
of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts,
internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of
sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long
intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has
created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses
biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially
look like abstract landscapes.

Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips,
stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It
seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped
freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result
of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets.
These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create
new compositions.

We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures
of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian
Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles
Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von
Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.

The work of Valerie Jaudon, who emerged from the Pattern and Decoration movement, has remained
highly abstract but alludes to the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, as in Circa, 2012.COURTESY THE

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured
prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male
abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In
the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out
to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode
of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration
movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their
brilliantly colored compositions.


Architectural structures inform Peter Halley’s paintings, as in Accretive Cognition, 2010.


Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus
obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a
computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring,
the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or
take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge,
the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under
surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to
a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly
seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest
the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John
Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie
Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah
Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.


In Untitled, 2010, Wade Guyton updates abstraction, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when
Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist
pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early
1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His
stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning.
They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies
behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella
and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade
Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating
the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem
less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into

Cubism began as an idea and then it became a style. Based on Paul Cézanne's three main
ingredients - geometricity, simultaneity (multiple views) and passage - Cubism tried to
describe, in visual terms, the concept of the Fourth Dimension.

Cubism is a kind of Realism. It is a conceptual approach to realism in art, which aims to

depict the world as it is and not as it seems. This was the "idea." For example, pick up
any ordinary cup.

Chances are the mouth of the cup is round. Close your eyes and imagine the cup. The
mouth is round. It is always round - whether you are looking at the cup or remembering
the cup. To depict the mouth as an oval is a falsehood, a mere device to create an optical
illusion. The mouth of a glass is not an oval; it is a circle. This circular form is its truth,
its reality. The representation of a cup as a circle attached to the outline of its profile
view communicates its concrete reality. In this respect, Cubism can be considered
realism, in a conceptual, rather than perceptional way.

A good example can be found in Pablo Picasso's Still Life with Compote and Glass(1914-
15), where we see the circular mouth of the glass attached to its distinctive fluted goblet
shape. The area that connects two different planes (top and side) to one another
is passage. The simultaneous views of the glass (top and side) is simultaneity.

The emphasis on clear outlines and geometric forms is geometricity. To know an object
from different points of view takes time, because you move the object around in space or
you move around the object in space. Therefore, to depict multiple views (simultaneity)
implies the Fourth Dimension (time).


There were two groups of Cubists during the height of the movement, 1909 to
1914. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) are known as the
"Gallery Cubists" because they exhibited under contract with Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler's

Henri Le Fauconnier (1881-1946), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), Albert Gleizes (181-

1953), Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Juan Gris (1887-
1927), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918), Jacques
Villon (1875-1963) and Robert de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) are know as the "Salon
Cubists" because they exhibited in exhibitions supported by public funds (salons)


Textbooks often cite Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) as the first
Cubist painting.This belief may be true, because the work displays the three essential
ingredients in Cubism: geometricity, simultaneity and passage. But Les Demoiselles
d'Avignon was not shown publicly until 1916. Therefore, its influence was limited.

Other art historians argue that Georges Braque's series of L'Estaque landscapes
executed in 1908 were the first Cubist paintings. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles called
these pictures nothing but little "cubes." Legend has it that Vauxcelles parroted Henri
Matisse (1869-1954), who presided over the jury of1908 Salon d'Automne, where
Braque first submitted his L'Estaque paintings.

Vauxcelles' assessment stuck and went viral, just like his critical swipe at Matisse and
his fellow Fauves. Therefore, we might say that Braque's work inspired the word Cubism
in terms of a recognizable style, but Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon launched the
principles of Cubism through its ideas.

Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of
the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced
by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the
imagination, weighting it down with taboos. Influenced also by Karl Marx, they hoped
that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and
spur on revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them in
the tradition of Romanticism, but unlike their forebears, they believed that revelations
could be found on the street and in everyday life. The Surrealist impulse to tap the
unconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape many
later movements, and the style remains influential to this today.

André Breton defined Surrealism as "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one

proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -

the actual functioning of thought." What Breton is proposing is that artists bypass reason

and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques

became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo

conscious thought and embrace chance when creating art.

The work of Sigmund Freud was profoundly influential for Surrealists, particularly his

book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). Freud legitimized the importance of dreams

and the unconscious as valid revelations of human emotion and desires; his exposure

of the complex and repressed inner worlds of sexuality, desire, and violence provided a

theoretical basis for much of Surrealism.

Surrealist imagery is probably the most recognizable element of the movement, yet it is

also the most elusive to categorize and define. Each artist relied on their own recurring

motifs arisen through their dreams or/and unconscious mind. At its basic, the imagery is

outlandish, perplexing, and even uncanny, as it is meant to jolt the viewer out of their

comforting assumptions. Nature, however, is the most frequent imagery: Max Ernst was

obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego, Salvador Dalí's works often include ants

or eggs, and Joan Miró relied strongly on vague biomorphic imagery.

Expressionism, artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but
rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a
person. The artist accomplishes this aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism,
and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal
elements. In a broader sense Expressionism is one of the main currents of art in the
later 19th and the 20th centuries, and its qualities of highly subjective, personal,
spontaneous self-expression are typical of a wide range of modern artists and art
movements. Expressionism can also be seen as a permanent tendency in Germanic
and Nordic art from at least the European Middle Ages, particularly in times of social
change or spiritual crisis, and in this sense it forms the converse of the rationalist and
classicizing tendencies of Italy and later of France.

