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For much of human history, people made art by trying to represent the world as it appeared around them. Until about 100 years ago, when a bunch of artists stopped trying to do that. It was shocking then and it still upsets and confounds today. How are we supposed to deal with art completely removed from recognizable objects? And why should we? This is the case for Abstraction.

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For much of human history, when people set out to make art, they did so by trying to represent things as they appeared in the world around them.  And then, about a hundred years ago, a bunch of artists stopped trying to do that.  It was shocking.  This is not what art was supposed to be or do.  And no one was given a compass really for navigating this new art terrain, for interpreting it, for appreciating it. 

It's less shocking now, but it still upsets and confounds.  How are we supposed to deal with an art completely untethered from the world of recognizable objects?  And more importantly, why should we?  This is the case for abstraction. 

It's important to note that we didn't just dive headlong into complete abstraction in art.  JMW Turner's seascapes, for example, demonstrate that things that exist in the world can often look abstract.  James McNeil Whistler's Nocturnes show this too, as do Victor Hugo's ink drawings.  But as the nineteenth century unfolded, with the industrial revolution and the invention of photography, life in European and American cities changed dramatically.  And it should come as no surprise that representations of that life changed too. 

Artists were increasingly interested in depicting things non-naturalistically, setting about abstracting things, i.e. starting with worldly subject matter but stylizing it; simplifying it, flattening it.  By the twentieth century, Matisse and Andre Derain were painting familiar things but in unfamiliar ways, using such intense colors and broad brush strokes that a critic dubbed them the fauves, or wild beasts.  Picasso and George Braque pioneered the Cubist style, painting much of the usual still life fodder, but breaking it up into geometric shapes, fragmenting the picture plane, and showing multiple sides of a thing at once. 

Cubism simultaneously revealed more than what the eye could see, fusing multiple perspectives and moments in time, while also drawing attention to the flatness of the canvass itself.  The Italian Futurists wanted to reflect the speed and over stimulation of modern urban life, also collapsing space and time into one image.  German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner used abstraction and rich, unreal colors to depict the chaos and anxiety of the city street.  His contemporaries Franz Mark and Wassily Kandinsky cited influences and diverse as tribal art from Africa, medieval German woodcuts, Russian folk art, Art Nouveau, and art by children. 

But while Mark pursued abstraction to connect with the natural world, Kandinsky's interest was to commune with the spiritual.  He claimed his art was quote, "...what the spectator lives or feels while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture".  For Kandinsky, abstraction was not opposed to Realism, it was Realism.  I mean, there are real things that can't be seen, after all.  Emotion and consciousness are realities.  And maybe they could be painted, too. 

Kazimir Malevich called his brand of abstraction Suprematism, saying his geometric elements alone and in arrangements constituted the "zero" of form, beyond which laid the quote, "supremacy of pure artistic feeling".  In the years leading up to World War I, all these groups with names give the false impression that what was happening was cohesive or organized.  It wasn't.  Abstraction did emerge from an international network of artists who followed what each other were doing. 

But then again, we now know that Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was painting mostly abstract works as early as 1905.  She was part of group called The Five who conducted seances to communicate with spirits through pictures.  Klint's abstractions came from this interest in the spiritual and occult, as well as science, and the depiction of invisible forces like recently discovered electromagnetic fields, x-rays, and infrared light. 

Theosophist Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater had published images in 1901 they called Thought Forms, illustrating their belief that ideas, emotions and sounds manifest as visual auras.  Kandinsky and many others read this work and also saw in music an important parallel, an art form considered on its own terms and freed from the burden of representing things in the world.  Kandinsky liked Wagner and Schoenberg.  Paul Klee loved Bach.  Frantisek Kupka also drew a strong connection between music and painting, believing that without the distraction of subject matter, art could act directly on the soul. 

But Robert Delaunay was quote "horrified" by music and noise and said, "I never speak of mathematics, and never bother with spirit".  He was more concerned with the immediacy and pictorial realities of color and contrast, and his first disk was considered the purist abstraction at the time.  His wife, Sonia Delaunay, illustrated an influential book of poetry, combining abstraction and typography, a style she extended into painting and later into fashion. 

