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The Case for Abstraction

For much of human history, people made art by trying to represent the world as it appeared around them. Until about 100 years ago, when a bunch of artists stopped trying to do that. It was shocking then and it still upsets and confounds today. How are we supposed to deal with art completely removed from recognizable objects? And why should we? This is the case for Abstraction. Hear our case for Minimalism: https://youtu.be/XEi0Ib-nNGo Subscribe for new episodes of The Art Assignment every Thursday! -- Follow us elsewhere for the full Art Assignment experience: Tumblr: http://theartassignment.com Response Tumblr: http://all.theartassignment.com Twitter: http://twitter.com/artassignment Instagram: http://instagram.com/theartassignment/ Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/theartassignment and don't forget Reddit!: http://www.reddit.com/r/TheArtAssignment. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[Music] for much of human history when people set out to make art they did so by trying to represent things as they appeared in the world around them and then about a hundred years ago a bunch of artists stopped trying to do that it was shocking this is not what art was supposed to be or do and no one was given a compass really for navigating this new art terrain for interpreting it for appreciating it it's less shocking now but it's still obsessed and confounds how are we supposed to deal with an art completely untethered from the world of recognizable objects and more importantly why should we this is the case for abstraction it's important to note that we didn't just dive headlong into complete abstraction in art JMW Turner seascapes for example demonstrate the things that exist in the world can often look abstract James McNeill Whistler snoc turn show this to as du victor hugo's ink drawings but as the 19th century unfolded with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of photography life in European and American cities changed dramatically and it should come as no surprise that representations of that life changed too artists were increasingly interested in depicting things non naturalistically setting about abstracting things ie starting with worldly subject matter but stylizing it simplifying it flattening it by the 20th century Matisse and Andre Jaffa were painting familiar things but in unfamiliar ways using such intense colors and broad brushstrokes that our critic dubbed them the phobes or wild beasts Picasso and Georges Braque pioneered the Cuba style painting much of the usual still life water but breaking it up into geometric shapes fragmenting the picture plane and showing multiple sides of a thing at once cubism simultaneously revealed more than what the eye could see using multiple perspectives and moments in time while also drawing attention to the flatness of the canvas itself the Italian futurist wanted to reflect the speed and overstimulation of modern urban life also collapsing space and time into one image German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner use abstraction and rich unreal colors to depict the chaos and anxiety of the city street his contemporaries Franz Marc and Vasily Kandinsky cited influences as diverse as tribal art from Africa medieval German woodcut Russian folk art Art Nouveau and art by children but while Mark pursued abstraction to connect with the natural world Kandinsky's interest was to commune with the spiritual he claimed his it was quote what the spectator lives or feels while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture for Kandinsky abstraction was not opposed to realism it was realism I mean there are real things that can't be seen after all emotion and consciousness are realities and maybe they could be painted to kazimir Malevich called his brand of abstraction suprematism saying his geometric elements alone and in arrangements constituted the zero of form beyond which laid the quote supremacy of pure artistic feeling in the years leading up to World War one all these groups with names give the false impression that what was happening was cohesive or organized it wasn't abstraction did emerge through an international network of artists who followed what each other were doing but then again we now know that Swedish painters Hilma off Clint was painting mostly abstract works as early as 1905 she was part of a group called the five who conducted séances to communicate with spirits through pictures clues abstractions came from this interest in the spiritual and occult as well as science and the depiction of invisible forces like recently discovered electromagnetic fields x-rays and infrared light Theosophists Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater had published images in 1901 they called thought forms illustrating their belief that ideas emotions and sounds manifest as visual auras Kandinsky and many others read this work and also saw in music and important parallel an art form considered on its own terms and freed from the burden of representing things in the world Kandinsky liked vogner and Jean Berg Paul clay loved Bach frantisek cupca also drew a strong connection between music and painting believing that without the distraction of subject matter art could act directly on the soul but robert delong was quote horrified by music and noise and said I never speak of mathematics never bother with spirit he was more concerned with the immediacy and pictorial realities of color and contrast and his first disc was considered the purest abstraction at the time his wife