‘Abstract art is always rooted in experience of the real world.’ So begins art historian Pepe Karmel’s bold new exploration of the origins and evolution of abstract art. Traditional histories of the subject have concentrated on formal innovations – abstraction as a sequence of ‘isms’ – with less interest in how the art relates to the world around us. At the same time, they have tended to privilege a core group of European and North American artists considered central to the subject’s discussion. Moving well beyond the established figures and movements usually associated with abstract art, and focusing on subject matter and content rather than simply colour and form, Karmel reconsiders the history of abstraction from a global perspective, showing us how artists from all parts of the world have used abstract imagery to convey personal, social and political experience.
Following an introductory account of the pioneers of abstraction, including Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Jackson Pollock, the book forgoes a standard chronological structure to explore the subject through five eclectic, theme-based chapters: ‘Bodies’, ‘Landscapes’, ‘Cosmologies’, ‘Architectures’ and ‘Signs and Patterns’. Taking a figurative artwork as the starting point for each chapter, the author ranges across a wide array of topics – embryos, star charts and calligraphy among them – all the while clearly demonstrating the link between abstraction and the real world. Complementing the text throughout are groups of carefully selected artworks, paired to reveal surprising affinities and significant differences. At the heart of the book is a desire to demonstrate new ways of looking at abstract art through the prism of a broader, more inclusive mix of artists, from Vasily Kandinsky to Ibrahim El-Salahi, Carlos Cruz-Diez to Bridget Riley, Anni Albers to Sean Scully, and Julie Mehretu to Wu Guanzhong.