Abstract Art Explained

The Ultimate FAQ on Abstraction
Table of contents

Introduction: Defining Abstract Art

This article will present you with the most extensive and comprehensive online resource on abstract art. Step by step, we will answer the most frequently asked questions and offer a clear and concise overview of the history of abstract art. But first, we must, of course, define abstract art. So, what is abstract art exactly?

Abstract art consists of all art with a non-representational visual language, often referring to painting. Abstract art does not imitate reality nor present a visual language derived from reality.

For instance, depicting an angel does not represent the actual physical world. However, it is not abstract as it is derived from reality and thus has a representational visual language representing an angel. Hence, with abstract art, from a visual perspective, the picture, image, or object represents nothing.

It is possible to abstract a representational image. For instance, with Cubism, masters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque painted portraits, landscapes, and still lifes in a very abstract manner, distorting the subject with their cubist style. However, these artworks are not abstract, as there is still a representational element and thus no pure abstraction.

In contemporary painting, it is possible to combine figurative elements with pure abstraction in a single picture. However, generally speaking, abstract art refers exclusively to pure abstraction.

When Did Abstract Art Start?

Piet Mondriaan, Tableau I, 1921.

Even though there is no general consensus regarding the starting point of abstract art in the form of an exact date or year, there is a consensus regarding the general period in which abstract art emerged and found traction in the art world.

Abstract art emerged between 1905 and 1915, with the Avant-Garde art movements of Modern Art.

At the start of the 20th century, artists were discovering new ways to represent reality in a non-naturalistic manner. This tendency would eventually result in pure abstraction. Think of Piet Mondrian, who first painted trees and continued to abstract them ending up with only horizontal and vertical lines and flat color planes. Doing so and influenced by Cubism mentioned above, Piet Mondrian founded the art movement of Neo-Plasticism, also known as De Stijl, in 1917.

Others did not arrive at abstraction by abstracting reality but were inspired by spiritual avocations resulting in non-representational art. For instance, Kazimir Malevich founded Suprematism in 1913 as he was convinced of the supremacy of pure artistic feeling, resulting in a geometric abstract visual language.

For more examples of the emergence of abstract art at the start of the twentieth century, read the answer to our question, ‘What are the Different Movements of Abstract Art?’ (cf. infra). But first, instead of answering when abstract art originated, what artists were the inventors of abstract art?

Who Invented Abstract Art? Who Was the First Abstract Artist?

Abstraction has always been around. Think of non-representational patterns on textile or decorative objects, or what about symbols and religion? So instead of inventing abstraction, who were the first artists to discover the possibilities of abstraction and implement it in art?

Generally speaking, Wassily Kandinsky was regarded as the first abstract artist in 1911. However, prior to Wassily Kandinsky, we encountered abstract works by, for instance, Hilma af Klint or even with representational artists who painted abstract pictures; think of J. M. W. Turner or Gustave Moreau.

The painting Composition V from 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky was seen as the first abstract painting for a long time. This resulted from a letter correspondence from 1935 in which the artist himself stated his work was the very first abstract picture in the world.

At the same time, artists such as Frantisek Kupka or Robert Delaunay and his Orphism produced pure abstract artworks around 1911-1912. However, five years before these very well-known names created abstract art, there was also a Swedish female artist named Hilma af Klint, painting abstract pictures inspired by the occult.

If we track back in time, Gustave Moreau was another artist who was occupied with the occult. During the second half of the 19th century, his sketches and small-scale works tended via dreams towards abstraction, with some pieces being pure expressive abstraction avant la lettre.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911.

Or if we go back a bit further in time, we also encounter abstract pictures during the first half of the 19th century with J. M. W. Turner. Turner could depict the sky or a landscape with strong brushstrokes, tending towards abstraction during Romanticism. With some pictures, due to the absence of a clear horizon or a subject in the image, his paintings become entirely abstract.

