Have you ever tried to remember the first time when you found yourself looking at an abstract art or an abstract painting? Do you remember the thoughts or feelings you had about what you were looking at?
This article is a reflection of some of my own personal and subjective viewpoints and realities as an artist about abstract art with certain references to facts that are in agreement with what I believe myself as to the nature, birth, growth and the evolution of the abstract art outside the boundaries of the esoteric terms of the art academia.
To have a basic and fundamental look at the subject, we should first understand what the word abstract means before we could tackle the understanding of “abstract art” itself; and we learn that abstract in this sense and as a verb means to extract or remove and surprisingly as an adjective means not easy to understand; abstruse. And as a transitive verb it means to take away, remove. It’s origin is from Latin abstrahere ‘draw away’ or ‘draw from.’
Thus, we can conclude that abstract, is generally viewed as a form of art that does not depict anything that resembled the objective or material world; instead it represented new creations that very subjectively were expressions of the inner substance and the spirit of the artist and often through a profound spontaneity that brings out the inner world of the artist.
So, abstract art, being the product of this very natural, uninhibited and unpremeditated impulse in the absence of any external stimulus, is intrinsic and belongs to the very basic nature and the make up of the artist, as the true influence behind his creations.
As I evolved through my own representational art and became more acquainted with the history of art, I learned that abstract art had its roots in the very early dawn of human history when man began to draw on the walls of his cave. These early abstract arts, abstract drawings and abstract paintings – sometimes embellished with organic dyes – often attempted to capture the essential nature and the quality of the objects rather than the actual appearance of them.
As the art historians and art critics formulated their opinions and ideas into prints, more esoteric terms spun off the subject under “non-objective art,” “non-representational art,” and “non-figurative art.” In the field of aesthetics, since none of the principles of creating art have been precisely formulated, this particular branch of humanities has its critics galore with many schools of divergent opinions and thoughts, where esoteric lectures and opinions are listened to with open jaws in lieu of reason, personal expressions suffers under the cloud of confusion.
Centuries long before the birth of abstract expressionism in America, highly figurative arts had existed in the East, namely in the Islamic culture, where calligraphy also as a non-figurative art is taught as a subject starting sometimes as early as in primary schools, as great emphasis is placed upon the pupils’ acquiring and developing skills in calligraphy, as the art of handwriting.
In the Western culture, abstract designs are found in many forms. But abstract arts are uniquely distinguished in composition form in relation to decorative art and fine art, where in abstract art, the results of creation, are spontaneous snapshots of the artist’s thoughts, emotions, and the introspection by which he creates his work of abstract art.
Abstract Expressionism, as we know it today, was born in America in the mid 20th century following a massive exodus of the European avant- garde artists to New York City, making the city the center of the art world; a title that used to be held by Paris. The contemporary American artists were immensely influenced by the influx of this new talent that brought forth the very welcoming freedom of personal expression through the vehicle of spontaneity in the absence of the boundaries and limitations of conventional forms.
The arrival of abstract expressionism in New York was the dawn of a new peaceful artistic revolution by which the artist began to rebel overtly against the status quo. He began a new era where he could freely create towards the future and change the existing scene for a better tomorrow.
Some of the pioneers in abstract expressionism, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, became synonymous with New York School and action painting as they played a significant role in what became deservedly known as avant-garde; a new realm of freedom for the artist to create and construct with an impulse that surmounted any rational and objective realm of reason.
On the more textural side, Jackson Pollock began to re-arrange his easel and painted as he pleased, expressing himself by pouring the paint from within unto the canvas, as he felt. Pollock, as one of the most mavericks of the era, used also his body as an instrument to paint with, as he moved rapidly around his large canvases on the floor, spattering interlacing patterns of paint, like an emotional roller coaster, drawing the viewer into its rhythmic flow of motion, apparently into an infinity of space.
In great contrast to Pollock, Barnett Newman’s color-field paintings, are open fields of vast empty spaces for the viewer to step into them and imagine what they wish to place in them.
Now, for the sake of simplicity, we could categorize art into only representational art and abstract art. Representational art being what we instantly recognize in association to familiar objects, vs. abstract art that requires our thought to perceive the composition of the art and the comparison of our observation with the conclusions we have made in the past, in order to arrive in the immediate instance, where we are. Thus, in our observation of abstract art, the presence or the absence of any emotional responses, brought about as the result of understanding the abstract art, raises the question of, what is truly an abstract art and when does it become successful.
Let’s imagine that we are looking at a representational art, a scenery where it depicts a mossy wooded area cloaked in a low fog with a cascading shallow stream running through it. We can all agree with what we are looking at, appreciate the quality of its beauty, and some of us become awestricken by its magic, and even feel the mist in the air and smell the moss. We like to look at it as a pleasant experience. We sense that it is peaceful, because it has the tendency to make us feel good. It helps us – even if it is for a brief moment – forget our troubles, and transforms our disturbances into a new level of calm, to the point that we could be there, in our imagination. We walk away from the painting and look at other paintings that does not produce the same thoughts and feelings, and we turn and look at it again and again, wanting to have more of the same pleasant experience. Pleasure is what we are experiencing.
This is the emotional reaction we feel towards this very representational art that we fully understand. It communicated to us a certain message within the boundaries of its technical expertise, by which it was created. The technical expertise wasn’t the initial visual attraction, however. It was the message that it communicated to us visually, that attracted us. The virtuosity by which it was created becomes secondary to the significance of the message and the quality of its delivery. Although the message doesn’t have to have the same meaning for every viewer, it is the combination of both, the message and the technical expertise that brings about an understanding that causes the viewer to respond emotionally.
