Abstract art has been around for more than 100 years, but I think it still perplexes a lot of people. Art is not just about pretty pictures of objects, scenes and people we recognise. It’s about creativity, concepts, expression, experimentation. If you’re dismissing the radical developments of 20th century art as ‘pretentious rubbish’ which ‘a toddler could do better’ then you need to open your mind and understand that art is (a) created for many other reasons than to be merely decorative or ‘nice’ to look at, (b) freed from restrictions of composition, medium and subject, (c) not necessarily intended to ‘mean’ something and (d) any work presented as art, or produced by individuals or groups who consider themselves artists, regardless of whether you personally like the work or not. There is no such thing as ‘proper’ art. There is art. If you have a problem with this and you’re not curious about abstract art, then this book is not for you.
Glossy and well-produced, the book begins with an essay on the development of abstract art in Europe and America. Then there are features on 32 artists, with reproductions of works from 1910 – 1966. Each artist is given a brief biography, context within the art movements and a description of that particular work. The text is rather too wordy, partly due to the author’s academic writing style but I think the translation from the German could have been smoother. I don’t love every artist or image in the book but I appreciate their significance. Some of the most famous artists are included – Wassily Kandinsky (my favourite), Kasimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian – and there quite a few that I hadn’t heard of before I read the book. Only two of the featured artists are women, which reflects the prejudices of the era we’re looking at – it was harder for female artists to be taken seriously and to be known for more than being the wives of their more celebrated artist husbands. This has filtered down through art history scholarship and should be addressed in books about abstract artists today.
If you’re not already interested in the topic, then the book won’t change your mind. Alternatively, if you’re interested but don’t know where to begin, this would be a good introduction.
First published in 2008 by Taschen.