Abstraction and meaning

Abstraction and meaning

The current Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “abstract” as: “having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content.” On the other hand, even carefully depicted, realistic imagery is in a sense abstract: it is created from a distillation of the observable world through the subjective vision of an artist. When we look at an art object, we can often consider how it sits within the two extremes of pure form and closely-observed representation. Before the twentieth century, the concept of fully abstract, non-representational art did not exist, though the pattern, ornament and decoration common in most cultures embodies many of the qualities we associate with abstraction. The breakthrough of abstract art meant the artist could let form stand on its own, and it led to a great deal of freedom and experimentation in the modern period; yet all form carries meaning at some level, and considering the degree to which something is “abstract” is one of great tools we have when looking at art.

The image depicts a dark grey/black square with three 90-degree white lines arranged across the square.

Pure form

Around 1910 and the decade that followed, artists in both Europe and the United States began exploring purely abstract forms--ones not tied to any system of representation but standing on their own--as a new type of art.
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Portrait of Dona Maria Rosa de Rivera, Condessa de la Vega del Ren Diaz, Pedro José
 Oil on canvas
 Object: 78 3/4 x 52 3/8 in. PL2016.48

Parts of a whole: pattern, ornamentation, decoration, detail

Artists of almost every culture have created systems of ornament, pattern and decoration, often ones which enhance the beauty and visual appeal of everyday objects such as storage containers, furniture, clothing, and textiles.
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The image depicts a strip of white cloth pulled taut across a square grey canvas. The fabric is knotted in the upper left-hand corner and fans out towards the bottom right-hand corner.

Material as metaphor and symbol

Incorporating everyday objects (known as ”found” material) has been common since the early twentieth century. Each of these artists have created powerful metaphorical associations through their use of specific materials or forms.
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The image is predominantly yellow, with many small blocks of color (black, white, and red) distributed throughout the painting.

Abstract space

Representing space is a particular challenge for artists because human perception of space is so varied and complicated: much more so, for example, than our perception of a single object. This is especially true when painters use a two dimensional surface to represent three dimensions.
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