More than a century has passed since the emergence of abstraction, and now, it is essential to all discussions on contemporary art. Abstract art continues to inspire artists and art connoisseurs, as evident from how the art form continues to flourish. The history of abstract art goes back to as early as the 19th century when the concept of abstraction was introduced to liberate art from naturalism. Instead, its purpose was to associate with the pure substances of art, such as color, tone, shape, line, composition, material, and texture.
Numerous abstract artists have come forward in the past century to evolve the art of abstraction little by little. Keeping in mind the expressionists who originated impressive abstract arts, it would be wrong to say abstraction fundamentally changed the history of art forever!
Below are the 16 most awe-inspiring abstract artists of all time:
1- Hilma af Klint (1862 - 1944)
Even though men have always been quite prominent in the field of abstraction, the history of abstract art begins with a Swedish woman named Hilma af Klint.
Hilma af Klint is considered to be the founder of abstract painting. She was a part of an art organization created by her and four other young women, called ‘The Five.’ This group aimed to practice the importance of making contact with the High Spirits. That’s primarily why her radiant paintings, which often resemble geometrical and random diagrams, represented unique and complex spiritual ideas.
Her technique of automatic and spiritual abstract art was later adopted and associated with Andre Breton and Surrealists.
2- Wassily Kandinsky (1866 - 1944)
Although Wassily Kandinsky shadowed figurative art before 1913, he was among the first painters to pursue the path of abstract art. According to him, art should be independent of the external world’s observations, and colors should be separated from all obvious references, purely based on psychophysical influences.
Wassily Kandinsky was not just an artist but also a mystic, art theorist, and theosophist. Moreover, like Hilma af Klint, he believed in spiritualism. His renowned series of works, titled ‘impressions,’ ‘improvisations,’ and ‘compositions’ are a spiritualistic depiction of highly stylized mountainous scenery that vanishes into the clouds.
3- Piet Mondrain (1872 - 1944)
Piet Mondrain, a Dutch abstract expressionist, has always been associated with Modern Art, as his various styles and techniques were highly influenced by Cubism and Post-Impressionism. He was immensely motivated by a desire to attain a spiritual communion with the divine, which is why his art took distinct directions throughout his life to achieve his established goal.
However, after 1913, Mondrain settled on the style he is greatly known for to this day, ‘De Stijl (meaning: The Style).’ The most interesting fact about his work was that he always used primary colors in his paintings. He believed that modern art would evolve into a futuristic language that would be entirely based on primary colors, dynamic tension, and flatness of forms.
4- Vincent Willem Van Gogh (1853 - 1890)
Although he was not famous in his time, Vincent Willem Van Gogh was an extraordinary Dutch Post-Impressionist painter whose artworks were greatly appreciated after his death. He had beautifully and delicately stored his life’s traumas in his now-celebrated art pieces through expressive usage of vibrant colors.
Van Gogh’s most famous painting is the ‘Starry Night.’ It holds a special place in the history of art because when Van Gogh painted this masterpiece, he had been struggling through erratic behavior at an asylum. The painting depicts how he poured all his emotions into a canvas, making something psychologically disturbing into an immaculate and appreciative art piece.
5- Kazimir Malevich (1878 - 1935)
Kazimir Malevich, a Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist, is one of the world-famous abstract expressionists whose pioneering artworks and theories played an essential role in developing non -objective paintings in the 20th century. He also invented the concept of Suprematism, an art movement that solely focused on primary geometrical forms, including lines, squares, rectangles, and circles, expressed in a limited color palette.
Malevich’s work encouraged many other artists to transition from natural resources of beauty and highlight the emotions and spirituality based on individual feelings. His most influential art pieces, such as ‘Black Square (1915)’ and ‘Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918),’ inspire the young abstract artists to this day.
6- Paul Klee (1879 - 1940)
Paul Klee was a German-Swiss painter whose art style was highly influenced by abstraction movements, like Expressionism, Surrealism, and Cubism. He was well-known for his technique of combining the ideas of geometric abstraction with lyrical art. Klee also worked with Wassily Kandinsky for his vision theory, which thoroughly stated and explained the rules of symmetric harmony in abstraction.
In the early 1900s, Klee broke out of the traditional representation of objects in abstraction, replacing it with partly recognizable content. Due to the massive change it brought to the world of art, his work was also criticized by abstract artists who believed and practiced the hidden concepts of art and designs.
7- Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973)
Pablo Picasso is a world-renowned Spanish painter, sculptor, theatre designer, and ceramicist who spent most of his life engaging with art on a level many can only dream.
Although Pablo Picasso’s art has always been associated with Cubism, his technique and composition mostly relied on pure abstraction. Making reality as a starting base in his abstract art, he worked his way up by imprinting abstract appearance in the form of geometrical designs on the canvas. His work is highly appreciated by artists of the past and the present, as his paintings are represented among the bests in art galleries even now.
