abstraction. one of the defining characteristics ot the visual arts in the period of MODERNISM has been the retreat from MIMESIS or the realistic representation of the visible world and the human figure. Indeed, the influential critic Clement GREENBERG regards abstraction as the essential feature of the AVANT-GARDE, which typically aspires to creating self-contained and self-referential art-objects that respect the qualities of their media and, in the case of painting, the flatness of the canvas For LYOTARD, abstraction in the visual arts marks the emergence of a new form of the SUBLIME. Abstraction can take many different forms, ranging from EXPRESSIONISM to the geometricism of Malevich and Mondrian and the biomorphism of Joan Miro, who also uses the dream imagery of SURREALISM, and of Henry Moore. For Wassily Kandinsky (I866-1944), the non-figurative use of pure colour was a means of exerting'a direct influence on the soul' (19I2). Both he and Paul Klee draw analogies between abstract painting and music; atonal music is often
cited by ADORNO (I949, 1968) and others as an equivalent to abstraction in the visual arts.
Whilst abstract or non-figurative elements have been part of the European tra
dition for centuries (both the Jewish and Islamic traditions forbid the portrayal of
living creatures), the emergence of a specifically abstract art is really a feature of the i
twentieth century. There is no one theory of abstraction, but the German writer i
Wilhelm Worringer's distinction (I908) between 'abstraction' and 'empathy' (Ein
fiihlung) introduces some important themes. 'Empathy' is said to be characteristic
of an organic and humanist art, whilst iabstraction'and geometric stylization are |
described as typifying Byzantine and African art (an important point of reference 1'
for Picasso and post-cubism), and as expressing an ianxious relationship'with the
world. Paul Cezanne (I839-I906) appeared to make the case for abstraction when
he spoke of 'treating nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone', but
was in fact thinking more of the classical tradition of Poussin and the seventeenth '
century (Verdi I992). His words do, however, hint at the neo-Platonist theory that
informs those versions of abstract art which seek to capture the pure forms that
lie behind observable reality. Significantly, both the Russian Kandinsky and the
Dutchman Piet Mondrian (see the texts collected in Holtzmann and James I987)
were strongly influenced by mysticism and theosophy, and saw abstraction as a
means of attaining a higher reality. Cezanne's words also appear to anticipate the
views of the Italian sculptor Umberto Boccioni (I882-I9I6), who described sculpture
as being based on the abstract reconstruction of the planes and volumes that
determine form rather than upon its figurative value.
Both the cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque (see Cooper and Tinterow
I983) and FUTURISM'S depiction of movement inaugurate a process of abstraction I
by introducing multiple-perspective images of the same object and thus breaking ~.
with the single-point perspective that dominated the Western tradition from the ~
Renaissance onwards. Post-cubist abstraction moves in different directions, with I i
the Fauves USillg pure colour and the Dutch De Stijl and German Bauhaus move
ments using strictly defined pure geometric forms and anticipating INTERNATIONAL
STYLE. In the early twentieth century, abstraction is often associated with
utopianism. Mondrian dreamed of creating a new art for a new world, and the same
social optimism is present in the many forms of abstract art that flourished in Russia
immediately after the I9I7 Revolution and before the rise of SOCIALIST REALISM and
Zhdanovism (ZHDANOV; Grey I962). ~.
New York's Armory Show of I9I~, which displayed contemporary European modernism alongside examples of an American art still dominated by realism, inspired a new abstractionism that was to culminate in the 'abstract impressionism' that Greenberg hailed as the true avant-garde in the I9505. Its greatest exponent was Jacksen Pollock (I9I2-56), whose enormous 'drip' paintings finally abolish the distinction between form and content: the skeins of paint are both subject and
content of the painting. ,
The Royal Academy's exhibition A New Spirit in Paindug (I980) was widely interpreted as marking a return to figurative art and the end of abstraction. Theorists of POSTMODERNISM are often highly critical of the puritanism of abstraction (Jencks
1996), but aDstract art nas Deen one 01 ~lle uennmg reatures ot the twentieth century.
READING: Abstractron: Towards a New Art. Painting I9IOI920 (I980); Moszynska _