Abstract Art Definition Characteristics: What is Abstract Art?

The definition of abstract art has been something that has been debated and discussed over and over again. The literal definition is the “distancing of the concept from objective references.” In the visual art world, abstract means the absence of any intentional representational forms. I’m not a huge fan of the word abstract, but it is the easiest way to describe my art. I prefer the terms non-objective and non-representational when it comes to discussing my type of art, because it gets closer to the point. So how did this all start?

For thousands of years, art had an expectation to be representational. It had to be a picture of something, for example, a landscape including a tree or a still life of fruit. The interpretations were very literal. If an artist wanted to convey the feeling of joy, they might create an artwork of a happy gathering of people, and the visual characteristics associated with this feeling was something everyone could easily interpret. As Homer Simpson famously said to Marge, “I like your art, it looks like what it looks like.” Abstract artists taken the bold task of evoking the same feelings another artist might achieve through a literal representation of an object without showing any obvious thing. The father of abstract art, for all intensive purposes, is Wassily Kandinsky. There were definitely other abstract artworks out there somewhere, but he was the first one to seriously exhibit abstract paintings when he brought his abstraction to America during the Armory show in 1913. Kandinsky’s first abstract watercolor is called Untitled from 1910, and it consists of floating colorful forms in a complex composition with a lot of energy and emotion. It looks as fresh today as it did over 100 years ago.

Kandinsky First Abstract Watercolor
Untitled by Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor 1910

In the 1950s, the most important art movement occurred which have the most direct influence on my work, and that was Abstract Expressionism, which started in New York City and sometimes called the New York School. These artists were inspired by Salvador Dali and the Surrealists, specifically the idea that art comes from the unconscious mind, and the characteristics of their work included very gestural brushstrokes and the importance of spontaneity and original forms. The fathers of Abstract Expressionism are Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Pollock created the process of action painting as he dropped and splattered paint while he moved all around the canvas. Rothko created the color field painting which involves huge, ethereal fields of color that you could fall into. There are a lot of other first-generation abstract expressionists that get overshadowed by Rothko and Pollock. Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell became masters of the black and white abstract expressionistic painting bringing forth exquisite compositions heavily based on form. Clyfford Still created massive paintings that pushed organic forms to the far edge of the canvas. Helen Frankenthaler allowed her massive pools of oil paint to slowly be absorbed on unprimed canvas creating beautiful beeding edges.

Mark Rothko And Jackson Pollock Together
Mark Rothko (Left) and Jackson Pollock (Right)

I consider my work a combination of these two processes, while I try to include my own new inventions and techniques, such as painting with my feet outside in a snowstorm. A good abstract painting will keep the viewer engaged for decades. It’s always interesting when people describe what they see in my art, and I enjoy all of the different interpretations, which is what makes art so important to humanity. My job is to create something that is completely unique to anything else, and that’s the main objective. Of course, first and foremost, the basic building blocks of design fundamentals need to be sound: form, color, and composition. Check out one of my recent pieces, Combustion, below. You can see the combination of color field and action painting coming together to create an interesting composition that keeps the viewer engaged.

Combustion Brown Blue Orange Abstract Art
Combustion (2023) by Shawn McNulty | Acrylic on board, 24×24″

1 thought on “Abstract Art Definition Characteristics: What is Abstract Art?”

  1. Are there any explanations regarding the degree of action, chaos, and volume of lines and colors vs. larger areas of different colors without many “arc” of lines/colors?

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