Abstract art is defined as art that has no reference to any figurative reality. In its wider definition the term describes art that depicts real forms in a simplified or rather reduced way - keeping only an allusion of the original natural subject. The abstract paintings of Joan Miro are a good example of this wider definition. The term non-figurative is used as a synonym.
Abstract art is not an invention of the twentieth century. In the Jewish and Islamic religion the depiction of human beings was not allowed. Consequently the Islamic and Jewish cultures developed a high standard of decorative arts. Also calligraphy is a form of non-figurative art.
In the twentieth century Wassily Kandinsky is considered as the inventor of non-figurative art. Over a period of several years his paintings moved gradually away from figurative subjects. In 1910 he created the first completely abstract work of art - a watercolor - without any reference to reality. Wassily Kandinsky not only became the first abstract artist, he also promoted it as a theorist. In 1912 his book On the Spiritual in Art was published.
In 1915 another Russian, Kasimir Malewich 1878-1935, exhibited abstract paintings with mostly geometrical forms. While Kandinsky worked in Germany, Malevich had the center of his activity in Moscow. His book The Non-Objective World was published at the Bauhaus in 1927. His radical approach of reducing art to simple geometrical forms, is called the Suprematist movement. Inevitably Malewich got in conflict with the concept of Soviet realism and died in 1935 in oblivion.
World War II and Hitler's persecution of the Jewish people and the condemnation of modern art by the Nazis, led to a wave of immigration of European avant-garde artists to the United States - mainly to New York.
The result was an enormous impact on contemporary American artists. The art movement called Abstract Expressionism was born. It is less a style than a concept of performing art in a spontaneous way without the limits of conventional forms.
Abstract Expressionism was centered in New York. The best known names are Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Other terms used in connection with Abstract Expressionism are New York School and Action Painting - all meaning more or less the same.
Author: Dieter Wanczura