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Abstract art prevailed around the early 20th century in countries across the world. It is also referred to as “non-objective” and “non-representational”. The main idea behind Abstract art is that it does not follow the rules of reality or formal representation. In this article, we explore some of the famous abstract artists who paved the way for this diverse and divergent art style within the West.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is Abstract Art?
- 2 Top Ten Famous Abstract Artists
- 2.1 Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944)
- 2.2 Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944)
- 2.3 Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944)
- 2.4 Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935)
- 2.5 Robert Delaunay (1885 – 1941)
- 2.6 Joan Miró (1893 – 1983)
- 2.7 Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)
- 2.8 Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)
- 2.9 Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004)
- 2.10 Frank Stella (1936 – Present)
- 3 Celebrating the Many Faces of Abstract Art
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
What is Abstract Art?
Before we explore the list of Abstract artists, let us first discuss a little bit more about what abstract art is. It can become somewhat confusing to understand in terms of how art has primarily been understood, which is figurative and represents nature or human forms that our minds understand and relate to.
Maybe the whole point of Abstract art is to not give it too much analytical thought, and allow it to be the mere expression of the innermost parts of ourselves. However, Abstract art has been the product of skillful and meticulous analytical thought by numerous forefathers, whom we will mention below. It has also been the marriage between the analytical and expressive.
Lake George Reflection (c. 1921 – 1922) by Georgia O’Keeffe; Georgia O’Keeffe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As mentioned above, Abstract art is also referred to as “non-objective” or “non-representational”, but to understand this we need to understand the basic ideas behind “representational” and “objective”. Both relate to the representation of objects that we see from reality, or “real life” – images we can recognize from life.
Therefore, the non-representational or non-objective are forms that we cannot recognize, or as we stated above, that our minds cannot understand.
Abstract art employs other forms derived from elements like color, geometric or biomorphic shapes, textures from brushwork or other tools, and so forth to create compositions that appear almost outside of our known reality, as if from an abstract and abstracted reality.
Top Ten Famous Abstract Artists
Below we will discuss a list of Abstract artists, starting from the earliest to the latest. Many artists came from different parts of the world, notably Europe and the United States, although these are not the only regions. The Abstract painters all had their own style of Abstract art and created complex and innovative new theories and artistic expressions based on the way they viewed life and wanted art to function.
Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944)
|Lifespan||26 October 1862 to 21 October 1944|
|Where the Artist Lived||Sweden|
|Associated Art Movements||Abstract, Symbolism, The Sublime in Art, Proto-Feminism|
|Famous Paintings||Primordial Chaos No.7 (1906 – 1907), 7, Adulthood (1907), Evolution, No. 12 (1908), The Swan, No.17 (1914 – 1915), and Altarpiece, No. 1 (1915)|
Born in Sweden, Hilma af Klint was, and is, regarded as one of the first Abstract artists before Wassily Kandinsky, who many consider the forefather of Abstract art. She kept to herself as an artist and reportedly requested that her art only be exhibited 20 years after she died.
There has been wide debate around the validity of her as an Abstract artist because her work was done predominantly due to her spirituality.
This was deeply inspired by the prevalent doctrines of the time: Theosophy, the Anthroposophical Society, and her beliefs in the spiritual realms. She was also reportedly guided by spirits to paint in her Abstract style to convey ideas beyond what we know as human beings.
During 1896 af Klint started a group with four of her female friends, who were also artists; they called themselves “The Five”. The group held regular séances and experimented with artistic techniques like free drawing and allowed space for the subconscious to guide them. However, af Klint was involved in spiritual practices like séances from an early age, more specifically, after her sister died in 1880.
Af Klint produced landscapes and portrait paintings in her early years and studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm from 1882 to 1887. She also studied a wide range of disciplines, notably Mathematics and Botany, which informed her Abstract art style. Her style consisted of geometric and biomorphic shapes. She started her abstract paintings from 1906 onwards. Her seminal series of works is titled Paintings for the Temple (1906 to 1915).
Regardless of af Klint’s spiritual beliefs informing her art, she explored similar Abstract ideas that we have learned from many of the famous Abstract painters who merely received more public attention than af Klint.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944)
|Lifespan||4 December 1866 to 13 December 1944|
|Where the Artist Lived||Russia, Germany, France|
|Associated Art Movements||Expressionism, Der Blaue Reiter|
|Famous Paintings||The Blue Rider (1903), Composition IV (1911), Composition VI (1913), Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) (1913), and Composition VIII (1923)|
Wassily Kandinsky is one of the most famous Abstract artists. In fact, he is considered one of the pioneers. He was born in Moscow and was involved in the arts from a young age; he had a deep interest and what has been described as “sensitivity” to colors and their symbolism. During his early years, he studied Economics and Law but pursued art when he was 30 years old, studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
Kandinsky was a co-founder of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (“The New Artists Association of Munich”) from 1909 to 1911 and then Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”) group from 1911 to 1914.
Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky; Wassily Kandinsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Kandinsky started Der Blaue Reiter with several other artists, including Franz Marc and Auguste Macke, which also paved the way for German Expressionism. He also wrote his seminal text, or treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911).
Due to his passion for colors and their underlying psychology, his paintings became compositions of emotions, signified by abstracted shapes, lines, and colors.
He sought to convey spiritual ideas through abstracted forms, but importantly considered music a means of doing so. Music was the “ultimate teacher” to Kandinsky, and he painted music, so to say. He created Compositions, Improvisations, and Impressions.
Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944)
|Lifespan||7 March 1872 to 1 February 1944|
|Where the Artist Lived||Netherlands, Paris, London, New York City|
|Associated Art Movements||De Stijl (Neoplasticism)|
|Famous Paintings||Composition with Color Planes 5 (1917), Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, Blue (1921), Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930), New York City I (1942), and Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943)|
Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, or as we know him today as Piet Mondrian, was a Dutch painter also considered as one of the pioneers of Abstract art. He was born in the Province of Utrecht, Netherlands. He learned art techniques from his father and uncle and during 1892 he studied at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten (Academy for Fine Art). He was also interested in the spiritual doctrines of Theosophy and Anthroposophy.
When he lived in Paris from 1911 to 1914, he was influenced by Cubism and the art styles of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. During 1914, Mondrian returned to the Netherlands for a brief period, but could not leave because of World War I, he stayed there until around 1918, returning to Paris until 1938.
However, when Mondrian was in the Netherlands, he met Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck. They co-founded the De Stijl art movement, from which emerged Mondrian’s signature style and art theory was called Neo-Plasticism.
Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942 – 1943) by Piet Mondrian; Piet Mondrian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This style was characterized by geometric shapes like cubes and rectangles, with horizontal and vertical lines. The composition only consisted of primary colors; yellow, red, blue, and neutrals like black, white, and gray. Through the asymmetry of his compositions, which he created on what appeared grid-like conversely appeared balanced in form, Mondrian wanted to convey underlying universal truth.
Piet Mondrian’s paintings left an influential mark on Modern and Contemporary art, for example, his unique and simple style influenced the Bauhaus art school and its design principles. He also influenced the art movement called Minimalism. Referenced to Mondrian can be seen throughout pop culture, from fashion, music, computer programming, television series, and books.
For example, the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, produced his famous day dresses in 1965 with designs inspired by Mondrian’s squares of color, and there is also a high-rise building in Texas named The Mondrian (2005).
Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935)
|Lifespan||26 February 1879 to 15 May 1935|
|Where the Artist Lived||Russia|
|Associated Art Movements||Suprematism|
|Famous Paintings||Black Square (c. 1915), Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions (1915), Airplane Flying (1915), Suprematist Composition (1916), and White on White (1917 – 1918)|
Kazimir Malevich was one of the most famous Abstract Modern artists who pioneered the non-objective in art. Although he was based in Russia during a tumultuous political landscape, living through World War I and the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917, his artistic innovation reached the rest of the world and left a lasting impact on Abstract and Minimal artists; For example, the American Adolph Reinhardt produced his Black Paintings (1953 to 1967), which were influenced by Malevich’s famous Black Square (c. 1915) painting.
Malevich attended the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from 1904 to 1910. In his early years, he explored the different artistic techniques from styles like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism.
In 1915, Malevich explored what would become his signature art style and practice, Suprematism. He associated with numerous artists, including Wassily Kandinsky. Some of his main themes focused on peasant and farm life.
Suprematist Composition (1915) by Kazimir Malevich; Kazimir Malevich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As mentioned above, Malevich was the founder of the art style and theory called Suprematism; his treaty From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism (1915) explained his views on art. He stated how he transformed himself to the “zero of form” and did away with the rules and principles so heavily bound to academic art.
To Malevich art was about “color and texture” and “feeling”. He went beyond the realm of form and created a new reality which he explained from his later treatise, The Non-Objective World (1927), in his essay titled Suprematism that, “Under Suprematism, I understand the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art”.
Robert Delaunay (1885 – 1941)
|Lifespan||12 April 1885 to 25 October 1941|
|Where the Artist Lived||France, Portugal, Spain|
|Associated Art Movements||Cubism, Orphism (Simultanism)|
|Famous Paintings||La Ville de Paris (1910 – 1912), Window on the City no.3 (1911), Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon (1912), Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912), Le Premier Disque (1912 – 1913), and Rythme, Joie de Vivre (1930)|
Born in Paris, Robert Delaunay became a well-known abstract Modern artist due to his utilization of vivid colors. His subject matter focused on Paris and the burgeoning city life, we will notice numerous iterations of the Eiffel Tower in his artworks, rendered in splendid colors and multifaceted and fragmented forms.
