What is Abstract Art?

Robert Delaunay, “Relief-disques,” 1936.

Abstract art has been around for over a century. Though some assert that abstraction began with cave paintings thousands of years ago, the origins of abstract art as a movement came to fruition in the late 19th century. During this time, new developments and fundamental changes in the fields of technology, science, and philosophy inspired many artists to create a new style that embodied the rapidly evolving world in which they now lived. As more secular ideals formed, artists sought a deeper and divine connection to their world and in turn, departed from figurative and representational work and moved toward explorations in abstraction.

What is Abstract Art?

magenta and green colored painting.

Helen Frankenthaler, “Eastern Light,” 1982.

Abstract art—also commonly referred to as nonobjective art—is painting, sculpture, or graphic art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of visual reality. By definition, to “abstract” means to “extract or remove” one thing from another. Thus, abstract art draws from fundamental elements of painting such as color, shape, and line, and renders subject matter as pared-down, indistinct forms.

The term is also used to classify art that does not take its inspiration from external physical or visual sources such as geometric shapes, highlighting the point that abstract art is not representational and could be created from a real-world object, or no object at all.

Abstract artists strive to be non-representational, which allows their work to be interpreted based upon the viewer’s individual set of experiences and associations. Where Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso presented an exaggerated or distorted view of the world, abstract artists instead use form and color as the focus and subject of a piece, devoid of any conceptual realism.

History and Influences of Abstract Art

abstract art on a canvas.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Improvisation 28,” 1912.

The origins of abstract art can be traced back to earlier movements such as Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism, which helped shape the idea that art could be non-representative and more subjective in nature. Another catalyst for abstraction was the establishment of “art for art’s sake,” a concept that originated from the French l’art pour l’art. This idea—which first surfaced within French literary circles in the early 19th century—furthered the belief that art needed no justification and was of value regardless of the objects it depicted.

Art historians often credit Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky as the first artist to create abstract paintings. He painted renderings of floating, representational forms as early as 1912, and brought abstraction to America during the Armory Show (also known as the International exhibition of Modern Art) in 1913.

During World War I, movements such as de Stijl (“The Style”) in the Netherlands and Dadaism in Switzerland helped widen the spectrum of abstract art. However, the period between World War I and World War II marked a lull as Totalitarian politics, coupled with new art movements like Surrealism, took the spotlight. After World War II ended, Abstract Expressionism emerged, gaining mass appeal and putting New York at the center of the Western art world. Since the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism has been a widely practiced and influential style within European and American art.

Characteristics and Techniques of Abstract Art

Jackson Pollock utilizing his signature “drip” painting technique.

Jackson Pollock utilizing his signature “drip” painting technique.

Abstract artists experimented in both media and technique, but the defining feature of art from this movement is non-representational practice where the use of color, memory, and visual sensation demonstrated that reality could be subjective. Several pioneers of the movement developed signature approaches and techniques that helped shape the course of abstraction.

American painter Mark Rothko (1903–1970) was a leading figure of Abstract Expressionism and experimented with large-scale Color Field paintings. He made his own paint from animal glue, which he heated prior to adding dry pigment and whole egg as a binding medium to help disperse the pigment. He wanted the viewer to feel overwhelmed by the color and feel part of the painting.

Another key contribution was that of Jackson Pollock’s “drip” painting technique. Pollock would use basting tools, brushes, sticks, and even cigarettes to fling, splatter, and smear paint onto canvases that he laid on the floor. This led to the origin of “action painting,” a style in which paint is spontaneously dribbled or smeared onto the canvas, as opposed to being carefully applied.

Clyfford Still (1904–1980) also brought various techniques and forms to the movement. His combination of uneven and erratically painted canvases created a fractured, haunting quality devoid of all figurative allusion. His works featured vibrant, cutting colors intended to evoke dramatic conflicts between man and nature.

Famous Examples of Abstract Art

Wassily Kandinsky, “Composition VII” (1913)

colorful abstract painting.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Composition VII,” 1913.

Kandinsky’s Composition VII is often credited as one of the most important paintings of the 20th century. It is a massive painting, complete with overlapping amorphous forms, bold lines, and myriad colors, with little to no reference to the natural world. Kandinsky’s selection of shapes and colors was meticulously planned out, with over thirty sketches and studies created prior to the execution of the painting. Art historians believe that Composition VII depicts several Biblical themes such as Resurrection, the Judgement Day, and the Garden of Eden.

Piet Mondrian, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942–43)

yellow, blue, and red abstract painting.

Piet Mondrian, “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” 1942.

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian fled to New York shortly after World War II began, where he was inspired by the rise of American jazz music. His Broadway Boogie Woogie captures the city’s grid-like approach to urban planning, the energy and movement of city traffic, and rhythms of jazz music through abstract forms.

Mark Rothko, “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961)

red and orange rectangular painting.

Mark Rothko, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” 1961. Sold for $86,882,496 via Christie’s (May 2012).

Orange, Red, Yellow is one of Rothko’s signature Color Field paintings. To achieve his composition, Rothko applied several thin layers of paint and spread them with a rag or brush on an unprepared canvas. These thin washes of paint allowed the colors to have a kind of brightness that illuminated the canvas. With its warm hues, this remarkable example of the artist’s oeuvre sold at Christie’s from the estate of art collector David Pincus for $86,882,500 in 2012, solidifying it as one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.

Joan Miro, “Bleu II” (1961)

blue painting with red line and black dots.

Joan Miro, “Bleu II,” 1961.

Spanish painter Joan Miro created Bleu II, the second work produced from of a series of three paintings, after he had garnered popularity and fame. The canvas elicits a rich blue hue with a slash of red and carefully placed applications of black. Currently, the series of three paintings are owned by the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris.

Jackson Pollock, “Blue Poles” (1952)

woman standing in front of an abstract painting.

Jackson Pollock, “Blue Poles,” 1952.

Blue Poles remains one of Pollock’s most famous works. It was originally titled Number 11 because Pollock felt that assigning a name or title attached characterization to a work, while a number allowed it to remain neutral. The composition features embedded shards of glass, footprints, and aluminum paint dripped onto the canvas in his signature style. It was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973 and remains one of the museum’s most monumental exhibits on display.

The late-20th and early-21st century brought about technological advancements that encouraged experimentation with abstract forms, evidenced by the emergence of digital art, geometric abstraction, and photorealism, to name a few. Explorations in abstraction are wildly popular among artists and collectors alike, and new ways of approaching abstraction continue to reveal themselves as the scope of 21st century art continues to evolve.

Sources: Artists Network | Encyclopedia Britannica | Tate | WideWalls | ThoughtCo.