Just a century ago abstract art was an entirely new concept that sparked many debates. It was a product of its age, fueled by the rapidly changing world at the beginning of the twentieth century. As technology progressed, the function of the accurate depiction of reality was transferred from art to photography. In this new era, many abstract artists chose to focus on discovering a new visual language to depict the intangible.
12. Groundbreaking Abstract Artist Joan Miró (1893 – 1983)
The Catalonian-born artist Joan Miró was one of the most groundbreaking abstract artists. Often associated with Surrealists, he nevertheless preferred to keep his distance from the organized and unified movement. His work often relied on automatic drawing and folk art of his native region. Miró was one of the main influences on the first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. Still, he never limited himself to painting, regularly working with ceramics and sculpture as well.
Miró’s abstractions are often minimalist, with fluid organic forms, completely flat surfaces, and distinct contours. He never abandoned figuration completely. Some elements of his abstract compositions were still reminiscent of real-life objects, evoking associations and memories. Sometimes Miró’s lines and shapes form unknown constellations on his canvases, leading the viewer deeper into the domain of free interpretation.
11. František Kupka (1871 – 1957)
Czech artist František Kupka is rarely remembered as an abstract pioneer, but his influence was crucial for the development of the new visual language. Forced to work from an early age, he never had a proper artistic education, but he was self-taught. A decisive point in Kupka’s career happened in his teenage years when one of his employees, who was a saddlemaker, introduced him to spiritualism. These ideas would follow Kupka throughout his whole life.
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Most of the time Kupka earned a living as a caricaturist and illustrator. However, in his spare time, he kept working as an avant-garde artist. Inspired by the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, he decided to abandon figurative art and focus on matters of movement, speed, and the sublime. His abstract works were also studies on the impressions and feelings of color and form.
10. Yves Klein (1928 – 1962)
Although Klein considered himself a Neo-Realist, the most important segment of his oeuvre was essentially abstract. His artistic practice was innovative in many ways. Klein painted using live brushes seen in nude models that were directed to leave their print on the canvases.
Klein also created his own color. International Klein Blue, also known as IKB is a specific shade of ultramarine, made to perfection in chemical laboratories. IKB represented the sky, the absolute, and the infinity, but it was also connected to Klein’s Catholic faith and the tradition of Christian painting. For centuries, the blue pigment was one of the most expensive and significant ones, used mostly for painting the cloak of The Virgin Mary.
9. Gerhard Richter (1932 -)
Gerhard Richter is truly a grand master of German abstraction. He started his artistic career as a mural painter, and this aspect left a substantial mark on his later oeuvre. Seamlessly drifting from abstraction to photorealism and back, Richter remains one of the most influential and contemporary artists of our time.
Richter’s painting technique makes him instantly recognizable and different from his colleagues. He does not limit himself by using brushes. Sponges, pieces of wood, squeegees, and mops are his instruments of choice too. Despite the abstract nature of his work, Richter is a politically engaged artist who often addresses difficult aspects of history. His family story adds up to the narrative of guilt and trauma. While one part of his family belonged to the Nazi party, other members were murdered in Nazi Germany.
8. Helen Frankenthanthaler (1928 – 2011)
One of the brightest stars of American modern art, Helen Frankenthaler was a true legend of abstraction. Although her career lasted over six decades, she never allowed herself to bask in her glory. She created irrelevant work relying solely on her personal brand. Frankenthaler always invented something new, progressing as an artist every day.
Initially an abstract expressionist, Frankenthaler moved to another domain of abstraction called Color Field painting. Although Color Field artists shared their preference for large-scale works with abstract expressionist painters, the movement had its significant differences. Frankenthaler’s abstractions look a bit more simple when compared to those of her colleagues. Instead of violent and expressive gesture painting, Frankenthaler and other Color Field painters preferred to dilute their paint and soak the canvas in it, creating organic and fluid shapes.
7. Piet Mondrian (1972 – 1944)
The great abstract artist and one of the pioneers of non-figurative painting, Piet Mondrian started his career as a landscape painter. However, even in his figurative period, his works were detached from realistic depictions enough to suggest something bigger was coming. His quest for departing from objective reality started with his deep involvement in spiritualism and occult practices. Like many other artists of the time, Mondrian was an intellectual who sought a new way of expression and representation.