His artistic style has been described as resembling “mosaics” because his composition consisted of squares; each one is a unique color, an example of this includes his Paysage au disque (1906 – 1907). He was influenced by the artistic techniques from Neo-Impressionism, notably Divisionism and Pointillism, as well as Cubism as we see the fragmentation of the subject matter.
Rythme, Joie de Vivre (1930) by Robert Delaunay; Robert Delaunay, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Delaunay’s signature style came from the artistic theory and practice called Orphism, otherwise, Simultanism, which lasted from 1911 to 1914. It developed through Cubism, where artists utilized more subdued colors. However, Orphism relied on vibrant colors to achieve a “color harmony” as described by some art sources, and artists wanted to convey color in a similar manner to that of music.
Delaunay also studied color theories as well as other theoretical ideas related to perception, space, and time.
This informed how his, and other artists’ compositions, explored the abstract in their multi-fragmented forms. We will notice figurative elements in Delaunay’s artworks, and sometimes we will notice pure form given a dynamism through color.
Joan Miró (1893 – 1983)
|Lifespan||20 April 1893 to 25 December 1983|
|Where the Artist Lived||Spain, France|
|Associated Art Movements||Biomorphism, Magical Realism, Surrealism|
|Famous Paintings||The Farm (1920 – 1921), Harlequin’s Carnival (1924 – 1925), Dog Barking at the Moon (1926), Dutch Interior I (1928), The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers (1941), and Bleu II (1961)|
Joan Miró was remembered for his fantasy and child-like abstract paintings, depicting various biomorphic and geometric shapes on flat picture planes. He explored various aspects of the subconscious and utilized automatic drawing as one of his techniques, which became a notable characteristic of his work.
Miró was born and grew up in Barcelona; he studied art from a young age and during his teen years he joined the Llotja school of fine arts. He additionally studied commerce, however, this career path proved to be more agonizing to Miró’s well-being, so he pursued an art career. Miró spent his time between Spain and Paris, and would frequently visit his family farm in Catalonia.
Although he started his art career painting figurative compositions, his style developed into what has been described as “organic” shapes.
He delved into various art styles, namely Fauvism, Magical Realism, and Surrealism, however, many associated him as a Surrealist, he was also close acquaintances with André Breton, but reportedly he never signed any of the Surrealist manifestos.
Miró worked in a variety of media, from painting to sculpture, and became a leading influence on the American art style Abstract Expressionism, as well as Modern art in general. His compositions were not wholly abstract and bridged the gap, so to say, between the non-objective and objective in art.
While we can still deduce some form of the figurative in Miró’s compositions, we are also seeing a new world created by the artist, one that goes beyond the rational understanding of what we know.
Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)
|Lifespan||25 September 1903 to 25 February 1970|
|Where the Artist Lived||Russia, United States of America, extensive travels in Europe|
|Associated Art Movements||Surrealism, Expressionism, Color Field Painting, Abstract Expressionism|
|Famous Paintings||Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), 9 (1947), Untitled (No.73) (1952), Four Darks in Red (1958), Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue) (1966), and Untitled, Black on Gray (1969)|
Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, otherwise known as Mark Rothko, was a leading Color Field Painter associated with Abstract Expressionism during the mid-1900s. He was from a Jewish family, born in Latvia, which was then part of Russia. The family immigrated to the United States between 1910 and 1913 and remained there; Rothko eventually moved to New York City.
Rothko was famously known for his collection of Color Field Paintings, which consisted of large rectangular shapes of color set against backgrounds of color. Some sources describe these shapes as “floating” against the background.
For Rothko, his compositions exemplified emotion and his artistic intentions were not around forms or color, in fact, he is often quoted as saying, “I am not an abstractionist…I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else…I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on”.
Rothko produced over 800 paintings and numerous of his artworks have sold for tens of millions of dollars.
His paintings were large scale, some measuring almost eight feet. The artist created such large pieces with the intention of being “intimate and human”. In Rothko’s manuscript, which was posthumously published, The Artist’s Reality (2006), Rothko provides his unique and individualistic views on art and being an artist.
Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)
|Lifespan||28 January 1912 to 11 August 1956|
|Where the Artist Lived||The United States of America|
|Associated Art Movements||Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting|
|Famous Paintings||Going West (1934 – 1935), The She-Wolf (1943), Full Fathom Five (1947), Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950), One: Number 31 (1950), and The Deep (1953)|
Born in Wyoming, Pollock moved throughout the United States growing up, eventually moving to New York City with his brother, Charles Pollock, during 1930. He reportedly did not have an easy life and suffered from alcoholism. He married Lenore Krasner, also an Abstract Expressionist artist, in 1945.
