Home Magazine Abstract Art across a century

Abstract art creates compelling compositions that depart partially or completely from standard visual references by employing a visual language of colours, lines, shapes and forms. 

Related articles: The history of Geometric Abstract Art - Abstract Art: Boundless Territory To Create - Which Abstract Painting is for you?

Defining abstract art can be daunting, a coherent Abstract art definition should include all its complexities and facets: is that even possible? Perhaps, it is best to start by describing what Abstract Art is not.


An Abstract Art definition 

An artwork can be defined as belonging to the abstract art tradition either if it does not represent a person, a thing in the natural world, or a place, or if it does so without making an accurate depiction of a visual reference.  Abstract artists do not engage with a representational interpretation of a subject. They use a visual language that consists of shapes, forms, and gestural marks in order to create compositions. Abstraction means pulling or drawing away from, in visual art this is translated in the choice of distancing any depiction from any literal or representational reference subject. The term abstract art can be applied both to artworks that use forms with no reference at all to an external visual reality and to artworks that are based to a certain extent on a object, landscape or even a figure, but whose forms have been profoundly schematised or simplified, such as an in Cubist artworks. So, the departure from reality can be slight, partial, or complete. 


Helen Frankenthaler, Leprechaun, 1991. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.


Theories and Ideas Behind Abstract Art

Abstraction has been and still is widely deployed by artists toward different ends. Abstract art has innumerable expressions, each of them with its own style and meanings. However, it is possible to outline some common ideas behind abstract art. According to some, abstraction is simply “art for art’s sake”, so art is simply a pure creation of beautiful visual effects without secondary goals or intentions. Others see in abstract art an equivalent to music: music has patterns of sounds, art has patterns of colours, shapes and lines. Another popular perspective looks at abstract art as a way to represent the spiritual, the highest forms where beauty lies. Borrowing the concept of idea from the Greek philosopher Plato, the pure form of beauty does not lie in the real world, but in its geometry and abstract representations. Lastly, abstract art is also often seen as conveying a moral dimension with virtues such as simplicity, purity, spirituality and order.

Why Abstract Art? 

It is important to attempt to retrace the origin of it as well as the motivations that brought abstract artists to leave figurative art, as the art historian Kirk Varnedoe asked “Why abstract art?”. 

The beginnings of Abstraction 

There is an intense debate among experts about when abstract art emerged. The majority consider the 1910s the birth of abstract art. The famous painting “Picture of the Circle '' by Wassily Kandinsky is celebrated as the first abstract artwork. Other experts retrace the origins of abstract art in the works of romanticism painters, such as William Turner, whose works emphasise the visual sensation over the depiction of objects, and thus, to a certain extent, they can be considered as abstract works. Real objects, after all, can look abstract, as shown by the artist’s work “Sun setting over a Lake'', 1840. The artist’s non-naturalistic depiction of the landscape is characterized by hazy details that are nonetheless able to convey a familiar visual experience to the viewer. 


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sun Setting over a Lake, c. 1840. Courtesy of Tate.


Still, it is from the 1910s that abstract art began to gain popularity and attract many artists and critics. The end of the 19th century was characterized by fast and dramatic changes in the life of European and American cities. Technological progress brought, among other things, the invention of photography. All of this led to a change in the way in which life was represented in artworks, with many artists tending towards an escape from the world of recognisable objects. For instance, Matisse and Derain adopted a way of representing their subjects and objects in non-familiar ways, with intense colours and broad brushstrokes. They were called les fauves (wild beasts), which led to their artistic style being named Fauvism. On the other hand, artists such as Picasso and Braque gave shape to Cubism. In their artworks, they depict reality by showing simultaneously multiple sides of their subjects, flattening and breaking them up into geometric forms and scattering them on different planes. Also, Italian Futurism, with the intent of representing speed, the over-stimulation of urban life and technological progress, collapsed space and time into one image. 

These different artistic styles led to the emergence of a way of making art that was completely untethered from the world of recognizable objects. The artists involved offered multiple, different explanations for their adoption of abstract art. Some of them were driven by the intent of representing new and universal truths of modern science, societal and consciousness revolutions, and fundamental changes taking place in philosophy, technology and science. Others were more concerned with the immediacy of forms and colours. Others still believed in the capacity of art, freed from the burden of the representation of the subject matter, could speak directly to the soul. It is also noticeable that the period in which abstract art emerged coincided with the cataclysm of World War I. It is possible to see in abstractism a way to digest a troubling and horrifying reality.  

Wassily Kandisky adopted abstract art as a form of expression in order to connect with the spiritual world, claiming that art was “[...] what the spectator lives or feels while under the effect of the form and color combination of the pictures”. In other words, for the artist, the abstraction was meant to depict a side of reality that cannot be seen, comprising feelings and consciousness. The artist was influenced by music as well as by a diverse range of artistic experiences such as African Art, medieval German woodcuts, folk art and children's drawings. 


