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.
Rock Bottom, 1960-1961 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991