Abstract Art dominated the art world for much of the twentieth century and is an artistic movement like no other.
Abstract oil paintings aimed to transgress previous creative boundaries, pushing art toward spiritual and academic goals.
It’s a fascinating style, rich in intellectual interest and artistic beauty. Yet, despite this, it’s also one of the most misunderstood terms in modern art.
In this brief introduction to abstract art paintings, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions on the genre. From what exactly makes abstract art to famous painters and their best-known works, here’s everything you need to know.
In the most basic terms, abstract art refers to any creative output that doesn’t primarily depict visual reality. Instead, the main focus falls on shapes, forms, colors, and mark-making to achieve emotional and intellectual effects.
“abstract” refers to extracting or removing something when used as a verb, feeding into its adjectival meaning, describing something existing primarily as an idea rather than a physical form.
Both these meanings apply to art that focuses on ideas and painterly effects for their own sake. Despite this strict definition, art that depicts objects, landscapes, and figures can still be “abstract.” In this case, forms are systematized or simplified within the composition as a whole
These broad concerns have dominated much of modern art since the early 1900s. They defined a generation and an artistic style in an age of widespread upheaval and global turmoil.
There is no single feature that makes abstract art. Instead, the approaches are massively varied, from Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock’s flowing colorful forms to Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian’s pared-back geometric shapes.
Nonetheless, art becomes “abstract” when it focuses on concerns outside of physical reality. Most often, famous abstract paintings carry a moral message. While this does not necessarily mean religious principles, artists communicate ideas such as simplicity, purity, painterly order, and spirituality.
Abstract art can also reference “pure” abstraction with no formative sources in external visual realities. Finally, abstract art blurs the boundaries with movements such as “concrete art,” which strive to remove any references to symbolic meanings and observed reality.
“Non-objective art” is another offshoot, a movement inspired by the Greek philosopher Plato, who believed geometry was the most straightforward presentation of beauty and truth.
Given its popularity for such a large part of the twentieth century, numerous famous abstract artists exist. Some of the best-known abstract oil painting on canvas emerged from Russia, Spain, and Sweden.
Early genre pioneers included Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, and Juan Gris. Although these artists straddled multiple movements and styles, what linked their work was a deep interaction and fascination with abstract ideals.
Hilma Af Klint’s artwork faded from public view after her death, but her art experienced a resurgence in recent years. Today, she is considered one of the first abstract artists in Western art history.
Other famous abstract artists include Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg.
Sonia Delaunay was another early female pioneer of abstract art. As a Ukrainian-born artist, she exemplified the distinctly European nature of the movement. Training in Russia and Germany, she later moved to Paris and worked in textiles, fashion, theatrical set design, and fine art.
Towards the mid-twentieth century, however, abstraction moved across the Atlantic. American “abstract” art took on a new life when mixed with principles of abstract impressionism, action painting, and color field painting.
Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock created some famous abstract art paintings. While many art historians debate their accurate identification as “abstract” artists, they exemplify the movement’s focus on ideas and emotions rather than symbolic representation.
Rothko and Pollock represent two entirely polarized versions of large abstract paintings. Both men created monumental works. Nevertheless, while Rothko gently diffused color across his canvases in meticulously planned geometric compositions, Pollock attacked his canvases with paint.
Similarly, Rothko aimed to evoke carefully cultivated emotional responses in his viewers. On the other hand, Pollock’s works appeared in incandescent bursts of creativity, emphasizing the physical act of painting itself.
In terms of early European abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian produced some of the most famous abstract paintings. Kandinsky was also one of the first artists to write about abstract art. Describing the process as “art independent of one’s observations of the external world,” Kandinsky sincerely believed in the spiritual and communicative power of color.
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most replicated and celebrated artists. However, given his pioneering use of color and expressive technique, many wonder if Van Gogh was an early abstract artist.
Like later artists such as Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh utilized impulsive, gestural application of thick paint. However, like Wassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint, he also developed color symbolism to express subjective emotions and experiences.
Nonetheless, Van Gogh was not an abstract artist. Instead, despite the heavily subjective and dynamic nature of his painting, Van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter.
In works such as Starry Night (1889), he characterizes the movement’s focus on the expressive possibilities of color and composition. While post-impressionist artists rejected strictly naturalistic renderings of light and color, Van Gogh still upheld careful attention to physical reality.
Here are six of the most famous abstract art paintings.
Together, they provide an overview of European and American abstract wall art and some of the twentieth century's most celebrated artistic creations.
As a Swedish artist inspired by spiritualism and philosophy, Hilma af Klint produced some of the first large abstract paintings. These works explored cycles of life and death, geometric principles, and color theory.
Part of a more extensive series, The Ten Mainstay exemplifies her bold, colorful creations untethered to the physical world. They were groundbreaking examples of intellectual and artistic imagination, predating the non-representational works of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian.
Otherwise known as Head of a Man Going Senile, this unusual portrait resides in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. As well as an example of abstract wall art, it also references Paul Klee’s consuming interest in the principles of Cubism.
Klee separates the human head into rectangles of flat, geometric color. While this maintains an aspect of figurative painting, the artist primarily referenced themes of aging, senility, and the passing of time.
Klee divides the painting across numerous lines and sub-divisions. In this way, he encourages viewers to consider the work from multiple visual and intellectual perspectives.
Amongst reproductions of famous paintings, Mondrian’s iconic Composition Red, Yellow, Blue retains enduring public fascination. Consisting of thick black brushwork defining bright geometric borders, it’s staggering in its simplicity and power.
Utilizing Mondrian’s now legendary palette of primary colors (interspersed with white and black), it’s a product of the artist’s fascination with the Dutch De Stijl movement. Collaborating with Theo van Doesburg, the pair strove for near-total abstraction and artistic simplicity.
Composition X is an abstract oil painting on canvas emerging from Kandinsky’s interest in the links between art and music. Titled “composition,” it was one of his significant creations, contrasted by the artist with his lesser “improvisations.”
The predominant black tones of the artwork are highly unusual. Unsurprisingly, black represented closure and death to Kandinsky, as in 1939, he3 knew he was reaching the end of his life and artistic career.
The meanings of the shapes floating against this deep, dark space remain at the viewer’s discretion.
Two of its most famous exponents came towards the end of abstraction's creative prime. These two painters were Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Commonly known as White Center, this large abstract painting embodies Rothko’s signature “multiform” style of painting. Several blocks of complementary layered colors demonstrate Rothko’s continued compositional elements.
The painting is also one of the first Rothko works divided into purely horizontal bands of color. Some edges merge with the background, while the color fields recede or burst with luminous energy. It’s a constantly shifting abstract reality that changed painting forever.
Last but not least on this list of famous abstract paintings is Jackson Pollock’s Convergence. It’s a prime example of abstract expressionism and action painting, using the principles of abstraction yet prioritizing the subconscious and accidental effects of painting.
Pollock’s lines, circles, and marks convey his emotional state and the universal laws of gravity and fluidity dictating the pooling and mixing of paint. Created during the height of the Cold War, some art historians argue that the painting represents freedom of speech and artistic self-expression itself.
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