Wassily Kandinsky, Composition, VII, 1913. Courtesy of The State Tretyakov Gallery.


Kazimir Malevic, instead, affirmed that pure artistic feeling could be reached with compositions of geometric elements. His artistic style was named Suprematism, recalling the attempt to convey the supremacy of such artistic feeling. Piet Mondrian translated into paintings his idea that everything can be depicted horizontal and vertical lines, revealing the true structure of the world through gridded arrangements. He called this Truth, which is opposed to spatial illusion. 



Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, 1913. Courtesy of Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.


After World War I, the main principles of abstract art were institutionalised by academies such as the German Bauhaus, which had a great impact on reshaping the aesthetic of graphic design, film, architecture as well as of painting and sculpture. The school had the goal of improving the quality of life, focusing on functionality on top of aesthetics. 

From World War II to the Present Day

The rise of totalitarian governments, and then, the outbreak of World War II had a profound impact. Artists started questioning how to represent the horrors and suffering of human experiences, how to communicate memory, emotions and spiritual beliefs. They found it quite difficult to do so “realistically”, adopting figurative art. 

After World War II, abstract art began to gain popularity outside Europe. The war itself led some European artists, including Anni and Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian, Jacque Lipchitz and Max Ernst, to flee to the US. This created a cultural milieu that favoured the emergence of a group of young American artists who developed a new take on abstract art: Abstract Expressionism. This time, the motivations and ambitions were profoundly different from the ones expressed by artists at the beginning of the century. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and other artists were influenced by surrealism with its exploration of the subconscious as well as jazz and Greek myths and archaic cultures in an effort to find timeless subject matter. Abstract expressionist artists not only conveyed the essential qualities of painting without any external visual reference, but also gave a new important role to the process of art-making. The immediacy of their work reflects the improvisational techniques used by the artists. Their artworks are thus well able to give rise to strong emotional responses. 

Mark Rothko famously affirmed: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions”. In the artist's works, the pureness of pictorial properties such as colour, scale, proportions as well as visual elements such as the alternately radiance and darkness give rise to a profound emotional response. These features are linked to themes such as the sublime, tragedy and ecstasy. Rothko is a pioneer of colour field painting, a style that is characterised by large areas of a flat, single, and unbroken colour.


Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), 1969. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Another important figure of Abstract Expressionism is Jackson Pollock. His revolutionary “drip” technique consisted of pouring and dripping thinned paint on large canvases that were positioned on the floor of his studio. The artistic process that encompassed improvisation and physical engagement with the material became a fundamental part of the final artwork. 

In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed art movements. During the Cold War, it was promoted and largely funded by the US government as an emblem of freedom under liberal democracy. Over time, abstract art developed into a multitude of distinct movements. For instance, the Japanese Gutai group was an avant-garde movement whose artists also used large canvases as arenas for action. One of the artists involved, Kazou Shiraga, painted with his feet. They explored the relationship between the material and the human spirit. But also other movements emerged: these included the post-painterly abstraction; Minimalism with its hard-edged, clear geometric forms, and industrial material; Op Art; Neo-expressionism, Conceptual Abstraction and many more. What all of these different forms of expressions and styles suggest is that abstraction was and still is a productive and fruitful field that has been adopted by a wide range of artists with different goals, allowing them to experiment and create compelling artworks.



Mary Heilmann, Crashing Wave, 2011 (detail). Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.


Today, abstract art engages with different mediums and materials. Building on prior approaches and styles, it offers fascinating reinterpretations and new creations. Contemporary abstract artists continue to question the boundaries of what is art and what is the right way or the wrong way to make art. They further explore the relationship between art and technological progress, in particular, the meanings of creating a painting in the digital age. 


Clementine, Joy, 2016. Courtesy of Hysteria Gallery (Available on Kooness.com)


Abstract Art in the Art Market

Abstract Art is very popular on the art market, offering a great range of styles and different artworks. The flexibility in the interpretations of abstract works, its immediacy and its international character make it very market friendly. In 2020, six of the fifteen most expensive artworks sold at auctions were abstract. Among these Cy Twombly’s 1969 “Untitled (Bolsena)”, was one of the highest-valued lots of Christie’s October 2020 sale. It was sold for $38.7 million. Interestingly, the second most expensive artwork of all time is an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning: “Interchange”, which was sold in 2015 for c. $300 million. Not only do big names attract art collectors, but also it is possible to notice a rising interest in the art market for contemporary abstract art. One of the most successful contemporary abstract artists is the Brazilian painter Chrisian Rosa, who works across media, focussing mainly on collage and painting. Also, the American Ben Berlow is widely recognised among gallerists and art enthusiasts.  


Cover image: Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952. Courtesy of: Jackson Pollock/© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY.

Written by Francesca Allievi

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