The most important Italian avant-garde art movement of the 20th century, Futurism
celebrated advanced technology and urban modernity. Committed to the new, its
members wished to destroy older forms of culture and to demonstrate the beauty of
modern life - the beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change. Although the
movement did foster some architecture, most of its adherents were artists who worked
in traditional media such as painting and sculpture, and in an eclectic range of styles
inspired by Post-Impressionism. Nevertheless, they were interested in embracing
popular media and new technologies to communicate their ideas. Their enthusiasm for
modernity and the machine ultimately led them to celebrate the arrival of the First World
War. By its end the group was largely spent as an important avant-garde, though it
continued through the 1920s, and, during that time several of its members went on to
embrace Fascism, making Futurism the only twentieth century avant-garde to have
embraced far right politics.

The Futurists were fascinated by the problems of representing modern experience, and

strived to have their paintings evoke all kinds of sensations - and not merely those
visible to the eye. At its best, Futurist art brings to mind the noise, heat and even the

smell of the metropolis.

Unlike many other modern art movements, such as Impressionism and Pointillism,

Futurism was not immediately identified with a distinctive style. Instead its adherents

worked in an eclectic manner, borrowing from various aspects of Post-Impressionism,

including Symbolism and Divisionism. It was not until 1911 that a distinctive Futurist

style emerged, and then it was a product of Cubist influence.

The Futurists were fascinated by new visual technology, in particular chrono-

photography, a predecessor of animation and cinema that allowed the movement of an

object to be shown across a sequence of frames. This technology was an important

influence on their approach to showing movement in painting, encouraging an abstract

art with rhythmic, pulsating qualities.

Giacomo Balla – Line of speed, 1913

Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist, 1913

Fauvism is one of the most influential styles in contemporary art, whether today's artists are fully aware
of it or not. The 'wild beasts' of Fauvism radicalised colour and form, and inspired the next generation of
young artists to engage with their surroundings on a whole new level, changing art forever. French artist
Henri Matisse is considered the founding father of Fauvism. Inspired by Van Gogh's post-impressionist
style of intensifying colours and distorting forms to create images fraught with emotion, Matisse began
to use colour on a very emotional level. The results of this were bright, multi-coloured paintings and
scratchy brush stroked figures.In complete contrast to the pastel coloured impressionist paintings from
the 1800s – 1900s, Matisse would use paint straight from the tube without mixing them, and combine
cold and warm palettes in the same work.The concept behind creating these daring new paintings was
to not paint the scene before them as realistically as possible, but to interpret how the scene was
conceived in the mind. Matisse didn't choose colours based on what looked technically correct, but
based his palette on the feelings and emotions he had whilst painting a particular 'experience' rather
than 'scene'.The first time Matisse's colourful works were displayed, a respected art critic exclaimed that
the one renaissance sculpture in the exhibition was surrounded by work created by 'wild beasts' (les
fauves). Although this comment was intended to be highly damming, Matisse and his fellow artists in
this new style decided to take this as inspiration for the title of the new movement they had created,

One of the most famous works created during this movement was the portrait of Amelie Matisse – wife
of Henri Matisse, called Green Stripe, carrying the famous green stripe down the middle of her
face.Dividing the face into two shades is a conventional portrait technique – usually used to divide the
face between light and shade – but Matisse chose to use the line as a divide between cool and warm
tones.This bold new move was analysed in many different ways – some said the green stripe was for
jealousy, others said it divided the painting into purity and serenity. The most likely reason, however, is
none of these. Matisse was not called a wild beast for nothing. Art was now beyond the point of
displaying well-known representations and symbolism. The green stripe is simply there because it was
what Matisse felt inspired to do at the time. Under close analysis, art historians claim that much of the
painting appears to have been 'improvised'. This is indicated by the brush strokes – which are perhaps
most obviously ad lib in the black patch centre-right. Although revolutionary, this gaudy movement did
return to familiar territory in the subject matter artists would choose to paint. Moving away from the
popular urban depictions, les fauves returned to painting landscapes.In fact, London played a large part
in the Fauvist movement. We can really see this period of history in context when we compare Claude
Monet's dreamy, misty picture of the Houses of Parliament with Andre Derain's piece of yellows,
pinksand lurid greens.

The Turning Road, L'Estaque – Andre Derain

Starry Night – van Gogh

Though never a coherent group, Realism is recognized as the first modern movement in
art, which rejected traditional forms of art, literature, and social organization as
outmoded in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in
France in the 1840s, Realism revolutionized painting, expanding conceptions of what
constituted art. Working in a chaotic era marked by revolution and widespread social
change, Realist painters replaced the idealistic images and literary conceits of
traditional art with real-life events, giving the margins of society similar weight to grand
history paintings and allegories. Their choice to bring everyday life into their canvases
was an early manifestation of the avant-garde desire to merge art and life, and their
rejection of pictorial techniques, like perspective, prefigured the many twentieth-century
definitions and redefinitions of modernism.

Realism is broadly considered the beginning of modern art. Literally, this is due to its

conviction that everyday life and the modern world were suitable subjects for art.

Philosophically, Realism embraced the progressive aims of modernism, seeking new

truths through the reexamination and overturning of traditional systems of values and


Realism concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically,

and culturally in the mid-nineteenth century. This led to unflinching, sometimes "ugly"
portrayals of life's unpleasant moments and the use of dark, earthy palettes that

confronted high art's ultimate ideals of beauty.

Realism was the first explicitly anti-institutional, nonconformist art movement. Realist

painters took aim at the social mores and values of the bourgeoisie and monarchy upon

who patronized the art market. Though they continued submitting works to the Salons of

the official Academy of Art, they were not above mounting independent exhibitions to

defiantly show their work.

Following the explosion of newspaper printing and mass media in the wake of the

Industrial Revolution, Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as self-

publicist. Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and others purposefully courted

controversy and used the media to enhance their celebrity in a manner that continues

among artists to this day.