As World War II raged over Europe, Mondrian, who was already in his late sixties, moved to the United States. Despite his old age, he had another groundbreaking period of his career, creating a series of square compositions inspired by jazz music using paint and tape. These were not merely paintings, but music scores, with rhythms and notes encrypted on the canvases.
6. Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011)
One of the greatest abstract artists Cy Twombly remains a controversial figure for the general public. Among all other artists on this list, he is the one most likely to provoke the reaction frequently formulated as my kid could paint it too. However, looking below the surface, Twombly’s style reveals a complicated and educated artist with a list of surprising artistic inspirations. During World War II, Twombly served in the US Army as a cryptologist, using means of communication different from traditional written and spoken language. As an artist, he was also fascinated by the tribal art of Non-Western cultures and ancient mythology.
5. Wassily Kandinsky (1966 -1944)
Until the groundbreaking rediscovery of Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky was seen as the pioneer of abstraction. Although his status had changed, the impact left by the Russian-German artist on the history of art is tremendous. Kandinsky’s early work took inspiration from Russian folklore and traditional painting styles. His departure toward abstraction happened during his forties, after years of intellectual labor, research, and theorizing.
He found inspiration for his abstract art in Russian folk art. While visiting remote Russian villages, Kandinsky noticed that the decorations in houses, clothing, and everyday objects were so extensive that they created all-encompassing environments. These moving and living patterns represented everything and nothing in particular, with objects dissolving in ornaments.
4. Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984)
One of the legends of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Lee Krasner knew from an early age that she had to become an artist. In her early career, she made pieces inspired by Post-Impressionist and Cubist works. During the Great Depression Krasner worked as a muralist, but abstract art was seen as undesirable by most of her commissioners.
For years, Krasner’s work remained overshadowed by the fame of her late husband Jackson Pollock. However, Krasner was an accomplished artist in her own right. Apart from large-scale action paintings, she also left behind hundreds of small oil compositions, mosaic tables, and collages made from her older works.
3. Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935)
Ukranian-born artist Kazimir Malevich was not only one of the pioneers of abstraction but the founder of his own art movement called Suprematism. Suprematism relied solely on strict geometric forms and primary colors. For Malevich, Suprematism represented the victory of humanity over nature. The most famous painting by Malevich, titled Black Square, is the most concise Suprematist manifesto.
Despite the completely abstract nature and innovation of his works, Malevich was heavily influenced by Orthodox Christian icons. Apart from compositional principles and flatness of scenes, Malevich explored the concept of image sanctification. His squares and crosses were icons as well, the icons of the new world and the new art.
2. Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)
Mark Rothko was one of the greatest abstract artists ever. People often misunderstand or misinterpret his work due to its simplified style. To make matters worse, Rothko himself refused to explain his paintings publicly, afraid that the media would destroy the message behind them.
In the late 1940s, Rothko developed his signature style of painting consisting of vertically oriented rectangles, filled with stripes of color. A viewer should not be confused by their simple form: behind primitive-looking planes of color there is a long path of thought, processing, and calibration. For Rothko, only an abstract image could truly convey the depth of human feeling and emotion. An avid reader, he was influenced by mythological subjects but searched for non-representational ways to reflect them.
1. Hilma af Klint: The Forgotten Abstract Artist (1862 – 1944)
The pioneering abstract artist Hilma af Klint was almost completely overlooked by art history. A trained illustrator, she moved from figuration to abstraction as early as 1906 but made no effort to become recognized in the art world. An ardent spiritualist and a believer, she discovered her connection with the higher power during a spiritual seance. According to af Klint, her mission was not to be an artist. Instead, she was supposed to become a receiver of spiritual knowledge, a scientist, and an interpreter. Her goal was to bring the otherworldly messages to humanity and learn as much about them as she possibly could. To her, her abstract works represent the diagrams of invisible forces, the codified natural processes, and manuals on spiritual evolution.