Piet Mondrian found his own way to abstraction, translating his favorite subjects like trees and architecture into gridded arrangements.  Spatial illusion is replaced by what Mondrian termed truth.  For him, everything could be processed into horizontal and vertical lines, revealing the structure of the world through binary oppositions.  So abstraction was never monolithic. 

In the traumatic years of World War I, artists like Paul Klee can be seen as consciously turning away from the material world.  Serving in the German army, Klee wrote in 1915, "the more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract".  After the war, Klee and a number of abstract artists taught at the Bauhaus School, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany.  It was organized around the principle that the crafts were on equal footing with art.  And they sought to elevate the quality of life through architecture and objects as well as art. 

This focus on function as well as form was also adopted by Theo von Doesburg and members of the Dutch De Stijl group.  There was quote, "a new plastic art".  A simplified, geometric style that could serve as a universal aesthetic language for everyday life.  Abstraction also found its way forward through explorations of chance, with Dada like artists Hans Arp collaging squares he dropped arbitrarily onto paper. 

It wasn't all just painting and drawing either--abstract sculpture took hold, for instance, in Russia, with the work Vladimir Tatlin and his professed truth to materials before the war and Aleksandr Rodchenko after it.  Rodchenko exhibited three monochromatic paintings in 1921, after which he wrote, "It's all over.  There is to be no more representation".  He then denounced painting and fine art altogether and with the Productivists aimed to integrate art into life, focusing on the design of posters and ads. 

But of course the enterprise of abstract painting would continue to go on and on and on, and all with different motivations.  There was El Lissitzky, Marsden Hartley, Juan Miro, Alexander Calder, Arshile Gorky, and many others in many parts of the world. 

During World War II, many European artists fled to the US and worked there, including Josef and Anni Albers, Fernand Leger, Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, Hans Hofmann, Andre Masson, and Max Ernst, bringing to approaches to Abstraction with them.  That influx of avant-garde thinking is considered to be an important precondition for the success of the abstract expressionists in New York in the 1940s and 50s. 

Many of those guys looked to ancient myths and archaic cultures in search for timeless subject matter, and were influenced by Jungian psychology as well as jazz.  This largely improvisational approach imparted a kind of directness and immediacy meant to provoke strong emotional responses, through large scale and either dynamic gesture or expansive fields of color. 

The Gutai group in Japan also embraced the canvas as an arena for action, Kazuo Shiraga even painting with his feet.  There was post-painterly abstraction with Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis.  And hard edge abstract painting, which can be used to describe the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Felrath Hines, Agnes Martin, and Ad Reinhardt.  There was Op art, and of course Minimalism, which seemed to boil art down to its most basic materials. 

And then post Minimalism, which emphasized unconventional materials and the physical process of making.  There was Neo-expressionism in the 1980s, Conceptual Abstraction in the 90s.  We're skipping over scads of important and interesting work here, but as we hurtle toward the present, it becomes clear that the abstraction has been deployed by a wide range of artists toward innumerable ends. 

Abstraction is no longer an iconoclastic choice but it has nonetheless proved itself to be a productive field for those who commit themselves to it.  The most compelling abstract work being made today often builds upon the traditions of the medium, recycling and reinterpreting prior approaches toward the creation of something new.  Abstraction can be used to think about technology; its forms and functions.  And also the denial of technology through an emphasis on tactility and physical presence.  It also continues to ask us, what is the right and wrong way to make art?  In what ways can we still intrigue the eye and mind? 

There's a fair bit of grumbling today about how the current inflated art market unfairly privileges abstract painting.  But there's something important at play in that fact.  Much can be contained in abstraction.  It's not just one thing--it could be a mirror, or a window, and it can shift depending on who is looking at it and where and when.  It is done well and it is done poorly.  But the flexibility that makes it open to interpretation also makes it market-friendly and international.  When it's good, it rewards longer stints of looking.  It changes as you change. 

But that expansiveness can also be frustrating, too wide.   But if we zoom out, we can see that many of the core ways we have of interacting with the world are abstract--religion, markets, currency.  And humans have always liked abstractions.  We see abstract patterns way early on in cave carvings and as marks on pottery and textiles.  Geometric marks and forms have been with us all along, often dismissed as decoration, or relegated to the world of craft.  This whole narrative is a farce if we consider how long abstraction has been with us.  That it was not invented so much as discovered, or accepted.  When looked at a different way, what's strange may be the period when humans did not embrace abstraction.