Abstract vs. Figurative Art

Questions over the meaning, origin, and necessity of abstract art have formed some of the central riddles of modern art. The answers to them can seem even more remote now that contemporary painting encompasses veins of both abstraction and figuration. This wasn’t always the case: during the years when Abstract Expressionism flourished, figuration was shunned by the most advanced artists, and for reasons which date back to the late 1930s. Below we examine all the terms in this debate: abstraction; figuration (abstraction’s opposite for much of the twentieth century); and the concept of ‘representation,’ which critics have come to use more often since the 1970s, which acknowledges that abstract and figurative art are not as different as they might seem.

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