8- Lyubov Popova (1899 - 1924)
Next on the list of awe-inspiring artists is a Russian avant-garde artist and designer Lyubov Popova. In her period, Bolshevism greatly embraced gender equality. Considering this fact, it was not surprising when several women took a stand and partook in the early Soviet abstraction practices – Lyubov Popova among them.
Popova traveled widely and investigated through numerous influential art techniques and beliefs to learn from diverse painting styles. However, the ones that interested her the most were the ancient Russian iconic art pieces and works by 15th and 16th-century Italian painters. She was also one of the first female pioneers to practice a modern art movement that arose in the early 20th-century, Cubo-Futurism.
9- Mark Rothko (1903 - 1966)
Mark Rothko is one of those names that always come up when there is talk about abstract art. He was an American painter who holds the title of the ‘most famous Post-World War II abstract expressionist’ worldwide. Rothko’s refusal to copy nature and fill his canvas with any vibrant shades is what made his work distinctly unique from others. Because of him, many other abstract expressionists were encouraged to cut their ties with the traditional painting techniques and indulge in the beauty of black and white. In short, Rothko’s works were an exemplary influence on the development of monochrome painting.
Throughout history, Mark Rothko’s paintings have been interpreted by several modern-time artists in different terms of light and architecture. Even after such a long time, his impressive artwork still takes the audience to a spiritual and emotional journey who understand the concept and composition of art design thoroughly.
10- Arshile Gorky (1904 - 1948)
Arshile Gorky was an American-Armenian abstract artist who influenced, delivered, and contributed to the field of abstraction on groundbreaking terms. He was among the most renowned painters throughout and after his life, along with Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock.
Gorky’s artwork represents the suffering, troubles, and massive losses he experienced in his life, ultimately leading him to suicide in 1948. However, he is still remembered and remains one of the best abstract expressionists whose paintings influence modern artists even now.
11- Willem de Kooning (1904 - 1997)
Next in line is the Dutch-American abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning. He was particularly known for his Action Painting (Abstract Expressionism), a painting technique where the paint is dribbled and splashed rather than carefully brushed or stroked on the canvas.
Kooning’s paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s were based on geometrical shapes and radiant colors, showing the influence of his friends circle that consisted of several renowned artists, including but not limited to Piet Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Pablo Picasso. Inspired by Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning also dedicated a few years (from 1946 to 1949) to create a series of black and white paintings.
12- Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956)
Jackson Pollock was an American painter widely known for his style and technique of splashing liquid household paint onto any horizontal surface or lying canvas and making an exceptional abstract art out of it. This is the same art movement that Kooning and Rothko followed in the majority of their paintings as well. The signature drip art pieces by Pollock were especially famed between the 1940s and early 1950s.
The American painter dealt with alcoholism for most of his life, which is why his painting also shows a volatile and reclusive behavior quite prominently. In 1956, he died in an alcohol-related car accident, in which he was driving under the influence.
13- Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004)
Agnes Martin was an American-Canadian painter who introduced the concept of Minimal Art in abstraction. It is an extreme form of abstract art in which the art pieces are composed of geometrical shapes like squares and rectangles. The purpose of Minimal Art is to focus on the elemental aspect of an object rather than an individual artist’s expressions.
Martin not only played a significant role by incorporating the art of minimalism in abstraction, but she also remains a constant influential personality for other painters, graphic designers, and architects because of her fascination with artful geometric designs and muted color palettes practices.
14- Roy Fox Lichtenstein (1923 - 1997)
The American artist, Roy Fox Lichtenstein, is one of the leading figures to combine pop art with abstraction. His early work was typically based on the understanding of modernist painting and cubism. However, in the early 1960s, he became inspired and came up with an unusual combo of pop and modernity, which relied on the traditional abstraction code.
Lichtenstein also reproduced several masterpieces by Mondrian and Picasso, splashing the twist of pop in their art pieces and making them a work to be remembered throughout art history.
15- Ellsworth Kelly (1923 - 2015)
While Abstract Expressionism was still at its peak in the 1950s, Ellsworth Kelly brought along a new monochromatic canvas technique that was stylistically and inherently distinct from the painterly slashers, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
Although his artwork was an open exploration between color, forms, textures, and geometric shapes, he was widely criticized for the hard-edged paintings and minimalistic techniques that demonstrated an unassuming and individual perspective of art to the audience. Kelly was also known for using all-bright colors in his abstract art, unlike the other expressionists of his time.
16- Sam Gilliam (Born 1933)
Sam Gillian is one of the renowned African-American painters who pursued and perfected the art of abstraction through the late 1950s and early 1960s. In his early days, he was instantly noticed for his paintings on upstretched swags of fabric that he used as a canvas. Although many artists have implemented this ‘drapes’ technique in recent years, it mainly remains associated with Gillian’s impressive, signature artworks.
Each of the abstract artists mentioned in this article has left an absolute and exemplary mark in abstraction history that can’t be replaced by any other. Just as they have all played significant roles to slowly but surely evolve the techniques of art, it will progress further as today’s artists keep their legacy alive!