The term ‘abstract’ seems so very modern, yet its history goes back to the earlier parts of the 20th century. When we say ‘modern’, we mean the leaning away from representational painting and didactic paintings that occurred with the impressionists and surged onto other movements, such as Dadaism. So let us see what ‘modern’ is and how it applies to modern abstract paintings.
How up to the minute are you? Are you part of the wired generation, those people who are on Twitter and Facebook, those folks who Google themselves every ten minutes to see what the rest of the world is saying about them? Do you ever take a break? If you do, then you most likely think of ‘modern’ happenings occurring no later than the past ten years or so. If you are willing to stretch your mind just a bit more, you will feel comfortable with this statement: For reasons of simplicity, let us consider the ‘modern’ art movement as it existed no more than fifty years ago. ‘Late modern,’ a few people call it, or even ‘post-modern.’
By 1960, abstract expressionism had broken off from the avant-garde and even become a little formal itself, as the means of creating modern abstract paintings became well-known. Pollock’s abstract expressionist methods, for instance, of using very large canvases and spontaneously hurling or dripping paint onto them, moved into the realm of the familiar. Modern art is distinguished from traditional figurative painting by numerous factors: the willingness to experiment with different paints and other materials, the rejection of naturalistic color, clearly visible brushstrokes, and requiring the viewer to work harder at interpreting the art, because of the subject matter rarely hewing to the easily discerned objects such as a hill or a flower.
The first item in our list, the willingness to experiment with different paints and other materials, fits in nicely with modern abstract paintings, mainly because of the rise of acrylic paints. Drying quickly, produced and sold more cheaply than oil paints and requiring minimal cleanup, acrylic paints are the mainstay of the modern artist. Even the artist who switches to oils at a later stage of his work may begin with acrylic paint, or he may choose acrylics for the length of his career. Many factors may play into this, among them the relative lack of odor of acrylics when compared to oil paints.
The second criterion, the rejection of natural color, may be related to the modern sensibility of spontaneous rejection of any true-to-life subject matter in favor of dreamy or fantastic subjects. For instance, on another planet, who could know if the trees there produced violet leaves and flowers that produced sparks? There is a great deal of freedom in modern art, and the visible brushstrokes speak of honesty and a relationship with the viewer that is much more informal than in the past. The viewer is expected to come to the showing of a piece with a certain amount of foreknowledge. Modern abstract paintings reach the audience that they were intended for, a group of people who boldly bring their own interpretations to the gallery. They do not expect anything other than a fully-realized relationship with the artist and a thorough understanding of his work. Modern abstract artists accept the challenge.