Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The abstract painter denounces representation of the outer world as a mechanical process of the eye and the hand in which the artist's feelings and imagination have little part. Or in a Platonic manner he opposes to the representation of objects, as a rendering of the surface aspect of nature, the practice of abstract design as a discovery of the “essence” or underlying mathematical order of things.Meyer Schapiro, 1937
Abstraction is perhaps the single most distinctive development in twentieth-century painting. It is also among the most misunderstood, not only by the general public, but also by many in the art world. In part this is a consequence of its variety, for artists have made nonrepresentational art from many different motives, using many different techniques. This chapter will trace the changing role of abstraction in painting over time, considering the goals of some of its most important practitioners, and examining their methods. Before presenting a chronological treatment, however, it is valuable to begin with a cautionary lesson.
[W]ith Mondrian, arriving at the idea was of exceptional importance. The conception came before the painting; it was the primary act of creation.Harold Rosenberg, 1971
When Piet Mondrian died in 1944, the critic Clement Greenberg declared that his painting “takes its place beside the greatest art.” Greenberg went on to defend what he considered the mechanical nature of Mondrian's art: “Perhaps Mondrian will be reproached for the anonymity with which he strove for the ruled precision of the geometer and the machine in executing his paintings: their conceptions can be communicated by a set of specifications and dimensions, sight unseen, and realized by a draftsman.