What is Abstract Art? Definition & Examples

Wassily Kandinsky abstract painting

Abstract art is a non-objective art form that breaks traditional, realistic art styles. It intends to inspire emotion and intangible experience, rather than telling a story or portraying realistic subjects.

While it exists today in many forms, both two and three-dimensionally, abstract art disrupted the art world when it abandoned realistic representation of subject matter. We’ll explore the characteristics, styles, and examples of abstract art that still influence artists today.

Characteristics of Abstract Art

The main characteristics of abstract art include the following:

  • Strong valuation of colors, shapes, lines, and textures
  • No recognizable objects
  • Subjective
  • Non-representational
  • The opposite of figurative, realistic, or Renaissance style
  • Freedom of form and interpretation

The Purpose of Abstract Art

Abstract art’s main purpose is to spark the imagination and invoke a personal emotional experience. The best abstract art can create a different experience depending on one’s personality or mood.

Abstract art is about the balance or unbalance of form, line, composition, and color to achieve harmony, or disarray. Some pieces may be focused on the method in which the piece is made and which materials are involved. Others focus on the movement of the paint across the canvas or panel. 

Do you enjoy contemporary art that evokes emotion and strong themes? View our current exhibitions of prominent Southern California artists.

Types of Abstract Art

Abstract art can be broken down into smaller categories based on several factors, including medium and technique. However, the most common types of abstract art include the following:

  • Expressive abstraction: For this type, the painter uses their intuition and expressive brushstrokes to create abstract paintings. Willem De Kooning’s works are representative of this style. The artist’s physical body movement while creating the work may be seen in their marks on the artwork. 
  • Action painting/gestural abstraction: Gestural abstraction is a subcategory of expressive abstraction popularized by artists including Jackson Pollock. The artist uses spontaneous movements, making this artwork dynamic and highly expressive. The artist’s physical body movements are the main contributor of the marks on the work.
  • Minimalism abstraction: Minimal abstraction takes inspiration from other styles and techniques, including minimalism art, color field and hard edge painting, and abstract expressionism. This leads to artwork characterized by simplicity and pure abstraction, such as the works of Agnes Martin and Donald Judd.
  • Conceptual abstraction: This type of art comes from ideas and is therefore not limited by the restraints of representing the physical world.
  • Hard-edge painting: Hard-edge painting is characterized by clean, often straight, edges separating the colors. Notable artists that utilize this style include Josef Albers, Piet Mondrain, and Carmen Herrera.
  • Optical abstraction: Optical abstraction is a sub-type of hard-edge painting that produces optical illusions. These pieces create depth on a two-dimensional surface. Notable artists for this style include Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, and Richard Anuszkiewicz.
  • Geometric abstraction: This is also a subcategory of hard-edge paintings that uses geometric figures in the composition. Josef Albers and Winfred Gaul are well-known artists.
  • Color field painting: Color field painting can be categorized by large areas of color, usually with minimal details, though with lots of depth. Often, these pieces are created on large-scale canvases. Mark Rothko is a well-known pioneer.

History of Abstract Art

Non-representational and pattern focused art has existed across time and cultures. However, the first modern artist to create artwork with non-representational forms was Wassily Kandinsky who in 1910 broke away from the traditions of figurative art to produce his first untitled abstract watercolor. He was inspired by a Monet painting of haystacks, where he realized that color and form could be powerful on their own and the object of the painting did not need to be clear or even present.

Although some argue that Hilma af Klint may have produced the first abstract piece in 1906, her work wasn’t seen by the public until much later. Regardless, Kandinsky introduced abstract art to the mainstream art world when he published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” in 1912, creating a theoretical basis for abstract art.

In the early 20th century, other artists began experimenting and introducing different types and forms of abstract art. Piet Mondrian introduced geometric elements in the 1920s, and Jackson Pollock pioneered drip or action painting in the 1940s and1950s to provoke strong emotions.

After World War II, abstract art grew in popularity because it gave artists a way to express how they were feeling in a post-war era that conjured the horrors of war and the anxiety of an uncertain future.

Willem de Kooning’s Interchange

What is Abstract Expressionism?

In New York City during the 1940s, the abstract expressionism movement gained international recognition. It was the first American art style to have international influence for its heavy surrealism, energy, lawlessness, and intensity. It is defined by artists like:

  • Mark Rothko
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Jackson Pollock
  • Jay Meuser
  • Matthew Dibble

As of writing, Willem de Kooning’s Interchange abstract landscape is the second most expensive painting that has ever been sold. A Chicago hedge fund manager bought the abstract piece for $300 million in 2015. Interchange was considered worth this value because of its unique story and list of previous owners comprising fascinating people from modern American history.

How Has Abstract Art Evolved?

Since its early beginnings, abstract art has influenced other movements and art styles like conceptual and minimalist art. And it continues to influence artists as they experiment with form, color, texture, and lines to spark emotion and feeling rather than reality.

Do you enjoy abstract and modern art? View available Abstract artwork at Sparks Gallery.  

Wassily Kandinsky’s Untitled

Notable Examples of Abstract Art

While there are countless popular and famous abstract artworks, we’ll spotlight a few that have influenced the art form and inspired movements. These poignant examples of abstract art continue to inspire:

Wassily Kandinsky’s Untitled

Untitled is the first abstract painting where Kandinsky freed his artwork from subject matter and form. He used color to convey emotion and feeling. It was this piece that launched abstract art onto the world stage.

Related Link: Daniel Ketelhut, “Figmented Reality”

Piet Mondrian’s Tableau

Piet Mondrian’s Tableau

Piet Mondrian’s most famous abstract piece, Tableau, introduced the geometric style as a form of abstraction. He utilized mathematical precision, which was counter to the freeform nature of abstract art.

Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five

Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five

One of New York’s abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, created Full Fathom Five using energetic colors and a new technique to illustrate the exploration of the subconscious. This piece also introduced texture into abstract art.

Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea

Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea

Helen Frankenthaler created Mountains and Sea during the 1950s using a new technique of pouring paint thinned with turpentine right onto the canvas. The paint would soak through the canvas adding a new organic texture to her art. Because the paint was poured, the colors weren’t constrained by lines or shapes, creating a new Color Field Painting movement.

Abstract Art Remains Popular Today

Today, abstract art takes many forms, styles, textures, and materials as artists continue to push the boundaries of expression through non-objective forms. Abstract art continues to inspire, connect, and appeal to art lovers. Many appreciate its ability to evoke emotion through color and shapes.

Related Link: Installation: “Inverse” by Sage Serrano

Sparks Gallery celebrates the contemporary artwork of innovative Southern California artists. Our gallery hosts powerful abstract pieces with unique points of view.