Abstract art is a visual art movement that departs from traditional representations of reality. It focusses instead on the use of colours, shapes, and forms to convey meaning and emotion. Emerging in the early 20th century, abstract art has since given rise to numerous styles and movements, with many significant artists revolutionising the art world through their innovative and groundbreaking works.
In this blog post, we will explore some of the most famous abstract artists. Delve into their unique biographies and examine their contributions to the world of fine art.
Widely regarded as one of the pioneers of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky was born in 1866 in Moscow, Russia. His early exposure to Russian folk art and music inspired his belief that colours and shape could evoke emotions.
Early life and influences
Wassily Kandinsky began painting representational art in the early 20th century; he was inspired by Monet’s Impressionist artworks. It was Monet’s Haystacks painting that piqued his interest in creating works with abstract elements. Monet’s Haystacks paintings transcend reality, in the way that the very ordinary subject has been represented as much more beautiful and elaborate than it is in person. In seeing this painting at a touring exhibition in St. Petersburg, Kandinsky responded: “The painting showed itself to me in all its fantasy and all its enchantment. Deep within me the first doubt arose about the importance of the object as a necessary element in a picture”.
Kandinsky is credited as being one of the first painters to create purely abstract paintings, transitioning away from traditional representational art. His work became more and more abstract over time, incorporating bold colours, geometric shapes, and curved lines. Each painting was a unique exploration of colour, emotion, and form.
Sound and colour
For Kandinsky, the sensory experience of music and colour were interlinked. This rare neurological condition, called synesthesia, enabled Kandinsky to make visual connections between colour and sound. It was after an Arnold Schönberg concert in 1911 that inspired Kandinsky to paint a non-representational oil painting, Impression III (Concert). It was a work that described how Kandinsky perceived the correspondence between colour and sound. The painting shows canons and rhythms. Then the yellow represents high pitch.
Kandinsky is renowned for works such as Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), the first of his abstract works to be exhibited, and The Blue Rider, an iconic painting that is featured in many museums around the world. His other most notable works are Composition VII and Squares with Concentric Circles. Both of which are thought to be some of the most influential abstract paintings in history.
Blue Rider movement
Kandinsky was a key figure in the Blue Rider movement, which sought to express spiritual truths through art. He also taught at the Bauhaus, an influential German art school that emphasised the connection between art, craft, and technology. Throughout his career, Kandinsky continued to push the boundaries of abstraction, inspiring generations of artists to explore new creative avenues.
Born in 1872 in the Netherlands, Piet Mondrian is renowned for his contributions to the De Stijl movement. This movement aimed to achieve harmony and order through the use of geometric forms and primary colours. Mondrian’s mature style, known as neoplasticism, is characterised by its grid-like compositions, consisting of black lines dividing rectangular spaces filled with white or primary colours.
Mondrian’s work was deeply rooted in his philosophical beliefs, particularly theosophy, which held that the material world was a reflection of an underlying spiritual reality. By simplifying his compositions to their most basic elements, Mondrian sought to reveal the essence of this spiritual truth. His iconic style has had a lasting impact on modern art, influencing not only painters but also architects and designers.
Mondrian didn’t always paint abstract art. He started painting figurative works, landscapes, and portraits in the 1890s, in a more naturalistic and realistic style, influenced by the Hague School. But it wasn’t until 1912 that he began to experiment with abstraction. He moved away from representation and embraced a more abstract style. This abstract style was influenced by cubism and fauvism after he moved to Paris in 1911.
Mondrian was highly influenced by George Braque, particularly his painting. He was also drawn to the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Theo van Doesburg, whose abstract paintings expressed a spiritual quality that resonated with Mondrian’s philosophical beliefs.
Mondrian is best known for his iconic grids and primary colours, as seen in works such as Composition No. 10, and his magnum opus, Victory Boogie-Woogie. This painting took Mondrian two years to complete and is considered one of the greatest abstract paintings ever created. His other famous works include Broadway Boogie Woogie, Broadway Painting, Composition with Yellow, Red and Blue, and Tableau I.
Jackson Pollock was a leading figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which emerged in post-World War II America. His unique approach in using pure visceral emotion to create paintings changed people’s idea of how art could be made.
