Term used in an art context in several ways: in general for processes of imagemaking in which only some of the visual elements usually ascribed to ‘the natural world’ are extracted (i.e. ‘to abstract’), and also for the description of certain works that fall only partially, if at all, into what is commonly understood to be representational. Differing ideas and manifestations of abstraction appeared in artists’ works in the successive modern movements of the 20th century (see Abstract art). As the notion of abstraction in the second sense is always dependent on what the parameters of representation are thought to be, the two terms can be contiguous in definition, raising interesting points for the general theory of reference. For instance, an abstract work is often defined as one that does not represent anything, but not every work that does not represent anything is necessarily abstract. A painting that has a fictitious subject, for example a painting of Don Quixote or Camelot, does not represent anything (for there is no such person or place) but is not therefore abstract. A Zeus-picture or a Paradise-picture is no more abstract than a Napoleon-picture or a Paris-picture. An abstract work neither represents anything nor is representational....
(b Šid, Serbia, March 14, 1921; d Zagreb, Croatia, Dec 18, 1987).
Croatian art historian, critic, curator, and conceptual artist. His father was the landowner Ilija Bašičević Bosilj, who became a ‘naïve’ painter in the 1950s. Dimitrije studied art history in Vienna, than Zagreb. He graduated from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Zagreb with the PhD in Art History in 1956. In the fierce polemics about abstract art in the 1950s, he sided with those promoting abstraction. He not only wrote about it, but also participated in organizing Salon 54, the first group exhibition of abstract paintings in Croatia (and the former Yugoslavia), which was held in Rijeka in 1954. From 1960 until 1964 he was a curator at the Gallery of Primitive Art (now Croatian Museum of Naïve Art). In 1965 he became a curator of the Benko Horvat Collection within the Galleries of the City of Zagreb (now Museum of Contemporary Art) and, when its Centre for Film, Photography and Television opened in ...
Roy R. Behrens
(b Cleveland, OH, Aug 23, 1906; d Red Wing, MN, Dec 26, 2004).
American painter and theorist. Biederman worked as a graphic designer for several years before studying art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1926 to 1929. A week after his arrival he saw a painting by Cézanne that greatly influenced his subsequent thought. He lived in New York from 1934 to 1940, except for a nine-month period in 1936–7 when he lived in Paris. He began to make reliefs in 1934. His visits in Paris to the studios of Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, César Domela and Antoine Pevsner made him aware of De Stijl, Neo-Plasticism, Abstraction-Création and Constructivism. He also met Léger, Miró, Arp, Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, Alberto Giacometti, Picasso and Brancusi.
Shortly before returning to New York in 1938, Biederman made his first abstract reliefs, which he termed ‘non-mimetic’ (e.g. New York, Number 18, 1938; New York, Met.). In the same year, while visiting Chicago, he attended a seminar given by the Polish-born writer Alfred Korzybski, founder of the General Semantics Institute, which strongly influenced his later theories about history as an evolutionary process. He moved to Red Wing, near Minneapolis, MN, in ...
(b Winterthur, Dec 22, 1908; d Zurich, Dec 9, 1994).
Swiss architect, sculptor, painter, industrial designer, graphic designer and writer. He attended silversmithing classes at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich from 1924 to 1927. Then, inspired by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925), Paris, by the works of Le Corbusier and by a competition entry (1927) for the Palace of the League of Nations, Geneva, by Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer (1894–1952), he decided to become an architect and enrolled in the Bauhaus, Dessau, in 1927. He studied there for two years as a pupil of Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky, mainly in the field of ‘free art’. In 1929 he returned to Zurich. After working on graphic designs for the few modern buildings being constructed, he built his first work, his own house and studio (1932–3) in Zurich-Höngg; although this adheres to the principles of the new architecture, it retains echoes of the traditional, for example in the gently sloping saddle roof....
(b Copenhagen, Dec 24, 1909; d Halmstad, Sept 13, 1957).
Danish painter and writer. He was the son of the art historian and museum director Carl V. Petersen (1868–1938), who introduced him to the visual arts at an early age. His extensive knowledge of art history had a considerable influence on the development of his paintings and artistic theories. He had private painting lessons before beginning studies at the Kunstakademi in Oslo in 1929. In 1930–31 he studied with Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus in Dessau, after which he returned to Denmark inspired by new conceptions of a completely abstract art. He became a central figure in Danish artistic life in the 1930s. He was a founder-member of the Danish artists’ group Linien (The Line) in 1933, at that time an association of abstract and Surrealist artists, and he edited the group’s journal of the same name.
Bjerke-Petersen was an active artistic experimenter. He favoured Constructivist abstraction at the beginning of the 1930s. His ideas, based on first-hand knowledge of the newest international developments in the art of the time, as for example in the Bauhaus-influenced ...