Sonya de la neige illustrated an influential book of poetry combining abstraction and typography a style she extended into painting and later into fashion Piett Mondrian found his own way to abstraction translating his favorite subjects like trees and architecture into gridded arrangements spatial illusion is replaced by what Mondrian termed truth for him everything could be processed into horizontal and vertical lines revealing the structure of the world through binary opposition so abstraction was never monolithic in the traumatic years of World War one artists like Paul clay can be seen as consciously turning away from the material world serving in the German army clay wrote in 1915 the more horrifying this world becomes the more art becomes abstract after the war clay and a number of abstract artists taught at the Bauhaus school founded in 1919 and by Marr Germany it was organized around the principle that the crafts were on equal footing with art and they sought to elevate the quality of life through architecture and objects as well as our this focus on function as well as forum was also adopted by Te'o vendors Berg and members of the Dutch two style group theirs was quote a new plastic art a simplified geometric style that could serve as a universal aesthetic language for everyday life abstraction also found its way forward through explorations of chance with Dada artists like Hans ARP collaging squares he dropped arbitrarily onto paper it wasn't all just painting and drawing either abstract sculpture took hold for instance in Russia with the work of vladimir tatlin and his professed truth to materials before the war in alexander rodchenko after it Rodchenko exhibited three monochromatic paintings in 1921 after which he wrote it's all over there is to be no more representation he then denounced painting and fine art altogether and with the productivist aimed to integrate art into life focusing on the design of posters and ads but of course the enterprise of abstract painting would continue to go on and on and on and all with different motivations there was Ella's iski Marsden Hartley Juan Miro Alexander Calder our shield Gorky and many others in many parts of the world during World War two many European artists fled to the US and worked there including Joseph and Annie Albers Fernand Lachey Mondrian Jacques Lipchitz Hans Hofmann Andre muscles and Max Ernst bringing new approaches to abstraction with them that influx of avant-garde thinking is considered to be an important precondition for the success of the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s and 50s many of those guys look to ancient myths and archaic cultures and search for timeless subject matter and were influenced by Jungian psychology as well as jazz this largely improvisational approach a kind of directness and immediacy meant to provoke strong emotional responses through large-scale and either dynamic gesture or expansive fields of color the Goethe group in Japan also embraced the canvas as an arena for action Kazuo sure Agha even painting with his feet there was post-painterly abstraction with Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Lewis and hard-edged abstract painting which can be used to describe the work of Ellsworth Kelly Kenneth Noland Phil Roth Heinz Agnes Martin and ad Reinhardt there was a part and of course minimalism which seemed to boil art down to its most basic materials and then post minimalism which emphasized unconventional materials in the physical process of making there was neo Expressionism in the 1980s conceptual abstraction in the 90s we're skipping over scavs of important and interesting work here but as we hurtle toward the present it becomes clear that abstraction has been deployed by a wide range of artists toward innumerable ends abstraction is no longer an iconoclastic choice but it has nonetheless proved itself to be a productive field for those who commit themselves to it the most compelling abstract work being made today often builds upon the traditions of the media recycling and reinterpreting prior approaches toward the creation of something new abstraction can be used to think about technology its forms and functions and also the denial of Technology through an emphasis on tactility and physical presence it also continues to ask us what is the right and wrong way to make art in what ways can we still intrigue the eye in mind there's a fair bit of grumbling today about how the current inflated art market unfairly privileges abstract painting but there's something important to play in that fact much can be contained in abstraction it's not just one thing it can be a mirror or a window and it can shift depending on who is looking at it and where and when it is done well and it is done poorly but the flexibility that makes it open to interpretation also makes it market friendly and international when it's good it rewards longer stints of looking it changes as you change but that expansiveness can also be frustrating too wide but if we zoom out we can see that many of the core ways we have of interacting with the world are abstract religion Markus currency and humans took always liked abstraction we see abstract patterns way early on in cave carvings and is marks on pottery and textiles geometric marks and forms have been with all along often dismissed as decoration are relegated to the world of craft this whole narrative is a farce if we consider how long abstraction has been with us but it was not invented so much as discovered or accepted when looked at a different way what strange may be the period when humans did not embrace abstraction