Pollock was famous for his drip paintings, otherwise referred to as Action Paintings, and became a leading influencing artist in this field. He produced large-scale canvases with mixed media and artistic tools. Becoming fully engaged with and embodied in the painting process, he would work with the canvas placed on the floor and move around it splashing and applying his paint.
Some report that the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros influenced Pollock’s use of liquid paint at one of his workshops that Pollock attended during 1936. It was during the 1940s when Pollock created his famous “drip” paintings, which would leave a lasting impression on the world.
Pollock also started his painting career exploring figurative subjects, and developed into the world of abstract only later, however, he still delved in and out of both worlds. Undoubtedly, Pollock was one of the most famous Abstract Expressionists in the United States and a seminal figure in Modern and Contemporary art.
He gave the process of making art a new meaning, showing others how the role of the artist can change and evolve and be an active proponent in front and over the canvas.
Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004)
|Lifespan||22 March 1912 to 16 December 2004|
|Where the Artist Lived||Canada, United States, New Mexico|
|Associated Art Movements||Color Field Painting, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism|
|Famous Paintings||Window (1957), Mountain (1960), Night Sea (1963), Leaf (1965), and Untitled XXI (1980)|
Agnes Martin was born in Canada and immigrated to the United States in 1931. She studied at the Teachers College, Columbia University, and Western Washington University College of Education. When she lived in New York her artistic career became increasingly centered around Abstract Expressionism.
Martin developed her signature style in 1961, which has been described as “grid” paintings.
Martin’s artistic characteristics consisted of producing compositions with a grid layout with measurements of a six-by-six-foot square. She chose muted colors like pastels, black, white, and gray. She also utilized a range of media, including oil, acrylic, graphite pencils, and gesso.
Martin was a seminal figure in Abstract art as well as Minimalism, although she reportedly did not subscribe to the latter designation.
Her work was highly regarded by Minimalists, especially in the exhibition held by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum called Systemic Painting (1966). Because of Martin’s connection to the principles of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, her art has also reportedly become prominent in countries like China.
Frank Stella (1936 – Present)
|Lifespan||12 May 1936 to Present|
|Where the Artist Lived||The United States of America|
|Associated Art Movements||Post-Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism|
|Famous Paintings||The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959), Harran II (1967), Michapol I (1971), and Shoubeegi (1978)|
Frank Stella is an American artist, based in New York City, he has become a notable artist, working in media like painting, printmaking, and sculpting. He was born in Massachusetts and moved to New York in 1958 after he graduated from Princeton University.
In New York, he developed his artistic career and became a pioneering figure in the Minimalism art movement, as well as the Post-Painterly Abstraction style.
Stella was influenced by the work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline; however, Jasper John’s artistic oeuvre left a considerable influence on Stella. As much as Stella was influenced by Abstract Expressionism, his art moved away from its ideals. He is often quoted as saying that a painting is a “flat surface with paint on it – nothing more” and “What you see is what you see”.
What makes Stella an important figure in Abstract art is that his artwork explores the realms of formal artistic qualities like form, color, line, space.
His art moves away from the representation of objects, as well as the representation of abstracted ideas, that we have seen from many other Abstract painters who explore spiritual or emotional aspects through geometric forms.
Celebrating the Many Faces of Abstract Art
Abstract art has been a diverse artistic style and one that is as multifaceted as the artworks that make it a movement, from non-representational or non-objective to slightly objective, and from optical to impersonal.
We can see that the abstract in art developed from artists who sought the higher realms of reality, so to say; they wanted to convey the deeper and elevated essences of life and being human, be it through emotions or spirituality. However, for some, it was just about art and its elements on a canvas – nothing more, nothing less.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Abstract Art?
Abstract art is an art form that does not depict or represent objects or forms that we associate with reality. It is also often termed as non-objective or non-representational art because there is no representation of figures whatsoever. Alternatively, Abstract art is also termed figurative art.
Who Were the Most Famous Abstract Painters?
Some of the most famous Abstract artists include Wassily Kandinsky, who was associated with the Der Blaue Reiter art movement during the 19th and 20th centuries. Others include Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Stella, to name a few. Each artist developed their own unique abstract style of art. For some, it was based on philosophical ideas, and for others, merely on the formal elements of art.
Who Was Considered the First Abstract Artist?
Hilma af Klint, who was from Sweden, has been considered as one of the very first Abstract artists, and often overlooked because her work was only exhibited, as per her request, two decades after her death. Apparently, she produced Abstract paintings long before those of other famous Abstract painters like Wassily Kandinsky.