In our often chaotic world, geometric abstract art creates a sense of balance and structure. To the casual observer, however, it can sometimes seem too intellectual and detached from the natural world. It is often judged to be lacking in emotion, whereas the grand gestures of the abstract expressionist painters convince viewers more easily of their passion for life. However, to dismiss it in this way is to do it a great disservice and we need only to consider the motivation behind the work of some of the great geometric abstract artists to find proof of this.
Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian are two of the earliest geometric abstract artists and both embraced the use of order and geometry in their paintings to convey emotion in its purest form. The boundaries they created in their abstract geometric paintings celebrate spiritual aspects of the human experience and go far beyond the world of our immediate understanding.
For Malevich, geometric abstraction was the perfect way to strip back the clutter of life and to get to the heart of what really mattered: the communication of pure artistic feeling. This ‘supremacy’ of feeling was fundamental to his work. (Malevich and his followers were known as Suprematists). He chose to use a simple black square against a white background to convey this. The black square expressed the feeling and the white surrounding it expressed the void beyond.
For Mondrian, a pattern of strong black lines encasing blocks of primary colour on a white background was the perfect visual language to convey his belief in a world beyond our reality. Theo van Doesburg, a co-founder with Mondrian and others of the De Stijl movement, was equally inspired by this abstraction of reality and use of geometric shapes and patterns.
Wassily Kandinsky, credited with producing the first abstract painting, using only shapes and form to express his visceral responses to music and colour, also embraced geometric abstract art, particularly during his period as a teacher at the Bauhaus.
These artists had none of the visual images of the geometry in nature so widely available now yet they had an innate understanding of the way in which geometric shapes and patterns were so fundamental to the structure of the world. Geometric abstract art was the equivalent of a universal visual and artistic language.
They demonstrated that triangles, squares, circles and straight lines carefully placed and repeated with precision can take us beyond the boundaries of our perceived reality. Their work offers the viewer an unexpected level of emotional engagement that is both moving and hypnotic.
A new generation of abstract geometric artists emerged in the 1950s and set out to dispense with the overspill of emotion they perceived in the work of the abstract expressionists of the time. Artists such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Al Held turned to geometric abstraction as a means of making their art less subjective. Colour is central to their work, as is their use of hard edges and the elimination of all signs of brushwork. Their paintings echo the purity of feeling that Kasimir Malevich sought to convey. There is simplicity and beauty in this approach and few artists demonstrate this better than Ellsworth Kelly whose large geometric shapes in vivid primary colours create a powerfully engaging visual experience.
The best geometric abstract art assures us that all is well with the world and reflects back to us something we innately understand: that our world is not the chaotic, disorganised place it sometimes seems but rather an exquisitely designed, well-ordered and balanced environment we can only marvel at.