Today, abstract painting is viewed as a key style contained within the Modern Art movement. Pioneered by many forward-thinking 20th-century painters and celebrated for its avant-garde aesthetic, the abstract genre represents a pivotal moment in modernism.
As a catalyst for contemporary art, abstract painting rejected the “rules” of traditional art. Rather than focus on figurative and representational depictions, abstract painters placed emphasis on color, composition, and emotion. Similarly, instead of concentrating solely on the completed works, these artists placed importance in the process. Here, we explore these key figures, paying particular attention to their unique styles, differing approaches, and enduring contributions to abstract art.
Today, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky is celebrated as a predominant pioneer of the abstract genre. Kandinsky’s practice was dictated by “inner necessity“—a concept that called for artists to be “blind to ‘recognized’ and ‘unrecognized’ form, deaf to the teachings and desires of his time.” This avant-garde approach culminated in compositions that forewent figurative forms for geometric shapes, floating lines, and vibrant colors.
Piet Mondrian, a Dutch artist, was a leading figure in the De Stijl movement. De Stijl, also known as neoplasticism, focused on the simplification of form and tone—namely, on the use of lines and primary colors. This aesthetic pair was intrinsic to Mondrian’s practice, as he believed that “everything is expressed through relationship. Color can exist only through other colors, dimension through other dimensions, position through other positions that oppose them. That is why I regard relationship as the principal thing.”
American artist Jackson Pollock played a major role in the rise of Abstract Expressionism, a post-war movement characterized by spontaneous creation, energetic composition, and gestural paint application. To produce his iconic action paintings, Pollock would drip, pour, and splash industrial paint onto large-scale canvases strategically set on the floor.
Along with Pollock, Clyfford Still helped elevate Abstract Expressionism into a prominent art form. Though Still originally produced representational pieces, he transitioned to complete abstraction by the 1940s. His work is characterized by large-scale canvases covered in jagged formations of juxtaposed color. Though this unique painting style would dominate Still’s portfolio, he did not want his works to revolve around traditional artistic sensibilites. “I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.”
The paintings of Franz Kline feature fluid, thick brushstrokes that intersect, overlap, and interact with one another. Ranging from black-and-white pieces that play with negative space to colorful compositions full of energy, his paintings illustrate his evolving aesthetic.