A Gallery of Paintings from Our Top 10 Abstract Artists
The arrival of the 20th century saw a revolution in art as artists freed themselves from depicting reality. Instead, they adopted a love of art for art’s sake. Artists such as Vassily Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint declared that art can be simple abstract shapes, inspired by the natural world, but not a mere copy of it. Instead of copying nature, artists can focus on composition, color, shapes, texture, emotion, and spirituality. The results are eye-popping and joyful and still feel modern to our 21st century eyes. Our top ten abstract artists are among a very long list of favorite abstract artists who pioneered an avant-garde aesthetic.
#1. Vassily Kandinsky (1866–1944)
Vassily Kandinsky is probably the most famous abstract artist of all time. He was a painter and an art theorist. He was born in Russia, and his first name is often transliterated as Vasily (with just one s) or Wassily (with a W and two s characters).
Kandinsky’s biography is interesting in part because, like a lot of artists, he got a late start. He taught law and economics before taking up painting at age 30. After giving up his first career, Kandinsky moved to Munich to study art. He taught at the Bauhaus school of art from 1922 until 1933, when the Nazis closed the school. He then moved to France, where he lived for the rest of his life, becoming a French citizen. He produced some of his most prominent art in France.
In 1911, Kandinsky published his influential book on painting, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art in English). The book calls for a spiritual revolution in painting that will let artists express their inner lives in abstract, nonmaterial terms.
In his book, Kandinsky pointed out that music doesn’t try to accurately depict nature, and art shouldn’t either. Instead of showing concrete objects from nature, paintings can show pure color and shape. His 1912 Improvisation 28 (Second Version) painting shows his interest in music. The title, Improvisation, is a type of musical composition. You can see a movie about Improvisation 28 (Second Version) from the Guggenheim Museum here.
One of our favorite Kandinsky paintings is his 1913 Black Lines, shown above, which appeals to us because of the floating ovals of color that vaguely resemble a vase of flowers, abstracted to a pure display of swirling hues and black lines.
#2. Hilma af Klint (1862–1944)
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist and mystic whose early abstract paintings predate the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky. To look at her art today is to wonder if she could see into the future. Her paintings remind us of work from this century. In fact, the Guggenheim Museum titled their 2018-2019 exhibition of her work, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.
According to a New York Times review of the Guggenheim exhibition, her “game-changing works envelop you in hues from dusty orange to pale pinks and lavenders, tumbling compositions of circles, spirals and pinwheels, and unfurling ribbonlike lines that sometimes form mysterious letters and words.”
Hilma af Klint was interested in science, Darwinism, and subatomic particles, and was inspired by spiritual philosophies, including Rosicrucianism and Buddhism. In 1896 she began meeting with four other women artists to pursue occult practices. They called themselves “The Five” and held séances in an attempt to communicate with other worlds. The paintings of af Klint are a visual representation of her complex spiritual ideas that she developed with her women friends.
Group IX/UW No. 25, The Dove, No. 1 is one of fourteen oil paintings in her Dove series. As is the case with many of her works, The Dove series draws on Judeo-Christian imagery. A dove is found in the Old Testament of the Bible in the Noah’s Ark story and in the New Testament as a symbol of the Holy Spirt and peace.
Hilma exhibited her paintings only a handful of times, mainly at spiritual conferences and gatherings. She produced more than 150 notebooks related to spiritualism which she didn’t show her contemporaries for fear of being ridiculed. She stored more than 1200 paintings and drawings in her workshop, waiting for the future. The first major exhibition to show her work wasn’t until 1986, when Maurice Tuchman organized “The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890–1985” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This exhibition was the starting point of her international recognition.
#3. Paul Klee (1879–1940)
Paul Klee paintings are immediately recognizable with his unique style of playful, abstract, and colorful craftsmanship. He was influenced by Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. He was also a student of Orientalism. Other artists, including Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, expressed admiration for his work.
Klee was a Swiss-born German artist. He was born in Münchenbuchsee, Switzerland, the second child of German music teacher Hans Wilhelm Klee and Swiss singer Ida Marie Klee, née Frick. Under Swiss law, citizenship was defined by his father’s nationality and Klee thus inherited his father’s German citizenship.
Klee explored color theory, writing about it extensively. His lectures Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre (Writings on Form and Design Theory), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, were instrumental in defining modern art. He and his colleague, Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the German Bauhaus school of art and architecture.
