Guardian article on abstraction by Jonathon Jones

Abstract art unlocks the truth about the universe

Great abstract painters like Pollock and Monet lose themselves in colour, sensation and memory to show that reality is subjective

Inner and outer space … Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952)
Inner and outer space … detail from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952) Photograph: Reuters

Abstract art is a kind of miracle. How can a painting that is just a white surface, or a swirl of colour, mean something? But it can and it does, and the unlikely greatness of abstraction is one of the most moving achievements of modern times.

The Whitechapel Gallery’s new-year exhibition Adventures of the Black Squareexplores the story of abstraction since Kazimir Malevich exhibited his Black Square in 1915. But I’ve got to be honest: it wasn’t the revolutionary European abstract painters of the early 20th century who made me fall in love with this kind of art.

It was Jackson Pollock. The first time I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, his paintings hit me like waves of power, truth and revelation. But a revelation of what? The unresolved nature of abstract painting is part of its authority. It intimates secrets that seem both personal and cosmic, but it does not spell everything out. Or anything. Pollock painted romantic landscapes, intense Western scenes and primitivist mythological dramas before he laid his canvases on the floor, threw and flicked and dripped paint on them, and released his stellar webs of colour into the world.

His paintings are of inner and outer space. They intuit a complex reality that cannot be put into words. This makes Pollock one of the most moving artists I know. He spins out some delicate weft of insight, at once mystical, scientific and psychological.

Mystical poetry … Claude Monet's Water Lily Pond (1919.
Mystical poetry … Claude Monet’s Water Lily Pond (1919. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Abstract art is majestic. Mark Rothko’s paintings in Tate Modern prove that, as much as Pollock did. But when did abstraction begin? How did it happen?

The right date may not be 1915, and it’s wrong to equate this movement only with Malevich and equally “revolutionary” art. For abstraction has other roots. Supporters of Pollock in the 1950s found antecedents not in the ideological modernism of a Malevich, but the mystical poetry of late Monet. If you want to plunge into abstract art, to be lost in colour, sensation and obscure memories, you can’t do better than Monet’s waterlily decorations.

Or go and look at some Cézanne. The shapes of things shatter and break under his restless gaze. Great patches of abstract colour infuse nature.

No, abstract art was not invented by the Russian revolution. It started to invade painting as soon as artists began to realise that as hard as they tried to paint nature, the colours they set down were the stuff of their own mind’s eye. The discovery that truth is subjective is the root of abstract art. It is also a fundamental insight of modern physics. Perhaps that is why, in front of Pollock, I feel I am seeing the shape of the universe itself.

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