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Abstraction: How did we get here? I don’t recognize anything! As you look at these works of art, ask yourself: Is the artist using abstraction to… explore the tension created between different shapes

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Abstraction: How did we get here? I don’t recognize anything!


As you look at these works of art, ask yourself:

Is the artist using abstraction to…

  • explore the tension created between different shapes
  • deliberately deconstruct the act of seeing
  • construct a landscape of color (abstract expressionism—see Rothko and Frankenthaler)
  • dissolve linear perspective
  • create a “pure” image that focuses only on shape and color
  • create a collection of potent symbols
  • focus the viewer on the act of creation (gesturalist—see J. Pollack)

Is this abstract work referential? Does the artist use the ostensible subject as a jumping off point which allows him to…

  • focus the viewer on the color and pattern
  • use color to evoke a mood or emotion
  • evoke the dynamism of modern age

terms: referential


dynamism (energy and power and speed)


assemblage (when hoarders become artists!)



Vasily Kandinsky Der Blaue Reiter 1903

One of the founders of Der Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky hoped to awaken spirituality and to inaugurate “a great spiritual epoch” through the sheer force of color. He is considered the very first artist to paint completely abstract works of art.


Andre Derain Mountains at Collioure 1905

Stokstad writes that “Derain’s assertive colors, which he likened to ‘sticks of dynamite,’ do not record what he actually saw in the landscape but rather generate their own purely artistic energy” (1063). Again, the landscape—the subject—is used as an occasion for exploring the artist’s ideas about color


George Braque Violin and Palette 1909-1910

Stokstad writes that in this work, “the gradual elimination of space and recognizable subject matter is well under way. The still-life items are not arranged in illusionistic depth but are parallel to the picture plan in shallow space…Braque knit the various elements together into a single shifting surface of forms and colors” (1076).

As viewers, we can perceive the violin in the center foreground and palette in the upper background, but the forms are broken up to such an extent that they are beginning to lose their identities.


Pablo Picasso Ma Jolie 1911-1912

This image is supposed to be a portrait of a woman. Where did she go? Her identity—her very form one could argue—was consumed by cubism and the artist’s desire to “play with” depictions of space.

The gallery text at the MOMA reports that “Ma jolie (My pretty girl) was the refrain of a popular song performed at a Parisian music hall Picasso frequented. The artist suggests this musical association by situating a treble clef and music staff near the bold, stenciled letters. Ma jolie was also Picasso\'s nickname for his lover Marcelle Humbert, whose figure he loosely built using the signature shifting planes of Analytic Cubism. This is far from a traditional portrait of an artist\'s beloved, but there are clues to its representational content.”


Vasily Kandinsky Landscape with Factory Chimney 1910

Again, as viewers we can decipher forms. Notice how Kandinsky is working to “release colour from its subservience to the object” (Hamilton, 207). “The colours are so saturated that they seem to detach themselves from the forms, creating a design which exists apart from their descriptive function” (Hamilton, 207).


Franz Marc Fighting Forms 1914

In this work Marc “penetrates beyond the description of his beloved animals to the sources of psychic energy common to human and non-human consciousness, transforming the appearance of animal energies as physical exertion into abstract lines and planes expressive of more universal spiritual forces” (Hamilton, 218).


Robert DelaunaySun, Tower, Airplane 1913

Fauvism and Analytic Cubism

Delaunay is combining the Fauvist love of color with Braque and Picasso’s “mania” for breaking up forms into planes.


Robert Delaunay Homage to Bleriot 1914

This work celebrates the first flight across the English channel.

For Delauney, “colour is form and subject; it is the sole theme that develops…colour is a function of itself” (Hamilton, 266).


Umberto Boccioni The City Rises 1910

This work is Boccioni’s first major Futurist painting. The energies unleashed by the expansion of Milan are represented by ‘immense horses symbolizing the growth and the desperate labour of the great city, thrusting her scaffolding towards the sky’” (Hamilton, 282).



Futurism never really got off the ground. This movement was largely a manifesto; more words were written than actual works of art made. Another problem was that proponents of Futurism glorified war—which turned out to be a pretty tasteless stance once the carnage of WWI got underway.

At any rate, futurists used abstraction to represent and celebrate the pulsating dynamism of the modern city—of the modern industrial age in which trains and airplanes and automobiles suddenly sped across the landscape at heretofore unimaginable speeds.


Henri Matisse

The Yellow Curtain


For Matisse, color and pattern became most important.


Kazimir MalevichSuprematist Composition: White on White


Malevich was interested in visual analogies for the values of consciousness.

Suprematism was about the supremacy of feeling in creative art.




Modrian was interested in the dynamic tension between two “equivalent forms.”



Piet Mondrian

Broadway Boogie Woogie


de Stijl (the Style)

Adherents of de Stijl movement believed that there were two kinds of beauty: 1. a sensual or subjective beauty and 2. a rational, objective, universal beauty--

Modrian pursued the representation of this second kind of beauty.


Louise Nevelson

Dawn’s Chapel IV



Louise Nevelson

Royal Game I



Willem de Kooning

Woman I



Willem de Kooning

Woman V



Willem de Kooning

Woman and Bicycle



Rothko Chapel The Rothko Chapel is an interfaith sanctuary, a center for human rights — and a one-man art museum devoted to 14 monumental paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. The Houston landmark, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, opened its doors 40 years ago, in February 1971.

For the past four decades, the chapel has encouraged cooperation between people of all faiths — or of no faith at all. While the chapel itself has become an art landmark and a center for human-rights action, the sanctuary\'s creator never lived to see it finished. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.

Meditation And Modern Art Meet In Rothko Chapel by Pat Dowell


Rothko Chapel The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.  On the plaza, Barnett Newman\'s majestic sculpture, Broken Obelisk, stands in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Anselm Kiefer

The March Heath1974


Anselm Kiefer



Anselm Kiefer



Minor White

Point Lobos, California



Minor White

Snow on Garage Door, Rochester



Minor White

Capitol Reef, Utah