Of course, Turner did not intend his abstract pictures in the same way as Kandinsky did, however with Moreau, the distinction in the intention starts to dissolve ever so slightly, up to Klint’s occult paintings, arriving at Kandinsky, Kupka, and Delauney, followed by an array of Avant-Garde artists with abstract art as we know it today.

What are the Different Art Movements of Abstract Art?

As we have already discussed, abstract art manifests itself throughout the 20th century up to this very day, encompassing various art movements, from avant-garde modern art movements to contemporary postmodern art movements. But to be more specific, what different art movements are there exactly with abstract art?

The movements in which abstract manifests itself are Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Op Art, Neo-Expressionism, and contemporary abstract painting.

Modern Art’s tendency towards abstraction would start with art movements in which non-naturalistic representation was being explored. This journey started approximately in 1860 before arriving at true abstraction in 1910/1915, encompassing Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Les Nabis, Fauvism, Futurism, and Dada.

The first art movement including pure abstract art would be the aforementioned Suprematism with Kazimir Malevich, among others, from approximately 1910/1915 up to 1925. The movement was marked by the use of geometric abstraction and the supremacy of pure ideas and forms above representational painting, or above reality.

El Lissitsky, Beatthe Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919.

Then there was Constructivism in Russia from approximately 1915 to 1930, with the likes of Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, and El Lissitsky aiming to reflect modern industrial society using abstract and austere structures.

In the Netherlands, the aforementioned Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and Gerrit Rietveld founded De Stijl—also known as Neoplasticism. The art movement from approximately 1915 up to 1930 was an innovative visual language marked by abstraction and universality, reducing the visual to the essential, using only vertical and horizontal lines and primary colors.

Expressionism (1910–1930) was also marked by abstraction but used a predominantly representational visual language, except for some, such as the aforementioned Wassily Kandinsky. However, from the 1940s to the 1960s, Expressionism culminated in Abstract Expressionism, with the gestural with Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline and the large fields of color with Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Minimal Art emerged in the United States of America. The movement is marked by extreme abstraction, radical simplicity, and geometric shapes and would also introduce new (industrial) materials into painting. Although Minimal Art arguably focuses more on sculpture, it was strongly connected to Abstract Expressionism, but also Post-Painterly Abstraction and Op Art, think of painters such as Jo Baer, Mary Corse, Agnes Martin, or Carmen Herrera.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Conceptual Art changed the art world radically and ingeniously. With Conceptual Art, the value of the artwork shifts from the object to the immaterial concept or idea of the artwork. Even though Conceptual Art is occupied with sculpture, installation, photography, video, and performance, painting also plays a role, including conceptual abstraction. Think of the works of Daniel Buren, Sol LeWitt, or even Marcel Broodthaers.

Mary Corse, Untitled (White Inner Band), 2000. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas – 121.9 × 121.9 cm. Courtesy Peter Blake Gallery.

Alongside Minimal Art and Conceptual Art, abstract painting continued to depart from Abstract Expressionism resulting in Post-Painterly-Abstraction since the second half of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The term, courtesy of the famous art critic Clement Greenberg, was used to describe a group of painters who distanced themselves from Abstract Expressionism by the manner of Hard-Edge abstraction or by using washes of color in open compositions. Think of Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, or Kenneth Noland.

Originating in South America, Op Art would also emerge during the 1960s and 1970s, closely connected to Post-Painterly-Abstraction and Hard-Edge painting, examining the viewer’s visual perception and creating an illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface. Think of the works of Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, or François Morellet.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Neo-Expressionism arises. However, even though Neo-Expressionist artworks are pure abstraction, Neo-Expressionism was also connected with a revival of figuration in painting and was visually strongly connected to Willem De Kooning or the CoBrA art movement.

Ever since, one could continue to create new -isms and movements until it becomes pure idiocy. Further, many abstract painters don’t seem to fit into any of these categories or movements; think of the abstract body of works by Gerhard Richter or Julie Mehretu’s abstract pictures that often feel like cityscapes or landscape paintings. As a result, these abstract art forms, up to this day, are simply referred to as contemporary abstract painting and can vary strongly from a visual point of view.