Abstract art is generally taken to mean painting and sculpture by artists for whom the manner and the means are the subject rather than the representation of any object. All art is abstract to some degree; that is, it is removed from the perceived elements of nature. The sculpture of archaic Greece, of Egypt, of primitive tribes, both ancient and modern, use simplified, often geometricized forms, and the frescoes of Giotto Di Bondone thus honor the two-dimensionality of his medium.
The term abstract art, however, is best used to signify a main line of development that only began in this century with the profound desire in modern art to express the continuum of inner life in purely pictorial terms. Abstract art’s beginnings can be traced to James McNeill Whistler’s “art for art’s sake” theories and to his Arrangements, Symphonies, and Nocturnes, closely related to the art of music, which, to many abstractionists, is the universal abstract language.
Wassily Kandinsky, in 1910, made his first consciously abstract watercolor, a composition of swirling, interacting spots of color deeply related to his love of music, the basis of his aesthetic principle. During the same year, Kandinsky began to write Concerning the Spiritual in Art, expounding his metaphysically based ideas concerning inner reality. In 1911-12, the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka painted what is often considered the first totally abstract canvas, Fugue in Red and Blue (National Gallery, Prague), whose rhythmic patterns of color were directly inspired by musical correspondences. Pure color as both form and subject was the central idea in the Orphism of Robert Delaunay and Francis Picabia, which developed beginning in 1912.
Pure abstraction was, however, carried to its most extreme limits by the Russians, beginning in 1913, who extended the philosophical and geometric elements of cubism and developed an architecturally based abstraction completely removed from exterior realms. The most far-reaching experimentation in abstract art as the expression of the reality of the fourth dimension (inner reality) took form in the Rayonism of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov (begun by Larionov in Moscow in 1911-12); the constructivism of Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner and Vladimir Tatlin; the Nonobjectivism of Alexnader Rodchenko; and the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich. The principles established by these artists have had wide significance in successive abstract art movements from the Bauhaus during the 1920s and ’30s to the structures of minimal art during the 1960s.
Chief among the other innovators of abstract art are Piet Mondrian and artists of the De Stijl movement (such as Theo Van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck), developed in the Netherlands around 1917. In neoplasticism, Mondrian developed his ideas of pure plastic (formative) relationships as the basis for attaining the objective purity and universality of mathematics. In his philosophical reduction of form to the use of the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) and the right angle in horizontal-vertical position, Mondrian exerted great influence both on architecture and on painting, from the Bauhaus to the American Abstract Artists (founded in New York in 1936) to the American abstract expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s.
Abstract art, defined as the expression in pictorial terms of the universal structures and rhythms of inner reality, has continued as the central concern of numerous painters, sculptors, and architects to the present, all of whom have, to some degree, worked from the fundamental contributions of the pioneers in the field.