From sketching and carving with sharp stones on the walls of his cave, to the magnificence of today’s technology, man has journeyed through an incredible evolution in the arts among many other dynamics of life. From those who have accepted the boundaries of their culture and environmental factors, have remained true and faithful to what they were permitted and expected to create in the form of various representational and figurative arts. But the more precocious, who had an awareness of higher form of existence and true potential, wanted to move beyond the obvious with no tolerance for suppression and entrapment. They became the visionaries who escaped and sought freedom of expression elsewhere, where the attainment of that freedom was possible.
A great number of European artists and teachers such as Joseph Albers and Hans Hofmann moved to America in mid 20th century and made New York the new Art Center of the world by leaving Paris behind. They brought with them that very freedom of spontaneity to create paintings that became what we know today as abstract expressionism. As unique as our finger prints, each expression, became a new aesthetic signature to reckon with.
However, the basic roots of the transition from representational art to abstract art and expressionistic paintings had begun to grow in the later part of the 19th century in the form of impressionist and neo-impressionists when art had begun to change its face, while still retaining a good degree of resemblance to what it meant to be; and by the time post-impressionism had arrived on the scene, the field of art had already gone through a noticeable change and well on its way towards a major transformation.
Prior to the arrival of this new transformation, and certainly before post-impressionism, the artist was primarily engaged in the natural depiction of the landscape, rather than attempting to tap into the depth of his own emotions by way of his canvas, and connect to the psyche of his audience.
Nothing is more powerful and significant than the birth and the power of a new idea. Nothing can or is capable of stopping an idea. Once an idea is conceived, it cannot be stopped, suppressed or harnessed; because an idea has no mass or form to occupy a physical space and become subjected to the opposing forces, and become vulnerable. A new idea, once conceived, takes on a life of its own, by being nurtured in the powerful lofts of imagination and carried forward in the arms of those who embrace it.
Hans Huffman who became recognized as the father of the abstract expressionism has this to say:
“An idea can only be materialized with the help of a medium of expression, the inherent qualities of which must be surely sensed and understood in order to become the carrier of an idea.” The idea of self-determinism, to permit oneself the ownership of freedom of expression is a luxury that is not for sale, but to attain; a faculty innately available to a few, but attainable by the masses. For some it arrives quickly, and the rest come to embrace it through hardship.
The evolution of art from representational to abstract expressionism required a tremendous level of liberalism and acceptance by those whose help and economic support were instrumental in the survival level of the abstract expressionist painters.
In an essay, very revealing of his philosophy of art, Johannes Itten says: “If new ideas are to assume any artistic forms, the physical, sensual, intellectual and spiritual forces must all be equally available and act in concert.” Truly speaking, Itten says what it takes to create a good artistic expression in terms of the wherewithal necessary to transmit an idea, which is something imagined, felt or pictured in the mind, into the canvas as a successful work of art, which can be sensed and understood by the viewer.
This above criteria outlined by Itten in the early 20th century was a big philosophical bite that required lots of chewing and digestion before earning acceptance and support; so the abstract artists had to endure a very endearing plight in earning and preserving their livelihood.
Before the arrival of the European pioneers and their fortitude, in bringing their very precious gift of abstract paintings, representational artists had no clue as to what freedom of artistic expression really meant to open the door into a new realm of practicing art, which opened a new door and an extension of their inner self.
Faced with the sever opposition of the traditionalists who rejected change, the abstract artists began to express their soul, on their new canvases, with their own newly created rules. In the world of art, where art is traded as a luxury and not a necessity and dependent upon the discretionary money of a few, the arrival of the abstract art in general and in particular abstract expressionism threatened the axles on which the art market was pivoted.
Change became inevitable, and traditionalists broke rank with futurists at the expense of the modern art; but the abstract expressionists became busily involved in experimenting and exploring the various physical entities and invented new tools by which they could apply paint to their canvases.
Suddenly the conventional means by which the artist had painted changed into an ever-changing process of exploration, creation, experimentation, and more creations; each time giving birth to a new technique. The canvases, paints and the studio tools extended far beyond the boundaries of the artist’s studio and into the realm of collage and found objects.
Jackson Pollock was the quintessential action painter, who struggled badly with acceptance, began to use his body as a painting instrument around his vast canvases laid out on the floor and danced with his splashes, drippings and spattering of paint; he developed and mastered the technique of action painting and enjoyed some of the sprouts of a great new fame and fortune before he fell victim to the demons of his culture at the ripe age of 42. He left a great legacy behind, which continued to inspire many abstract artists through the variety of great canvases which he left behind.
This is what Pollock have said in part about his paintings: “It’s all a big game of construction, some with a brush, some with a shovel, some choose a pen. The method of painting is the natural growth out of need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. It doesn’t matter how the paint is put on, as long as something is said. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. The modern artist is working with space and time and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating. When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about. The painting has a life of its own. Every good painter paints what he is.”
Another great artist and contemporary painter from the abstract expressionists group is Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg created collages with found objects on the streets of New York City and defied every conceivable traditionalist’s rule as he progressed through his career, which became quite deservedly rewarding, earning him the recognition, notoriety and financial success in the past few decades. He later moved to, Florida to get away from New York City, where he continue to create his art on the quiet and affluent shores of Captiva Island.
One of the most inspiring techniques of Rauschenberg worth remembering, is his concept of leaving enough to chance for the sake of discovery, where the artist enjoys the serendipity of unexpected happenstance.
The two most prominent style of abstract expressionism, were the action painters engaging use of textures, spattering and drippings of paint throughout, gesturing the mood of the artist, and the color-field painters who expressed their work through the unified fields of color and shapes, while many other painters made use of both styles in their work.