(b Croydon, London, March 31, 1888; d Toronto, March 21, 1955).
Canadian painter, critic and writer of English birth. He emigrated in 1905 to Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. In 1921 he moved to Toronto to work as an editor and publisher. He is best known as a pioneer of abstract painting in Canada. His show (1927) at Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club was the first solo exhibition of abstract art by a Canadian artist. His early work is characterized by the bold non-objective imagery seen in the complex Sounds Assembling (1928; Winnipeg, A.G.). After 1930 he reassessed his artistic direction: he turned first to figurative imagery (e.g. Torso, 1937; Ottawa, N.G.) and then looking to Cubism he re-examined the nature of abstraction in his painting, without returning to the non-objectivity of his earlier work. Between 1926 and 1930 Brooker wrote ‘The Seven Arts’, a syndicated column of art criticism for the Southam Press. In addition, he edited The Yearbook of the Arts in Canada...
(b Utrecht, Aug 30, 1883; d Davos, Switzerland, March 7, 1931).
Dutch painter, architect, designer and writer. He was officially registered as the son of Wilhelm Küpper and Henrietta Catharina Margadant, but he was so convinced that his mother’s second husband, Theodorus Doesburg, was his father that he took his name. Little is known of his early life, but he began painting naturalistic subjects c. 1899. In 1903 he began his military service, and around the same time he met his first wife, Agnita Feis, a Theosophist and poet. Between about 1908 and 1910, much influenced by the work of Honoré Daumier, he produced caricatures, some of which were later published in his first book De maskers af! (1916). Also during this period he painted some Impressionist-inspired landscapes and portraits in the manner of George Hendrik Breitner. Between 1914 and 1915 the influence of Kandinsky became clear in such drawings as Streetmusic I and Streetmusic II (The Hague, Rijksdienst Beeld. Kst) and other abstract works....
(b Lund, Oct 21, 1880; d Berlin, May 19, 1925).
Swedish draughtsman, film maker, painter and writer. After a limited education in Sweden he emigrated to Germany in 1897, where he received a commercial training at Flensburg that year. Around 1900 he began work as a bookkeeper at a watch factory in Le Locle in Switzerland, and from c. 1901 to c. 1907 he worked as a bookkeeper in Milan. There he attended the Accademi di Belle Arti di Brera in the evenings. In 1907 he obtained a post as a bookkeeper at the Lyceum Alpinum in Zuoz, Switzerland, where he was also allowed to teach art. His wife’s ill-health forced him to resign the post and, after a visit to Essen in 1910, he moved to Paris (1911) and became acquainted with Arp, Modigliani, Othon Friesz and Moise Kisling; he was particularly impressed by the work of André Derain, but he probably also studied the work of the Cubists....
(b Vienna, 1908; d London, Dec 5, 1966).
Austrian writer, theorist and teacher. He studied law, psychology and art and was appointed as a magistrate in Vienna in 1936 before leaving for England in 1938. Here he made a substantial reputation for himself as a teacher and lecturer and published a large number of studies, including The Psycho-analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing (1953). At the time of his death he was a Lecturer in Art Education at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, and had just completed his most important work, The Hidden Order of Art (pubd 1967).
Ehrenzweig’s distinctive contribution to the understanding of the visual arts depended on the fact that he worked at a tangent from traditional art history. He greatly admired the way in which his fellow exile from Austria, E. H. Gombrich, provided a psychological interpretation of stylistic change in Art and Illusion (London, 1960). But Ehrenzweig’s own engagement as a teacher was with the immediate and practical problems of textile design. It was through pondering the question of what made a particular motif ‘fertile’—capable of being repeated without its interest being exhausted—that he came to conclusions that also appeared valid for the advanced art of his own period. ...
(b Berlin, April 12, 1871; d Berlin, April 13, 1925).
German architect, designer, writer and teacher. After moving to Munich in 1892, he abandoned his plan to become a teacher, deciding on a career as a freelance scholar. He then studied aesthetics, psychology and philosophy, being particularly influenced by the lectures of the psychologist Theodor Lipps. He also studied German literature, art and music. In 1895 he intended to write a doctorate on the theme of ‘The Construction of Feeling’. In spring 1896 he met Hermann Obrist, who persuaded him to abandon his proposed academic career and become a self-taught artist. As well as book illustrations and decorative pieces for the art magazines Pan and Dekorative Kunst, he produced decorative designs for wall reliefs, carpets, textiles, coverings, window glass and lamps. In 1897 he designed his first furniture for his cousin, the historian Kurt Breysig. His first architectural work, the Elvira photographic studio in Munich (1896–7; destr. 1944), decorated on its street façade by a gigantic, writhing dragon, was a quintessential work of ...
