Abstract versus Figurative Art


“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” —Pablo Picasso

Of all the art battles and debates of the 20th century, none has been as divisive as that between abstract and figurative art. With the emergence of Cubism and the movements and artists that followed it, as well as the writings of American critics like Clement Greenberg, the progression towards a non-objective abstraction (wherein no objects could be recognized) became the dominant story of modern art; in turn, figuration became discredited, labeled as retrograde and aligned with enemy politics (read: Communism and Socialist Realism, or the National Socialist dictate of figurative art). Yet in reality, for many artists throughout the 20th century and into the present day, the dividing line between abstraction and figuration was much more porous, leading these artists to create paintings and works on paper somewhere in between the two. In the immediate post-war period in Europe, Francis Bacon walked what he called the “tightrope between abstraction and figuration” to ask existential questions about the image of man, while contemporary artists like Cecily Brown continue the tradition of Willem de Kooning, pushing their figures even closer to complete abstraction.

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