Abstract art emerged from the artists’ desire to create works unrelated and unrestrained by visual references in reality. A majority of the twentieth century’s most iconic and famous abstract paintings were created by artists who sought and found new ways of producing art that will encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science, and philosophy in the West. The name of the genre evokes the notion of being detached or abstracted from something and it was chosen to mark the desire of first abstract painters to free their works from the restrictions of reality and depict imaginary in art. Abstract painting comes in a variety of shapes and forms and can be partly tied to existing visual references or represent a complete departure from an accurate representation of reality. This versatile art genre uses colors, shapes, forms and gestural marks to achieve a unique aesthetic and in many cases, a deep emotional response from the viewers.
Though elements of abstract art can be traced back to the 19th century and the works painted by famous Cubists masters like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso or most notably in James McNeill Whistler‘s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The falling Rocket, majority of theorists agree that 1910 is the year that marks the birth of abstract art. It was then that Wassily Kandinsky painted his celebrated Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), the first and one of the most famous abstract paintings ever made. Abstract painting has come a long way since 1910 and proved as a versatile field for experimentation and development of new styles and techniques. Soak and stain paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, the innovative dripping technique by Jackson Pollock or beyond black practice by Pierre Soulages all represent different but complementary parts of abstract painting genre that was a true gift to art and had a profound influence on many artists that followed.
Scroll down to discover what lies behind the most famous abstract paintings in history
Wassily Kandinsky - Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), 1910
In 1920 painter Wassily Kandinsky decided to free his artworks from the bondage of subject matter. Subsequently, Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) painting was made and abstract art as a genre was born. The piece that’s considered to be the first abstract painting ever made is marked with vibrant colors and smears that span over the edges of figurative art. Colors were particularly important in Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings and he thought of them as an expression of emotion rather than tools for the faithful description of reality.
Featured image : Wassily Kandinsky – Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), 1920
Piet Mondrian - Tableau I, 1921
Eleven years later, abstract artist Piet Mondrian separated panels of paint with thin black lines and created a painting that solidified his defining style. The artwork characterized with geometric shapes aligned with mathematical precision greatly varies from the expressive, untamed art pieces made by his abstract predecessors. The abstract painting entitled Tableau I referenced form, color, and line and nothing other than that, and served as an inspiration not only for painters, and sculptors that followed but also for an array of other artists including architects and fashion designers.
Featured image : Piet Mondrian – Tableau I, 1921
Joan Miro - La mancha roja (The red spot), 1925
La mancha roja (The red spot) painted by Joan Miro represents a playful and almost childish but simultaneously frightening art piece that resides somewhere between Abstraction and Surrealism. The artist who never truly saw himself as an abstract painter said that he only painted the image that was inside his head on the otherwise exhausting day. Based on human subconscious feelings La mancha roja (The red spot), 1925 painting opened the door for our visions and dreams to enter the canvas.
Featured image : Joan Miro – La mancha roja (The red spot), 1925
Ben Nicholson - 1936 (white relief), 1936
One of the most important painters of English Abstraction, Ben Nicholson begin his painterly explorations in the turbulent period between two wars. In the times when the world was still recovering from the First why simultaneously heading into the WW2, abstraction was a major force in art as an increasing number of painters turned to it as a tool to find the innocence and the purity in human race. It was then that Ben Nicholson merged abstract art, constructivism, and concrete art to create his monochromatic, multilayered 1936 (white relief) oil on carved board painting.
Featured image : Ben Nicholson -1936 (white relief), 1936
Jackson Pollock - Full Fathom Five, 1947
And while abstract painter Ben Nicholson was creating pure white cardboard painting on the other side of the Atlantic and Abstract art specter the paintings made by the New York school presented a much more vivacious concept to the world. Abstract expressionists lead by the celebrated Jackson Pollock used energetic colors, a variety of media and an original technique to explore their subconsciousness. Created with particles of oil paint dripping onto the canvas and various items from the artist studio, Full Fathom Five painting introduced a new level of texturing into Abstract art and powerfully portrayed the post-war anxiety.
Featured image : Jackson Pollock – Full Fathom Five, 1947
Helen Frankenthaler - Mountains and Sea, 1952
In the 1950s, at the very middle of the 20th century, Eastern philosophy made a deep influence on Abstract painting. The increasing interest of painters in Taoism and Zenbudizm resulted in the creation of a new abstract movement entitled Color Field Painting. Color Field Painters south to explore the colors independently from the lines, shapes, and other constraints of painting. Celebrated color field artist Helen Frankenthaler introduced a new, original soak-stain process that consisted of pouring the oil paint thinned with turpentine directly onto the canvas. The oil paint would soak through the canvas thus giving her art pieces a completely different almost organic texture.
Featured image : Helen Frankenthaler – Mountains and Sea, 1952
Mark Rothko - No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953
Throughout his prolific career, painter Mark Rothko worked almost entirely with color, continuously trying to create a spiritual field on which viewers could experience an array of human emotions. In this particular painting, he used layered colors to enrich the hues in the painting thus equipping it with a unique luminosity. This striking effect was created with the painting technique that uses both oil and egg-based media.
Featured image : Mark Rothko – No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953
Gerhard Richter - 180 Farben (180 Colours), 1971
Color Chart series painted by Gerhard Richter was inspired by the versatility of the industrially designed selection of paint spotted in a hardware store in Düsseldorf. Depictions of industrial colors deprived of any aesthetic motives was crucial for the artist’s career partly because it was the first time he was able to capture both a referent and its symbolic representation in the same painting. On a visual level, Colour Charts series is pure abstraction. But in its essence, it also represents the industrial color samples, the objects that inspired its creation. 180 Farben (180 Colours) was the first painting Gerhard Richter made after he revisited his Color Charts after a five-year pause.
Featured image : Gerhard Richter – 180 Farden (180 Colours), 1971, painting on view at a Dominique Levy gallery ; photo by David Brandt, courtesy of Gerhard Richter Archiv
Pierre Soulages - Untitled, 2005
Abstract painter dubbed “the king of black”, Pierre Soulages is known for exploring the way light reflects off the texture of the painting. His innovative painting technique includes using objects such as spoons, small rakes, and rubber items to create conspicuous, rhythmical cuts on canvases with thick layers of black paint. The artist even invented the word Outrenoir (meaning beyond black) to define his painting practice, that could not be categorized by any of the existing artistic labels. Untitled painting painted in 2005 represent one of the artist’s finest works.
Featured image : Pierre Soulages – Untitled, 2005
Robert Motherwell - Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110, 1971
In the 1970s a new stage in the development of abstract art begun when American painter Robert Motherwell’s started to create his energetic, aggressive masterpieces. His primal, conspicuous brushstrokes simultaneously conveyed the notions of stoic strength and strange anxiety. Abstract painting Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 is considered the abstract artist’s defining art piece as it contains that striking vitality that makes people fell as if the paint is about to burst out off the canvas and into the room.