S. J. Vernoit
(b Zagazig, Dec 20, 1906; d Cairo, Feb 21, 1963).
Egyptian historian, sociologist, playwright, literary critic, linguist and art historian. He attended secondary school at the Jesuit Collège de la Sainte-Famille, Cairo, and then pursued his higher education under Ahmad Zaki Pasha in Cairo and at the Sorbonne in Paris under the Orientalists Louis Massignon and Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes. In 1932 he completed two doctoral theses on pre-Islamic Arabia, one on the concept of honour, the other on the nature of linguistic exposition. He travelled widely in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon and Turkey, and in the 1940s began to dedicate more time to writing plays, short stories and literary criticism. He was also editor of the literary journal Al-Muqtaṭaf and researched Egyptian folklore. From 1948 he was consultant to the Egyptian delegation to UNESCO and from 1958 secretary-general of the French Institut d’Egypte. From 1942 he wrote about Islamic art, especially illustrated manuscripts of the 12th to the 14th century from Iraq and Syria, from the point of view of aesthetics and Christian and Muslim iconography. He also wrote about the lawfulness of painting in Islam. He discovered several important Arabic manuscripts with illustrations, and his interpretation of Arab painting was enriched by his extensive knowledge of history and literature. He published academic works and drama in French and Arabic and was one of the first Arab historians to write about Islamic art. He also supported modern art movements, publishing an open letter to the Soviet president Khrushchev in ...
(b Rosario, Santa Fé, Feb 19, 1899; d Comabbio, nr Varese, Sept 7, 1968).
Italian painter, sculptor and theorist of Argentine birth. He moved with his family to Milan in 1905 but followed his father back to Buenos Aires in 1922 and there established his own sculpture studio in 1924. On settling again in Milan he trained from 1928 to 1930 at the Accademia di Brera, where he was taught by the sculptor Adolfo Wildt; Wildt’s devotion to the solemn and monumental plasticity of the Novecento Italiano group epitomized the qualities against which Fontana was to react in his own work. Fontana’s sculpture The Harpooner (gilded plaster, h. 1.73 m, 1934; Milan, Renzo Zavanella priv. col., see 1987 exh. cat., p. 118) is typical of his work of this period, with a dynamic nervousness in the thin shape of the weapon poised to deliver a final blow and in the coarse and formless plinth. Soon afterwards, together with other northern Italian artists such as Fausto Melotti, Fontana abandoned any lingering Novecento elements in favour of a strict and coherent form of abstraction. In ...
Megan A. Sullivan
Term applied retrospectively to a range of non-figurative art characterized by a reliance on geometric forms and a rejection of representation, illusionistic space, and symbolic meaning. Pioneered in early 20th-century Europe by Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Constructivists (see Constructivism, §1), and the Dutch de Stijl group, among others, geometric abstraction found new adherents in the urban centers of many Latin American countries from the 1940s through the 1960s, most prominently in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Despite declining in popularity in the last decades of the 20th century, it still maintains a presence in art practice in the region.
Scholars generally agree that geometric abstraction from Latin America cannot be encapsulated within a single regional framework or conceived of as a unified continental movement. While many of its practitioners knew each other’s work through exhibitions, publications, and travel, ties with European predecessors were often stronger. Not only did Latin American artists position their projects in dialogue with developments of abstract painting in Europe, they also often conceived of their work in universal—rather than national or regional—terms....
(b Paris, Dec 8, 1881; d Avignon, June 23, 1953).
French painter, printmaker and writer. He grew up in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, and as a student at the Collège Chaptal became interested in theatre and painting. At 19, his father put him to work in the family interior design and fabric business, an experience that contributed to a lifelong respect for skilled workmanship. The first paintings he exhibited, at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902, were Impressionist in character, but the work accepted within two years at the Salon d’Automne showed a shift to social themes, a tendency that accelerated until 1908. Compulsory military service from 1903 to 1905 thrust him into the company of working-class people, arousing a permanent sense of solidarity with their aspirations and needs. The results were immediately apparent in the Association Ernest Renan, which he helped to establish in 1905, a kind of popular university with secular and socialist aims. He was also one of the founders of a community of intellectuals based near Paris, the ...
(b Bronx, NY, Jan 16, 1909; d New York, NY, May 7, 1994).
American critic. He studied at the Art Students League in New York (1924–5) and obtained his BA from Syracuse University (1930). He began his writing career while working as a clerk for US Customs, with frequent contributions to Partisan Review on politics, literature, and art. From 1940 to 1943 he was an editor of that journal and from 1942 to 1949 was a regular art critic for Nation. Greenberg came to prominence as the most articulate early proponent of such Abstract Expressionist painters as Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, and Hans Hofmann, and of the sculptor David Smith. Greenberg’s exhibition, Post Painterly Abstraction (1964), championed a second generation of American and Canadian abstract painters such as Jack Bush, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. He defined their work in Heinrich Wölfflin’s stylistic terms of ‘openness’ and linear clarity, arguing it was ‘fresh’ as the equally linear-style Pop art was not. In one of his last important articles, ‘Counter-avant-garde’ (...
