Imagine that one day, as you're in the middle of painting yet another of the realistic pictures you're known for and are good at, you suddenly stop, put down your brush, and say:
Enough! I've had enough of this! Why must I go on endlessly depicting what I see? Music doesn't have to tell a story or imitate familiar sounds - why shouldn't I too break free from representation?
So you take some blank canvases and papers and boards and paints and solvents and you start exploring ways of creating a visual art which doesn't describe or interpret known objects but is its own reality.
Immediately you become aware that certain options are open to you. Gradually, depending on your tastes, moods, influences and the random effects which the materials themselves provide, you choose to pursue one or more of those options. Having put aside the figurative content which previously dominated your attention, you now focus on process, invention and concept.
Free-flowing, transparent or dense, indeterminately-edged, ethereal. Bissier, Frankenthaler, Still
with informal blocks of interlocked shapes, creating perspectiveless depth by colour and texture. De Stael, Hodgkin, Diebenkorn
with brush, charcoal, fingers, etc. A spontaneous calligraphic means of creating form. Kline, Blow, Hitchens
Devising and obeying invented rules, proportions, concepts, hard-edged, rigorous. Mondrian, Nicholson, Malevich
Over-all, edgeless, whether patiently drawn or made by controlling random processes. Pollock, Tobey Davie
fragments of imagination and chance. Shapes invented or loosely based on remembered objects. Mirò, Gorky, Friedlaender
Linear signs, perhaps words or hieroglyphs, on smooth or rough surfaces, coloured or plain. Klee, Twombly, Tàpies
Large empty fields of intense colour, atmospheric, enveloping. Rothko, Olitski, Newman
That's my over-simplified but fairly accurate summing-up of some of the paths taken by any painter who sets out on a journey away from representation. 'Art for art's sake' makes sense when perceived as a desire to escape from the prison of the seen - or rather, the scene - in order to paint something other. How do you get to that otherness and still remain a painter? The eight processes shown above are possible ways to get there which have been explored and elaborated by most of the abstract and semi-abstract painters of our time.
However, they are not exclusive to modern times or to abstract art. If you isolate details from well-known figurative paintings of any period, it's very clear that those modes crop up everywhere and that they play a role in shaping the styles of individual artists, whatever their subject. What was new about some modern abstract art is that it made process become the master, the subject, rather than remaining merely technique, the servant.
But ABSTRACT versus FIGURATIVE is a false dichotomy. Great figurative art of any period never re-presents reality as we know it so it's already abstraction. But it does offer startling new ways to see the familiar and, sometimes, shows us things that are completely unfamiliar.
The fragments I've selected merely show examples of the eight abstract modes in the handling of paint or the composition of these particular figurative paintings. I don't mean to imply that these artists' work can be categorised under such labels.
Links to the full pictures from which the details are taken:
2. El Greco
3. John Singer Sargent
8. De La Tour