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Abstract Art

Abstract art is the most widely-practiced form of creative art in the world.

Abstract Art

Abstract art is a form of self-expression that, on the surface, appears to have no rules or limits. However, according to The University of Chicago, abstract art does not lack rules, but lacks objective. In other words, it removes the object and leaves behind the artist and the medium. Abstract art is an extraction of emotion from form and traditional structure. Although a recent arrival to the history of art, abstract art has produced many modern masterpieces and revered artists.

Understanding Abstract Art

To understand abstract art, it is necessary to understand the meaning of abstract. Instead of relying on the realities of the external world, abstract art relies upon the perceptions of the artists mind. Abstract art reflects these perceptions instead of the actual objects, as is the case in traditional portrait or landscape painting. It stands alone from reality.

Forms of abstract art include geometric shapes, colors, swirls and a lack of traditional structure. The most common forms of abstract art include cubism, neoplasticism and abstract expressionism.


Developed in France in the early 1900s, cubism is a term used to describe the works of abstract artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The technique is distinguished by its depiction of objective and nonobjective forms in geometric shapes. Cubism itself has gone through many stages since its inception, including changes in color palettes, subject matter and general style.


Piet Mondrian is the founder of the neoplasticism movement, and its definition is based on his particular painting style. This style uses only primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and non-colors (black, white and gray), prisms and rectangles, straight edges, a lack of symmetry, and an emphasis on aesthetic balance. Mondrian's most recognizable works are compositions of rectangles in blue, yellow and red separated with heavy black lines.

Abstract Expressionism

Developed during the Cold War in North America, abstract expressionism is a later development in cubism and combines the forms and nonobjectiveness of abstract art with the definite paint strokes and bold colors of expressionism. Since the range of techniques and artists that fall under this category is large, abstract expressionism is best appreciated up close, taking time to study each artist's technique.

One of the most notable abstract expressionist artist is Jackson Pollock, who created his paintings by dripping or throwing paint onto the canvas, creating a work that shows raw feeling. Willem de Kooning is another famous abstract expressionist, whose works are known for their violent imagery. Both artists' work typifies the "Action Painting" style of abstract expressionist art.

The other branch of abstract expressionist art is known as "Color Field Painting". This style attempts to capture feeling through the use of color. Famous artists in this style are Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland.

Important Dates and Events in Abstract Art

Abstract art began as a European movement that eventually found solid roots in North America. The development of abstract art appears closely related to social and historical events as it provided an outlet for artists during uncertain social times.

The main highlights and developments in the abstract art movement in Europe and North America include:

  • 1909 to 1914: Cubism is developed in France by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and influences other European artists to explore nonobjective art forms.
  • 1914 to 1918: During World War I, artists begin to explore Dadaism (a 1916 to 1920s movement influenced by abstract art, and a reflection of the chaos of war, social turmoil and upheaval).
  • 1917 to 1931: Piet Mondriaan develops the Dutch art movement of neoplasticism.
  • 1920s to 1930s: European exploration of abstract art in film and photography, architecture and design, and further exploration and optimism about the possibilities of abstract art develops.
  • 1939 to 1945: World War II destroys the optimism behind European abstract art.
  • Late 1940s to early 1950s: North American development of the abstract expressionism movement is seen in the works of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman.
  • Mid-1950s: Abstract expressionism movement reaches North America.
  • 1956: Jackson Pollock dies unexpectedly and becomes known as the North American inheritor of European abstract art.
  • 1955: Jasper Johns paints White Flag, ushering in the new realism and pop art movement which quickly supersedes abstract expressionism.
  • 1960-1975: Hyperrealism emerges as a direct response to abstract art, creating images that are photorealistic.
  • 1970-1990:Neo-expressionism gains in popularity, including the works of Georg Basselitz and Jean-Michel Basquiat


Notable North American Abstract Artists

Jackson Pollock (1912 -1956) is one of the most recognizable artists of the North American abstract movement. Other notable North American abstract artists include:

  • Mark Rothko (1903 -1970)
  • Arshile Gorky (1904 -1948)
  • Helen Frankenthaler (born 1928)
  • Willem de Kooning (1904 -1997)
  • Philip Guston (1913 -1980)
  • Robert Motherwell (1915 -1991)
  • Hans Hoffman (1880 -1966)

Places to See Abstract Art

Although many museums house abstract art collections, a patron who wants to find an exhibition of a particular artists works may need to search the holdings of a number of museums. Luckily, the United States has many art museums that provide details of their collections online. The following museums house abstract paintings or collections:

The Whitney Museum of Art (New York)
National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.)
Smithsonian Institution (Washington D.C.)
The Museum of Modern Art (New York)
The Metropolitan Museum (New York)

Browsing through collections and paying attention to the detail of abstract art can inspire art-lovers to see the world differently and express themselves in new ways.

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