Early life and influences
Pollock was born in 1912 and grew up in the American West. Here he was exposed to Native American culture and art, which heavily influenced his later work. He moved to New York City in 1930, during the height of the Great Depression. Here he studied at the Art Students League under painter Thomas Hart Benton, whose interest in regionalism and Cubist style left a lasting impression on Pollock’s work. Pollock’s unique approach to painting, known as action painting or drip painting, involved dripping, pouring, and splattering paint onto large canvases placed on the floor, resulting in dynamic, energetic compositions that capture the artist’s physical engagement with the work.
Pollock’s innovative technique challenged traditional notions of what constituted a painting and helped to establish abstract expressionism as a major artistic movement. His work continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists, who are drawn to the expressive potential of his gestural approach to painting.
Rothko, born in 1903 in present-day Latvia, was another influential figure within the Abstract Expressionist movement. Mark Rothko’s signature style, often referred to as Colour Field painting, is characterised by its large-scale, rectangular fields of colour, which he used to explore the emotional and spiritual aspects of human experience.
Early life and influences
Rothko moved to the United States in 1913, when he was ten years old. He was exposed to a wide range of artistic styles throughout his teens, from European Expressionism to Native American art. It wasn’t until Rothko went to Yale University that he began focusing on painting, exploring surrealism, cubism, and other modernist styles.
Rothko’s distinct Colour Field painting was heavily influenced by his own personal life experiences, such as his Jewish heritage and the social injustices he experienced during World War II. His paintings often explore themes of suffering, mortality, mysticism, and spirituality. His signature style is characterised by large rectangular fields of vibrant colour.
Rothko’s work is deeply introspective. This reflects his belief in the transcendent power of art to connect viewers with their innermost emotions and the universal human condition. By simplifying his compositions and focusing on the interplay of colours, Rothko sought to create a sense of intimacy and contemplation within his paintings.
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning was an influential Dutch painter and sculptor. He was born in 1904 in Rotterdam. Along with Pollock and Rothko, he was one of the founding figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His work is characterised by its energetic brushstrokes and vibrant colours that blend abstraction with elements of figuration.
Willem de Kooning started out as a commercial artist. However, he was also heavily influenced by the modernist styles of Picasso and Matisse. He moved to the United States in 1926 and eventually embraced abstract expressionism after befriending artists such as Pollock, Rothko, and Franz Kline.
De Kooning’s iconic style has been described as abstract expressionism with a figural element. His works are characterised by their energetic brushstrokes, which often blend into the background of the painting. He also used vibrant colours to create dynamic compositions that evoke emotion and imply movement.
De Kooning is best known for his iconic painting Woman I, which he began in 1950 and completed in 1952. Other famous works include Excavation, Painting Number 7, and East River.
O’Keeffe was an American modernist painter, best known for her iconic flower paintings. Born in 1887, she was one of the leading figures of the 20th century avant-garde art movement. Her work is characterised by its vibrant colours and bold composition, which explore themes of nature and femininity.
Georgia O’Keefe grew up in Wisconsin, where she was exposed to nature and the visual arts from an early age. She moved to New York City in 1905, where she studied at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase. Here she began to explore a range of modernist styles such as cubism and expressionism, which heavily influenced her later work.
Her art style
O’Keeffe is most famously known for her large-scale flower paintings, which were often painted from scenes in nature. She was also a pioneer of the American modernist landscape, producing some of the first abstract landscapes in American art history. Her work is characterised by its vibrant colours and bold, energetic composition that explore themes of nature and femininity. By abstracting the details of her subject matter, she was able to capture an emotive quality in her work that resonates with viewers.
Journey to abstraction
Although her style is mostly recognised as being representational, O’Keeffe began producing abstract works in 1915, which, at first consisted of a collection of charcoal drawings. These works were considered daring and ahead of their time. By the 1940s, she had abandoned representation altogether and focused exclusively on abstraction, exploring themes of memory and emotion through her bold composition and vibrant colours.
Impact on the abstract art movement
O’Keeffe’s impact on modern art is immeasurable. She helped to establish a new genre of painting and inspired countless artists who followed in her footsteps. Her work continues to be celebrated for its boldness, dynamism and emotional resonance. Her legacy lives on in the works of contemporary artists who are drawn to her unique and innovative style.
The legacy of abstract art
The works of Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning have had a lasting impact on the development of abstract art. Their unique styles, which challenge traditional notions of painting and explore themes of spirituality, emotion, and human experience, continue to inspire contemporary artists and also stimulate public discourse on the power of art to evoke a sense of meaning and connection. As we reflect on the legacy of these iconic figures, it is clear that abstract art continues to be relevant and powerful, speaking to the shared humanity and universal themes of life.