The pictorial language of geometric abstract art is based on the use of simple geometric forms and shapes placed in non-illusionistic space and combined into nonobjective compositions. The style evolved as the logical conclusion of the Cubist deconstruction and reformulation of the established conventions of space and form. Started by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in 1907–8, Cubism subverted the traditional depiction relying on the depiction of imitations of forms of the visual world.
The Analytic Cubist phase peaked in mid-1910 and made available to creators and artists the theory of planarity of overlapping frontal surfaces held together by a linear grid.
The next phase–Synthetic Cubism, 1912–14–introduced the flatly painted synthesized shapes, abstract space, and “constructional” elements of the composition. These three facets became the fundamental characteristics of geometric abstraction. Usually, it was combined with the freedom of experimentation with different materials and spatial relationships between various compositional parts, which also emphasized the flatness of the picture surface, as the carrier of applied elements, and the physical “reality” of the explored forms and materials. Geometric abstraction, through the process of purifying art from visual reality, focused on the inherent two-dimensional features of the painting.
This process of purely pictorial reality constructed of elemental geometric shapes assumed different stylistic expressions in various European countries. In Holland, the most important creator and the most famous proponent of geometric abstract language were Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). Along with other members of the De Stijl group–Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931), Bart van der Leck (1876–1958), and Vilmos Huszár (1884–1960). Mondrian’s work was meant to convey “absolute reality,” construed as the world of pure geometric forms according to the vertical-horizontal principle of direct lines and pure spectral colors.
Mondrian’s geometric design, which he termed “Neoplasticism,” developed between 1915 and 1920. For the next thirty years continued to work in his characteristic geometric fashion. Expunged of all references to the actual world, and posited on the geometric side of the canvas through vertical and horizontal lines of varied thickness, complemented by cubes of primary colors, especially blue, red, and yellow. Similar compositional principles underlie the work of the De Stijl artists, who implemented them with slight formal modifications to achieve their individual, personal expression.
The job of this avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), in style he termed Suprematism. Creating nonobjective compositions of elemental forms floating in unstructured white space, Malevich tried to achieve “the absolute,” the highest spiritual reality that he called the “fourth dimension.” Simultaneously, his compatriot Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) originated a new geometric abstract idiom in an advanced three-dimensional form, which he dubbed “painterly reliefs” and then “counter-reliefs” (1915–17). These were assemblages of randomly found industrial materials whose geometric form was dictated by their inherent properties, such as wood, metal, or glass. That principle, which Tatlin called “the civilization of materials,” spurred the rise of the Russian avant-garde movement Constructivism (1918–21), which explored geometric form in two and three dimensions. The primary practitioners of Constructivism included Liubov Popova (1889–1924), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956) (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958), and El Lissitzky (1890–1941). It was Lissitzky who became the transmitter of Constructivism to Germany, where its principles were later embodied in the teachings of Bauhaus. Founded by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, it became throughout the 1920s (and until its dismantling by the Nazis in 1933) the vital proponent of geometric abstraction and contemporary experimental architecture. As a teaching institution, the Bauhaus surrounded different areas: painting, graphic arts, stage design, theater, and architecture. The art faculty was recruited from among the most distinguished painters of the time: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, who were devoted to the idea of the purity of geometric form as the most suitable expression of the modernist canon. In France, during the 1920s, geometric abstraction manifested itself as the Underlying principle of the Art Deco style, which propagated widespread use of the geometric form for decorative purposes in the decorative and applied arts as well as in design. In the 1930s, Paris became the center of geometric abstraction that arose from its Synthetic Cubist sources and concentrated around the group Cercle et Carré (1930), and later Abstraction-Création (1932). With the outbreak of World War II, the attention of geometric abstraction changed to New York, where the tradition was continued by the American Abstract Artists group (formed in 1937), including Burgoyne Diller and Ilya Bolotowsky. With the advent of the Europeans Josef Albers (1933) and Piet Mondrian (1940), and such significant events as the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), organized by the Museum of Modern Art, and the creation of the Museum of Non-Objective Art (1939, today the Guggenheim), the geometric tradition acquired a new resonance. However, it was basically past its creative phase. Its influences, however, attained younger generations of musicians, most directly affecting the Minimalist art of the 1960s, which used pure geometric form, stripped to its austere essentials, as the principal language of expression. Artists such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Dorothea Rockburne analyzed the geometric tradition and transformed it into their artistic vocabulary.