Klee’s works are humorous and childlike and also reflect his musicality. Klee loved Bach and Mozart and played the violin. His art also inspired musicians, ranging from Argentinian composer Roberto García Morillo to American composer David Diamond.
#4. Piet Mondrian (1872–1944)
Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter and theoretician. Over the course of his career, he changed his artistic direction from figurative painting to an increasingly abstract style, until he reached a point where his art was reduced to simple geometric elements.
Mondrian was concerned with universal values and aesthetics. Like Kandinsky and af Klint, he was interested in the spiritual aspects of art and sought to remove art from reality. He stated in 1914 that “To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man.”
Mondrian often painted in a small format. His groundbreaking 1929-1930 Composition with Red Blue and Yellow painting, held by the National Museum, Belgrade, Serbia, is only 23.4 x 23.4 inches. With his Abstraction painting, shown above, he increased the size a little bit to 29.5 x 26.75 inches, but restricted the colors even more, with large blocks of white, surrounded by tiny blocks of red, blue, and yellow.
Mondrian started a trend of European artists moving to the United States and helped seed a further development of American abstract art that had begun earlier. In 1938, he left Paris in the face of advancing fascism and moved to London. In 1940, he left London for New York City, where he lived until his death in 1944.
Mondrian’s work had an enormous influence on 20th century art, influencing not only the course of abstract painting and numerous art movements (e.g. Color Field painting, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism), but also fields outside the domain of painting, such as design, architecture, and fashion.
#5. Robert Delaunay (1885–1941)
Robert Delaunay was a French artist who in his later years painted abstract art that is reminiscent of Paul Klee. He used bold colors, experimenting with both depth and tone. With his wife Sonia Delaunay and others, Robert Delaunay cofounded the Orphism art movement, noted for its use of strong colors and geometric shapes.
The French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Orphism, or Orphic Cubism, in 1912. It was an offshoot of Cubism that focused on pure abstraction and bright hues. It was influenced by the Fauvists, including André Derain and Henri Matisse, who also used strong colors. Orphism aimed to dispense with recognizable subject matter and to rely on form and color to communicate meaning.
Between 1905 and 1907 Delaunay became friendly with Henri Rousseau and during these years, he painted in a Neo-Impressionist manner. Paul Cézanne’s work also influenced Delaunay around this time. From 1907 to 1908 he served in the military, and upon returning to Paris he worked with the Cubists. In 1909 Delaunay met Sonia Terk, who became his lifelong collaborator and wife.
#6. Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979)
Sonia Delaunay was a Ukrainian-born Russian artist who spent most of her working life in Paris. She was born Sarah Ilinitchna Stern in Odessa in 1885, and went to live in St. Petersburg with her maternal uncle, Henri Terk, when she was seven. There she adopted the name Sonia Terk. She spoke numerous languages and considered herself Russian, though she spent most of her adult life in Paris, with significant periods of study and work in Finland, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. She formally trained as an artist in Russia and Germany before moving to France in 1905. Her work extends to painting, textile design, and stage set design.
In 1908 Sonia entered into a “marriage of convenience” with Wilhelm Uhde, an art dealer and gallery owner, allowing her access to her dowery and giving Uhde cover for his homosexuality. The marriage helped her gain entrance into the art world via exhibitions at Uhde’s gallery. Robert Delaunay’s mother, Comtesse de Rose, was a regular visitor to Uhde’s gallery, sometimes accompanied by her son. Sonia met Robert Delaunay in early 1909 and they fell in love. Sonia and Uhde decided to divorce, and Sonia and Robert married in 1910. Their son Charles, who became a well-known jazz expert, was born in 1911. Sonia and Robert remained married until Robert’s death from cancer in 1941.
In 1964, Sonia Delaunay became the first living woman artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre, and in 1975, she was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor. Her work in modern design included the concepts of geometric abstraction and the integration of furniture, fabrics, wall coverings, and clothing into her art. During her 60-year career she created groundbreaking paintings, textiles, and clothes, as well as collaborated with poets, choreographers, and manufacturers.
#7. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)
Georgia O’Keeffe paintings display a unique talent for composition, design, and abstraction. She developed her avant-garde style even earlier than some of the European abstract artists and much earlier than other American abstract artists. Although abstract painting got its start in Europe, American abstract artists, starting with O’Keeffe, contributed greatly to the genre.
