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Abstraction

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Painters and sculptors do not always strive to depict persons and objects realistically. Rather than imitate their subject's natural appearance, some artists deliberately change it. They stretch or bend forms, break up shapes, and give objects unlikely textures or colors. Artists make these transformations in an effort to communicate something they cannot convey through realistic treatment. Works of art that reframe nature for expressive effect are called abstract. Art that derives from, but does not represent, a recognizable subject is called nonrepresentational or nonobjective abstraction.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, artistic direction in Europe moved toward totally abstract visual expression. This trend coincided with revolutionary advances in science and technology, such as Sigmund Freud's development of psychoanalytic theory and explication of the role of the unconscious, and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. City life was changing too, with the pervasive presence of electric lights, automobiles, and skyscrapers. Sparked by these dramatic changes, American artists working in Europe were among those who experimented with unconventional techniques and materials. Alexander Calder's mobiles incorporated movement and chance in delicate, whimsical works that respond to changes in their environment. Marsden Hartley used abstract techniques to express darker influences. The Aero is part of his War Motif series, begun in response to the death of a friend in the early years of World War I.

The pivotal event that brought modernism to America was the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, today better known as the Armory Show. The exhibition exposed American audiences to abstract art for the first time. Many ridiculed the fragmentation of cubism and rejected the charged colors of fauvism and expressionism. A few, however, embraced abstraction, and gradually the new styles were incorporated into the American visual vocabulary.

Energized by new artistic possibilites, American artists synthesized European innovations into a variety of forms. Lyonel Feininger's cubist constructions incorporate the color and movement typical of Italian futurism. Max Weber and John Marin fractured images and reassembled the faceted planes into dynamic compositions. The organic abstractions of Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove add a new dimension to familiar forms from the natural world.

Abstraction dominated American art beginning in the 1930s. Fleeing fascism, a wave of European artists and intellectuals emigrated to the United States, bringing with them avant-garde ideas and artistic approaches. Influenced by the émigrés, American artists became interested in Freudian and Jungian psychological theories that emphasized mythic archetypes, the unconscious, and non-Western imagery. Surrealist art embraced these new theories and tried to illustrate the workings of the unconscious mind. Arshile Gorky's One Year the Milkweed combines biomorphic shapes reminiscent of animal or vegetal forms with loose veils of color to evoke an abstract pastoral scene. Sculptor David Smith's Sentinel series draws from surrealist influences to explore the human form.

Psychoanalytic theory was crucial to the development of abstract expressionism, a movement that began in New York City in the 1940s. The abstract expressionists, though diverse in their technical practices, shared a commitment to creating large-scale works that presented the act of painting as an expression of internal creative energies. Also known as the New York school, theirs was the first American art movement to have international impact and attract wide interest in Europe. Jackson Pollock became the best-known of the group, famous for his method of laying a canvas on the floor of his studio and walking around it, flinging dripping webs of house paint to create intricate laces of color and texture. The chromatic abstractions of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were created using different techniques, but with similar goals in mind. Also monumental in scale, these works use large planes of color as the vehicle of expression instead of brushwork. Color field painting evolved in the work of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis in the 1950s and 1960s. These artists flooded their canvases with pure pigments; subtle variations in saturation and intensity were agents of mood and aesthetic effect. In these nonrepresentational works, color is freed from objective context and becomes the subject in itself.

Artistic trends in the 1960s and 1970s were more ironic in tone, frequently incorporating elements of satire. In abstract expressionism, the presence of the artist becomes manifest in the physical action of painting itself, which can be felt long after the paint has dried. Roy Lichtenstein cleverly played on this concept in his 1965 work, Brushstroke. Lichtenstein reproduced this highly personal symbol of artistic expression using Benday dots, a format he appropriated from the mass production techniques of commercial printing. For the most part, art of this period returned to the figurative, away from the formalist emphasis on materials and process over content. Nevertheless, the tendency to reduce a form to its elemental parts remained current, as seen in Jim Dine's series, Metamorphosis of a Plant into a Fan. Reductive simplicity became the ultimate goal for artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, and Sol LeWitt; their stark, refined geometric designs were dubbed minimalist.

No longer shocking to the eye of the contemporary viewer, abstraction has become prevalent and familiar. Frank Stella used color and line in his racetrack sculptures to create the static embodiment of speed, noise, and power. Martin Puryear works in an abstract style that has been influenced by his exposure to African art, favoring clean lines and organic materials. Robert Rauschenberg has become known for his work in collage and assemblage, combining disparate figurative elements to form abstract patterns. Providing ever-new strategies for artistic expression, abstraction has become an integral part of our visual idiom. Viewers have learned to derive their own associations from abstract art. Several viewers may comprehend an abstract work in the same way, but there may be as many explanations as there are observers.

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