It’s been more than a century since abstraction emerged as a major (and for a while the dominant) genre in the annals of 20th century. It remains an important aspect of contemporary art, and prime examples—both historical and new—can be found in at NYC’s premier art museums, including MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney. Abstraction’s roots go back to the 19th century and the emergence of art for art’s sake, a philosophy which argued for the idea that painting and sculpture should free itself from naturalism to concentrate on the substance of art itself—material, texture, composition, line, tone and color. This also meant a divorce from the centuries-long role that Western art had played in promoting the church and the state. Beginning with early proponents like James Abbot McNeil Whistler (of Whistler’s Mother fame), this focus on the intrinsic properties of art became tighter and tighter through a progression of styles from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to Cubism and Expressionism. The final break with representation occurred during the early 1900s and teens, and various artists—Vassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich—have been credited with being the first to develop pure abstraction. But regardless of who originated it, abstraction fundamentally changed the history of art, as you can see by exploring our list of the best abstract artists of all time.
Best abstract artists
Though Vasily Kandinsky pursued figurative art before 1913, he was among the first (if not the first) painters to push into pure abstraction—or as he put it, “art independent of one’s observations of the external world.” He especially believed that color could be separated from all external references and become a subject for art. His 1910 book, "On the Spiritual In Art,” laid out his theories, and became one of the Ur texts of 20th-century Modernism.
Vasily Kandinsky, Black Lines (Schwarze Linien), 1913
Along with Picasso, Mondrian is synonymous with Modern Art, and the mere mention of his name immediately conjures one of his iconic geometric compositions of primary-colored squares contained by bold, black perpendicular lines. Like many early modernists, Mondrian began by working in various styles influenced by Post-Impressionism, with echoes of Seurat and Van Gogh reverberating through his scenes of the Dutch countryside. His work, though, was motived by a desire to attain a sort of spiritual communion with the divine, which by 1913 took his work in increasingly abstract directions. It wasn’t until 1920–21, however, that he settled on the style for which he is best known.
Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43
Following just a few years after Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich renounced representational painting in 1915, and created the first of his Suprematist compositions (so named for their focus on "the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts”). The style, which he also dubbed the “new painterly realism,” featured colored geometric shapes floating against white backgrounds, and quickly reached a radically reductive stage with pieces such as Black Square (also from 1915), and Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918). With Stalin’s elevation to power after Lenin’s death in 1924, however, abstract art was labeled a form of bourgeois decadence, and led to a campaign of official repression that eventually forced Malevich to return to figurative art.
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915
Bolshevism espoused gender equality, so it’s no surprise that a number of women artists filled the ranks of the early Soviet avant-garde— Lyubov Popova among them. A follower of Malevich, she was also a designer and a key member of the Constructivist movement, which espoused tying art to improving society. Borrowing form the strong architectural undercurrent of Constructivism, she described her paintings as “constructions” built with color and line.
Lyubov Popova, Painterly Architectonic, 1917
Born in Latvia, Mark Rothko vies with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning for the title of the most famous Abstract Expressionist artist. In terms of style if not of temperament, however, Rothko’s work differed from Pollock and De Kooning in the way he diffused paint all over the canvas rather than subject it to gestural attacks. A typical Rothko sets expansive blobs of pigment stacked atop each other against painted backdrops that reveal themselves along the edges of the composition. Contrasts in color create visual vibrations that make Rothko’s forms appear to hover in space. Translating mood into paint, Rothko’s aimed to provoke an emotional response in the viewer.
Mark Rothko, Painting No 21 (red Brown Black and Orange), 1951
The face of Abstract Expressionism and America’s first major postwar artist (and still one of its greatest), Pollock burst onto the scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s with his signature drip paintings. They were created in an incandescent burst of creativity over a three years period between 1947 and 1950 at his Springs, New York studio in the Hamptons. His technique was famously captured by Hans Namuth, who photographs show the artist flinging commercial house-paint out of a can onto an unprimed canvas laid on the floor—a performative process that lent the moniker “action painting” to his work and that of other Abstract Expressionists. Appearing in Life magazine under the headline,“Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?,” Pollock achieved a level of fame that wouldn’t be matched until Andy Warhol’s emergence in the 1960s. Beset by personal demons that included alcoholism, Pollock died tragically in an auto accident in 1956.
Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950
Born in Saskatchewan, Agnes Martin is often called a pioneer of Minimal Art. However, she regarded herself as an Abstract Expressionist, though you might be forgiven for wondering how she’d think so, given her nuanced compositions of grids and bands painted in barely-there colors. But there were that other artists associated with AbEx who likewise worked in uniformly painted styles, such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Not surprisingly both artists promoted and mentored Martin. She shared Newman’s emphasis on eliciting an emotional—even epiphanic—response from the viewer over the idea of capturing the artist’s emotions in a gesture. In Martin’s case, that meant seeking a state of perfection within her work.
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
Joan Mitchell was part of the wave of “second-generation” of Abstract Expressionists who softened, somewhat, the existential bombast of AbEx’s founders, taking the style in a more lyrical, though no less emotionally affecting, direction. The use of gesture remained a key component in the work of these next-wave painters, and in Mitchell’s hands, they became evocative of landscapes and still lives. Influenced by Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh and indeed, Mitchell could almost be described as a midcentury Post-Impressionist—which was not surprising considering that, despite her association with the New York School, she spent the bulk of her career living and working in France.
Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992
During the 1950s, while Abstract Expressionism was still at its height, Ellsworth Kelly began showing bright, multi-paneled, monochromatic canvases that were stylistically and temperamentally the opposite of painterly slashers like Pollock and Willem De Kooning. In many respects, he was something of an outsider during the rise of the New York School, both figuratively and literally as he developed his aesthetic while living in Paris, where he’d moved in 1948. All the same, Kelly’s work was met with critical acclaim. His exploration of the relationship between form and color departed from earlier geometric abstractionists—and Abstract Expressionism for that matter—because it was purely formal in nature. Kelly’s work set the tone for much of the art that followed, including Minimalism, Hard-edge painting, Color Field and even Pop art.
Ellsworth Kelly, Colors for a Large Wall, 1951
People have reported feeling seasick or vertigo when viewing the work of British painter Bridget Riley and it's easy to see why. Her best-known compositions feature sinuous, alternating lines in black and white spaced closely together, creating patterns that move and vibrate. Riley was a leading light of the so-called Op Art movement, which arose in the 1960s and shared a penchant for visual flair with another style of the period: Pop Art.
Bridget Riley, Quiver 3, 2014
One of a handful of postwar African-American artists who pursued pure abstraction, Sam Gilliam was a key figure of the Washington Color School of late 1950s through the late 1960s, which transformed the nation’s capital into an incubator for color field painting. Influenced by Abstraction Expressionism, Gilliam’s lyrical compositions feature gestural passages of pigments thinned into watercolor-like washes of buoyant hues. Beginning in the 1960s, he became known for painting on un-stretched swags of fabric, and while he’s used other approaches such as collage and rigidly shaped canvases, his “drapes” as they’re called, remain his signature works.
Sam Gilliam, 10/27/69, 1969
Marden first emerged in the late 1960s with monochromatic canvases that were critically hailed for embodying the Minimalist spirit of the period. More to the point, he managed to do so as an artist who made paintings at a time when the medium was considered dead, given the surfeit of new, revolutionary genre like performance and video art that promised to upend the artistic order. Over his career, however, Marden has shifted his approach time and again, making his style too eclectic to pin down. But he’s always been commitment to material and process, evident in his early preference for encaustic, a technique using pigment mixed into hot wax that then cools hardens after application, as in his initial monochromes created in muted colors found in nature. But while the paintings appeared flat, the encaustic left subtle traces of the artist’s efforts to smooth the surface. Over the past couple of decades, Marden has become better know for filling large all over compositions with sinuous looping lines that are meant to be taken as stylized references to the gestural marks of Abstract Expressionism.
Brice Marden, Couplet IV, 1988-89
Christopher Wool emerged onto the New York art scene during the late 1980s, and created a splash with black-and-white enamel compositions that featured wallpaper patterns created with the sort of textured paint rollers used to decorate tenement hallways. He also stenciled paintings with cryptic words, such as TRBL or FOOL as well as more recognizable phrases, such as HELTER SKELTER, borrowed from pop culture. For Wool, attitude was form, to borrow a critical notion of the time, and something about the nihilism in his work comported spiritually with Reagan-era excess. But he though of his paintings as abstractions, or more precisely, images of abstraction, a postmodern conceit which recognized that the genre had become figurative in a way thanks to endless reproductions in art books, magazines and museum postcards. This idea became clearer in Wool’s subsequent works built out of elements from his previous paintings, some which were silkscreened onto the canvas as halftone photos, or defaced with spray-painted marks, or wiped with turpentine-soaked cloths. All in all, Wool’s approach evinces a love-hate relationship with painting—and abstraction in particular.
Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2007