James Faure Walker
(b Leeds, Jan 30, 1920; d St Ives, March 20, 1999).
English painter and critic. In the 1950s he became identified with the St Ives group of painters, although the roots of his aesthetic date back to earlier experiences, which included working as a designer for his father’s firm, Cresta Silks (1935–9, 1944–50), and assisting at Bernard Leach’s pottery (1944–5). Insights gained through friendships with Herbert Read, T. S. Eliot, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Ivon Hitchens were also important. Influenced by Braque and Matisse, he evolved a flat, linear style in a series of still-lifes and interiors such as the ambitious Christmas Eve (1951; artist’s col., see 1985 exh. cat., p. 29), in which the lightly filled-in colours create an airy, luminous effect. In his writings as a critic for the New English Weekly, New Statesman and Nation and Arts (New York) between 1945 and 1958, Heron was unconvinced of the necessity for pure abstraction. His early paintings are in an ...
(b Weissenberg, Bavaria, March 21, 1880; d New York, Feb 17, 1966).
American painter, teacher and theorist of German birth. He moved with his family to Munich in 1886 and in 1896 left home to become assistant to the director of public works of the State of Bavaria; he distinguished himself with a number of inventions, including an electromagnetic comptometer, a radar device for ships, a sensitized light bulb and a portable freezer unit for military purposes. In spite of his parents’ strong objection and their hopes for his career as a scientist, in 1898 he enrolled in the art school run by Moritz Heymann (b 1870) in Munich. Hofmann subsequently studied with a succession of teachers and was particularly influenced by Willi Schwarz (b 1889), who familiarized him with French Impressionism, a style that affected his earliest known paintings, such as Self-portrait (1902; New York, Emmerich Gal., see Goodman, 1986, p. 14).
In 1903 Hofmann was introduced by Schwarz to ...
Vivian Endicott Barnett
[Vassily; Wassily] (Vasil’yevich)
(b Moscow, Dec 4, 1866; d Neuilly-sur-Seine, Dec 13, 1944).
Russian painter, printmaker, stage designer, decorative artist and theorist. A central figure in the development of 20th-century art and specifically in the transition from representational to abstract art, Kandinsky worked in a wide variety of media and was an important teacher and theoretician. He worked mainly outside Russia, but his Russian heritage continued to be an important factor in his development.
Kandinsky grew up in Odessa and from 1886 to 1893 studied economics, ethnography and law in Moscow, where he wrote a dissertation on the legality of labourers’ wages. He married his cousin Anya Shemyakina in 1892 (divorced 1911). In 1896 Kandinsky decided to become an artist and went to Munich. There he studied from 1896 to 1898 at the art school of Anton Ažbe, where he met Alexei Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, and then in 1900 at the Akademie with Franz von Stuck. The following year he was a co-founder of the ...
(b Tiraspol, Moldova, June 3, 1881; d Fontenay-aux-Roses, nr Paris, May 10, 1964).
Russian painter, stage designer, printmaker, illustrator, draughtsman and writer of Moldovan birth. He was a leader of the Russian avant-garde before World War I but came to prominence in the West through his work for Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. During the 1920s he played a significant role within the Ecole de Paris and continued to live and work in France until his death.
He was the son of Fyodor Mikhailovich Larionov, a doctor and pharmacist, and Aleksandra Fyodorovna Petrovskaya, but he grew up in his grandparents’ home in Tiraspol. He completed his secondary education at the Voskresensky Technical High School in Moscow and in 1898 entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Here he studied under Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, and he also became friendly with Natal’ya Goncharova who was to remain his lifelong companion and colleague. Larionov’s work soon caught the imagination of collectors and critics. In ...
(b Kiev, Feb 26, 1878; d Leningrad [now St Petersburg], May 15, 1935).
Russian painter, printmaker, decorative artist and writer of Ukranian birth. One of the pioneers of abstract art, Malevich was a central figure in a succession of avant-garde movements during the period of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and immediately after. The style of severe geometric abstraction with which he is most closely associated, Suprematism (see fig.), was a leading force in the development of Constructivism, the repercussions of which continued to be felt throughout the 20th century. His work was suppressed in Soviet Russia in the 1930s and remained little known during the following two decades. The reassessment of his reputation in the West from the mid-1950s was matched by the renewed influence of his work on the paintings of Ad Reinhardt and on developments such as Zero, Hard-edge painting and Minimalism.