O’Keeffe’s 1918 Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2 was one of her first major oil paintings, following Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, which she also painted in 1918. The paintings are almost three feet tall and hint at the large sizes she would continue to use throughout her career. In these paintings and their titles, O’Keeffe suggests that the viewer think about musical rhythms and patterns while enjoying the undulating lines and colors.
O’Keeffe learned the techniques of traditional realist painting when she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York, but in 1915, she started drawing and painting in an entirely new way, emphasizing color, design, and abstraction. O’Keeffe’s most famous art is her pioneering, oversized paintings of flowers. Of the more than 2,000 paintings she made over her career, roughly 200 of them are of flowers. To learn more about her, check out our Georgia O’Keeffe blog.
#8. James Little (b. 1952)
James Little is both a painter and a curator and he has been called a “defiant abstractionist.” He combines pigment, hot wax, and varnish to achieve a flat surface painted with geometric shapes and patterns. This technique is similar to encaustic, which has been used since Roman times. Little has studied color theory and painting techniques extensively, some of his influences have been artists Mark Rothko, Alma Thomas, and Franz Kline.
Little grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. As an African American he was witness to the institutional racism in the segregated South that permeated every facet of life. The emotional scars of this has led him to not deal directly with race and racism in his art. At a time when Representation has been the focus in contemporary art, he chose abstraction. He grew up not being aware of art until his older brother brought home drawings from school, so he started copying comics and learning how to draw. His mother encouraged him and gave him a Paint by Numbers kit. When he had completed it he used the paint to copy other art in the books she had brought home for him. He earned a BFA from the Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art) and in 1973, while still a student, his work was included in an exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center where it one the top award. He received an MFA from Syracuse University in 1976 and moved to New York City where he still lives.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority awarded him a commission for the LIRR Jamaica Station where Little’s installation, Radiant Memories, uses 33 colored glass panels to create an 85-foot stretch of gradated color that changes as the sun shifts during the day. He has also received Joan Mitchell Foundation award in 2008, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, and was inclluded in the 2022 Whitney Biennial. He says that his work “the kind of art that I like, the kind of art that I gravitate towards, has always been art that has theoretical underpinnings based on formalism and modernism; art that has never been about narrative.”
#9. Rose Piper (1917–2005)
Rose Piper is best known for her blues-inspired work. She had her first major solo exhibition, titled Blues and Negro Folk Songs, in 1947 at the Roko Gallery in New York. At the time, she was one of only four African American artists who had exhibited abstract work in New York. In 1948, her work was also included in the prestigious Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Prints by Negro Artists at Atlanta University. Fellow exhibitors included Jacob Lawrence and Hale Woodruff.
Slow Down, Freight Train was painted in 1946 or 1947. The title references Freight Train Blues, a recording by Trixie Smith, and refers to the sadness of women who were left behind by men who hopped freight trains to the North during the Great Migration.
Like many artists, Piper was unable to focus on her artwork during the prime of her life. Her mid-career was interrupted by financial hardship and family obligations, leading her to put her painting on hold and to turn to other careers. She ran a greeting card company, worked as a textile designer, and raised her family. For nearly thirty years, she worked as Rose Ransier, designing knit fabrics. She returned to painting in the 1980s, creating a new and distinct body of work that references the styles of the Flemish School of painting and medieval illuminated manuscripts. She is best known, however, for her abstract music-inspired work of the 1940s.
#10. Albert Contreras (1933–2017)
Albert Contreras painted from around 1960 to 1972, and then, like Rose Piper, stopped painting for 25 years. He made a name for himself in his first career when he moved to Sweden and worked on minimalist abstract painting. Curators from the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, the Malmo Konsthall, and the Goteborgs Konstmuseum acquired his work, but his paintings started getting smaller and smaller, and at age 39, he stopped painting altogether.
Contreras returned to the U.S. and worked for 20 years for the city of Santa Monica, driving garbage trucks and resurfacing asphalt streets. He told the Los Angeles Times in a 2001 interview, “I had followed my art to its logical conclusion, and there was nothing to do but stop.”
Thank goodness for art lovers! During his retirement, artistic ideas started re-emerging in his mind and he returned to painting in 1997. He put aside his earlier technique of minimalist abstraction and embarked on a prolific exploration of form, color, materials, textures, and shapes. Making up for lost time, he produced almost 2,000 paintings over the course of twenty years. The dazzling results can be seen at the USC Fisher Museum of Art which has more than 140 of his paintings in its permanent collection.
Leave a Comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.