There were several movements throughout art history that helped shape modern abstraction and develop a clearer purpose of these works. The four chief movements in abstract painting included: Cubism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction.
Abstract paintings are meant to be thoughtful contemplations in their own right, the meaning interpreted by the spectator.
Cubism is a radical movement that was a turning point in the world of Western art during the early twentieth century. The Cubists, as they were referred, did not depict naturalistic representations, but preferred compositions of shapes and forms that “abstracted” from the conventionally perceived world.
“They dissected life’s continuous optical spread into its many constituent features, which they then recomposed, by a new logic of design, into a coherent aesthetic object” (Kleiner, 2003, p. 795). The Cubists’ rejection of traditional forms is an illustration of the early twentieth century’s new avant-garde attitude.
These abstract works were born out of the public’s idea that the world was not necessarily a concrete Newtonian world, these notions brought out by the modern physicists of the time including Einstein. “One of the basic meanings of Cubism is that a work of art depends upon both the external reality of nature and the internal reality of art” (Rosenblum, 1966, p. 58).
The artistic revolutionaries, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, are often credited for starting the Cubism movement. The aim of these artists was to dissect the forms of their subjects. This dissection was then put onto their respected canvasses for the viewer to witness.
“Their type of Cubism involved analyzing the form and investigating the pictorial elements in order to convey meaning” (Kleiner, 2003, p. 795). A prime example of this type of abstract painting is the work “The Portuguese” by Georges Braque. In this piece, he dissects the form in the work and uses muted browns as his color palette.
This subtle use of color was meant to draw the viewer’s eye to the form of the piece and to not be distracted by the color of the work. The complexity of the work is apparent by the large intersecting planes that make it a guess at what the subject could possibly be.
That was one of the aims of Cubism, to make it a mere impossibility to arrive at a finite meaning of a piece. The constantly shifting imagery makes it hopeless to arrive at a final reading of the image.
The movement of Futurism was a mere extension of the aims that the Cubists were trying to achieve with their work. The main difference between the Cubists and the Futurists were that the Futurists had a sociopolitical purpose.
These artists were angry over the political and cultural decline of Italy; therefore, they decided to propose revolution through both the literature and art of the time. “When the Futurist manifesto was first launched in 1910 by the painters Boccioni, Carrà and Russolo, its primary aim was to bring Italian painting on to the European scene and oppose all forms of provincialism” (Ballo, 1958, p. 14).
The aim of these compositions was to launch Italy towards a glorious future. They felt the need for war in order to erase the country’s past. The Futurists had extremely radical ideas; they called for the destruction of libraries and museums, in order to start anew. The art of the Futurists focused on motion, in both time and space.
The forms within their paintings were not purely abstract. “Futurism encouraged a new boldness of execution and a more adventuresome exploration of effect” (Taylor, 1961, p. 22). The blending of Futurism and the ideas of Cubism is evident in the composition by Gino Severini entitled “Armored Train.”
This work encompasses the act of motion as well as the idea of revolution. The painting features group of soldiers upon a train shooting at an unknown target. In abstract fashion, the artist depicts all of the objects into planes.
The purpose of these types of pieces was to promote war and to inspire revolution. Therefore, the ideas behind this artistic and political movement led to the fascist regime that would emerge in Italy during World War II.
A departure from abstraction would rule the art world following the Futurist movement. It was not until the 1940s, that works of abstraction would gain popularity again. “Abstract Expressionism, the first avant-garde American movement, would emerge in New York during the 1940s” (Kleiner, 2003, p. 859).
This movement would produce paintings that were abstract in form, but would also express the state of the artist’s mind. The aim of these artists was to reach out emotionally to the viewers of their works. This movement was inspired by the popular psychiatric theories of the time.
These artists attempted to broaden their artistic processes by expressing what Carl Jung referred to as the “collective unconscious.” These artists were able to achieve this by turning inward in order to create their work. The compositions typical of this movement were wild and full of energy.
The artists of this movement intended to have the viewers of their work understand the content through their own intuition. These painting were meant to be felt and to express a person’s absolute emotions.
The Abstract Expressionists felt strongly about the importance of freedom. They aimed for people to see their pieces without memory or association. As artist Mark Rothko explained, “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or life, we make it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.
The image we produce is understood by anyone who looks at it without nostalgic glasses of history” (Kleiner, 2003, p. 860). This movement had two central groups: the gestural abstractionists and the chromatic abstractionists.
In gestural abstraction pieces, the composition relied on the expressiveness of energetically applied color. Meanwhile, the chromatic abstraction works used color’s emotional resonance as their central focus.
The most famous gestural abstractionist artist would likely be Jackson Pollock. By the 1950s, he was comfortable with the abstract style and was creating his own unique paintings. Pollock was best known for using mural size canvasses and composing his paintings out of drips and splatters of paint.
These compositions were reminiscent of spider webs and were full of energy. His methods of composing his pieces (using sticks and brushes, he flung and dripped paint) emphasized the method of creation. Pollock wished to create art that was equally spontaneous and choreographed. His technique was to immerse himself into his work as he created.
His painting rejected the traditional aspects of painting and became abstraction in its truest form. The paintings contained no central focus and were representative of internalized feelings.
The downside of this type of this was the more Pollock "pushed his imagery toward abstraction, the wider became the range of possible interpretations and the greater the risk of misinterpretation" (Cernuschi, 1992, p. 132).
The energy behind the compositions in the method of chromatic abstraction was muted in comparison. “Chromatic abstraction did not pretend to have any philosophical or moral claims at all. The works in this genre meant to specify sensations and appearances in the immediate environment” (Frascina, 1985, p. 116).
The emotions that they wish to convey in their works were displayed by their use of color. These works were simplified observations of objects. Their main feature was “zips,” which were lines that ran from one side to the painting to the other.
These zips were not meant to be seen as specific entities, but rather as accents that give energy to the paintings. This method of simplification used in chromatic abstraction enabled the artist to express his feelings by the mere use of color.