Abstract art is a form of modern and post-modern art that focuses on the power of each individual work to express compositions in a new way. Works in this genre are often non-representational (which means that the artist’s forms may vary from a small degree of inaccurate representation of images to total abstraction with no recognizable imagery). Abstract art includes the movements of Cubism, Neoplasticism, and Abstract Expressionism. With the Cubist works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, abstract art appeared regularly in the West by the early 1900s. Artists often mirrored changes in science and technology in the twentieth century with abstract art forms.
Born in 1914 in the Siberian town of Chelyabinsk, abstract artist Esphyr Slobodkina offers a glimpse of abstract art in the first half of the twentieth century. In Composition (1940), oil on gessoed masonite, she creates forms using solid colors, including blue, purple, red, brown, grey, white and black. With simple shapes, the observer sees the importance of line. The abstract artist might intentionally use vertical, horizontal, or diagonal lines or simple shapes in a particular pattern to create movement or another visual effect. When shapes are not clearly defined in abstract art, other elements like color and line might become more important.
Color choices were important in another work, Abstraction with Red Circle (c. 1938); the artist uses a simpler combination of colors, including black, muted grays, yellow, red, and green. The last three colors are used to make small shapes stand out on the otherwise black and gray work. In these two works, we see that the subject and the specific shapes are not individually important. Rather, shapes combine to achieve balance. The great thing about Slobodkina is that she did not just paint. She wrote and illustrated children’s books, including the famous title, Caps for Sale, a Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys, and Their Monkey Business. She died at the age of 93 in 2002.
Mark Rothko, an Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker, was born in 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia. His original name was Marcus Rothkovich, and his hometown is now part of the modern state of Latvia. Rothko was a pioneer of the style of the 1950s and 1960s called color field theory in which large areas of color decorate the whole canvas. The field of color implies that the forms move beyond their borders into infinity. In “Untitled Work” (1955), the artist uses three rectangles (red, black, and white on yellow) to create a color composition on the picture. Rothko painted many rectangle compositions, and in his final years he painted contemplative murals at Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Rothko died in 1970.
Abstract art offers many more examples of the artist’s partial or complete departure from representational technique, and it thrives in the post-Modern world.
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