Abstract Art

Artwork which makes no attempt to represent the real world instead using shape, form, colour and line to create visual effect.


For many many years throughout the evolution of human history, we have sought to express in picture form, the world that surrounds us. In Western Art in particular, during the Renaissance period, we became extremely fascinated with perspective drawing and there was an almost exclusive focus on representing what we see in the real world as accurately as possible, with painstaking detail being the norm. At the end of the 19th century, however, major developments in technology, science and philosophy changed the way artists saw the world, and ultimately sought to illustrate it. Thus came the advent of what we know today as Abstract Art.

Essentially, Abstract Art makes no attempt or intention of depicting the world realistically and instead uses shape, form, colour and line to create visual effect.


There were many factors that led to the emergence of Abstract Art. Technology and importantly, the invention of photography played a huge role in the development of this style. Painting, drawing and sculpture could not compete with the popularisation of this new method of capturing reality in its exactitude, and so artists made a conscious effort to transform these mediums in order to create a new visual language. Abstraction became a tool for doing this.

The rapid pace of change in technology also meant that people began questioning reality. What was impossible yesterday, quickly became the norm today and so for artists, depicting reality was no longer a necessary aim. They chose instead to depict emotions and concepts on canvas with abstract colors and forms. New technologies also meant the world around us was speeding up, and people began to experience the world through different lenses. For example, seeing a landscape through the window of a fast-moving train gave a new visual understanding of the world when compared to travelling on foot or by horse.

Although Abstract Art emerged at the end of the 19th Century, it is less an art movement and rather a visual language that has been used in many different movements throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and continues to be prevalent in aspects of art today. It is the opposite of figurative or representational art, and departs from reality in various ways to express things creatively. Artists may work in partial abstraction, using methods such as altering the colours or distorting the scale of what they are representing, or rendering objects and figures in more fluid, geometric or even dotted ways. Or they may also employ total abstraction, wherein they create an artwork that has absolutely no association or reference to reality.

Contemporary Context:

Abstract Art as a visual language was used in many different art movements in the 20th century, such as Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Impressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Futurism, Fauvism, Suprematism, Pointillism, De Stijl, and Constructivism - just to name a few. It is also continuously used today by artists across the world, and is particularly important in new media and digital art.

Famous Examples:

Given the above, Abstract Art spans a wide time-frame and variety of styles! As such, many artists are associated with Abstract Art. To name just a few of these:

  • Wassily Kandinsky - a pioneer of modern abstract art, he believed that through total abstraction we could explore true and spiritual expression.
  • Piet Mondrian - influential in the founding of the Dutch modern movement De Stijl, he distilled his representations of the world down to their basic vertical and horizontal elements, representing the two essential opposing forces in it: the positive and the negative, the dynamic and the static, the masculine and the feminine.
  • Jackson Pollock - one of the defining figures of American Abstract Expressionism - Pollock is known for his unusual and uninhibited methods of creation - pouring paint directly onto canvases or flinging it with a stick to create roiling vortexes of color and line.
  • Robert Delauney - captivated by colour he created complex geometric interactions in which both solid objects and their surrounding spaces were fragmented, much like Cubism.
  • Barbara Hepworth - a world-recognised sculptor known for her sensitivity and understanding of many physical materials use of a wide-ranging selection of physical materials and her sensitivity of understanding the particular qualities of those materials in determining the results of her sculptures.

Here’s a tiny preview of some famous abstract artworks:

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Cosaques (Cossacks)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) - Cosaques (Cossacks) - 1910
Oil paint on canvas - 94.6 x 130.2 cm
Presented by mrs Hazel McKinley 1938
Tate, London/UK

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red - 1937-42
Oil paint on canvas - 72.7 x 69.2 cm
Tate, London/UK

Jackson Pollock One: Number 31, 1950

Jackson Pollock - One: Number 31, 1950 - 1950
Oil and enamel paint on canvas - 269.5 x 530.8 cm; 8’ 10" x 17' 5 5/8”
Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange)
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York NY

Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) Rythme sans fin (Endless Rhythm)

Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) - Rythme sans fin (Endless Rhythm) - 1934
Oil paint on canvas - 161.9 x 130.2 cm
Tate, London/UK

Gerard Richter (b. 1932) Abstraktes Bild (726) (Abstract Painting (726))

Gerard Richter (b. 1932) - Abstraktes Bild (726) (Abstract Painting (726)) - 1990
Oil paint on canvas - Two canvases, 251.0 x 175.5 x 3.8 cm (each)
Tate, London/UK

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) Image II

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) - Image II - 1960
Marble on wooden base - 82.9 x 74.0 x 58.5 cm, 345 kg
Presented by the artist 1967
Tate, London/UK

Barnett Newmann Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Barnett Newmann - Vir Heroicus Sublimis - 1950-61
Oil on canvas - 242.2 x 541.7 cm; 7’ 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4”
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller
© 2018 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York NY


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