What is Abstract Illusionism?

Abstract Illusionism

Michael Gallagher

Pralaya | 1979 | acrylic / canvas | 60 x 72 inches | Permanent Collection | Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

In the mid-1970s, art critic Barbara Rose identified a trend in painting in which abstract works were rendered with a sense of perspective, depth, and shadow. Rose named this development Abstract Illusionism, calling attention to the fact that painting, albeit still abstract, was returning to its long history of depicting space. This was a notable shift following the prominence of post-painterly abstraction in the 1960s, famously championed by art critic Clement Greenberg, which emphasized the flatness of the painting support. Rose’s term has been linked to Frank StellaJules OlitskiWalter Darby BannardRonald Davis, Michael Gallagher and James Havard, who combine elements of Abstract Expressionism and hard-edge abstraction with trompe-l’oeil effects. Many artists since have incorporated tropes of Abstract Illusionism, producing works with an array of abstract marks and shapes that appear to exist within three-dimensional space, as in the paintings of contemporary artists Trudy Benson and Josh Reames.

The Abstract Illusion works were generally expressionistic, and hard-edge abstract painting styles, with the added elements of perspective, artificial light sources, and simulated cast shadows to achieve the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. Abstract illusionism differed from traditional Trompe-l’œil (fool the eye) art in that the pictorial space seemed to project in front of, or away from, the canvas surface, as opposed to receding into the picture plane as in traditional painting. Primarily, though, these were abstract paintings, as opposed to the realism of trompe l’oeil

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