Abstract artists brought different genres and subgenres of abstraction into the dominant painting style of the 20th century. This influential avant-garde direction in painting derived from the request for "pure art", abstract, non-figurative, non-objective and nonrepresentational artwork. The earliest movements toward contemporary abstraction in the history of art were seen in Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism, where artists put a greater emphasis on visual sensation than the depiction of objects.
The arrival of the 20th century saw a revolution in art as artists freed themselves from depicting reality. Instead, they adopted a love of art for art’s sake. Artists such as Vassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint declared that art can be simple abstract shapes, inspired by the natural world, but not a mere copy of it. Instead of copying nature, artists can focus on composition, colour, shapes, texture, emotion, and spirituality. The results are eye-popping and joyful and still feel modern to our 21st century eyes.
Famous Men Abstract Artists
Our top ten abstract artists are among a very long list of favourite abstract artists who pioneered an avant-garde aesthetic.
Wassily Kandinsky is probably the most famous abstract artist of all time. He was a painter and an art theorist. He was born in Russia, and his first name is often transliterated as Vasily (with just one s) or Wassily (with a W and two s characters).
Black Lines, 1913
Paul Klee paintings are immediately recognisable with his unique style of playful, abstract, and colourful craftsmanship. He was influenced by Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. He was also a student of Orientalism. Other artists, including Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, expressed admiration for his work.
Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes. Arshile Gorky
Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter and theoretician. Over the course of his career, he changed his artistic direction from figurative painting to an increasingly abstract style, until he reached a point where his art was reduced to simple geometric elements.
Robert Delaunay was a French artist who in his later years painted abstract art that is reminiscent of Paul Klee. He used bold colours, experimenting with both depth and tone. With his wife Sonia Delaunay and others, Robert Delaunay co-founded the Orphism art movement, noted for its use of strong colours and geometric shapes.
Circular Forms, 1930
James Little is both a painter and a curator and he has been called a “defiant abstractionist.” He combines pigment, hot wax, and varnish to achieve a flat surface painted with geometric shapes and patterns. This technique is similar to encaustic, which has been used since Roman times. Little has studied colour theory and painting techniques extensively, some of his influences have been artists Mark Rothko, Alma Thomas, and Franz Kline.
Double Exposure, 2008
Abstract art is not the creation of another reality but the true vision of reality. Piet Mondrian
Albert Contreras painted from around 1960 to 1972, and then, like Rose Piper, stopped painting for 25 years. He made a name for himself in his first career when he moved to Sweden and worked on minimalist abstract painting. Curators from the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, the Malmo Konsthall, and the Goteborgs Konstmuseum acquired his work, but his paintings started getting smaller and smaller, and at age 39, he stopped painting altogether.
Born in Latvia, Mark Rothko vies with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning for the title of the most famous Abstract Expressionist artist. In terms of style if not of temperament, however, Rothko’s work differed from Pollock and De Kooning in the way he diffused paint all over the canvas rather than subject it to gestural attacks. A typical Rothko sets expansive blobs of pigment stacked atop each other against painted backdrops that reveal themselves along the edges of the composition. Contrasts in colour create visual vibrations that make Rothko’s forms appear to hover in space. Translating mood into paint, Rothko’s aimed to provoke an emotional response in the viewer.
Painting No 21 (red Brown Black and Orange), 1951
The face of Abstract Expressionism and America’s first major post war artist (and still one of its greatest), Pollock burst onto the scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s with his signature drip paintings. They were created in an incandescent burst of creativity over a three year period between 1947 and 1950 at his Springs, New York studio in the Hamptons. His technique was famously captured by Hans Namuth, who photographs show the artist flinging commercial house-paint out of a can onto an unprimed canvas laid on the floor—a performative process that lent the moniker “action painting” to his work and that of other Abstract Expressionists. Appearing in Life magazine under the headline,“Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?,” Pollock achieved a level of fame that wouldn’t be matched until Andy Warhol’s emergence in the 1960s. Beset by personal demons that included alcoholism, Pollock died tragically in an auto accident in 1956.
One: Number 31, 1950
During the 1950s, while Abstract Expressionism was still at its height, Ellsworth Kelly began showing bright, multi-paneled, monochromatic canvases that were stylistically and temperamentally the opposite of painterly slashers like Pollock and Willem De Kooning. In many respects, he was something of an outsider during the rise of the New York School, both figuratively and literally as he developed his aesthetic while living in Paris, where he’d moved in 1948. All the same, Kelly’s work was met with critical acclaim. His exploration of the relationship between form and colour departed from earlier geometric abstractionists—and Abstract Expressionism for that matter—because it was purely formal in nature. Kelly’s work set the tone for much of the art that followed, including Minimalism, Hard-edge painting, Colour Field and even Pop art.
Colors for a Large Wall, 1951
The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real. Lucian Freud
Christopher Wool emerged onto the New York art scene during the late 1980s, and created a splash with black-and-white enamel compositions that featured wallpaper patterns created with the sort of textured paint rollers used to decorate tenement hallways. He also stencilled paintings with cryptic words, such as TRBL or FOOL as well as more recognisable phrases, such as HELTER SKELTER, borrowed from pop culture. For Wool, attitude was form, to borrow a critical notion of the time, and something about the nihilism in his work comported spiritually with Reagan-era excess. But he thought of his paintings as abstractions, or more precisely, images of abstraction, a postmodern conceit which recognised that the genre had become figurative in a way thanks to endless reproductions in art books, magazines and museum postcards. This idea became clearer in Wool’s subsequent works built out of elements from his previous paintings, some which were silkscreened onto the canvas as halftone photos, or defaced with spray-painted marks, or wiped with turpentine-soaked clothes. All in all, Wool’s approach evinces a love-hate relationship with painting—and abstraction in particular.
Who among them inspires YOU?
This is a list of the 10 artists we feel need to get the spotlight. Should you have any suggestions, please let us know! We are more than happy to take note of your opinions as well!
Interested in this style of art, please view our collection of abstract art.
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