A Brief History of Abstract Art

The broad definition of abstract art is a simple one: It’s art that doesn’t depict reality. Instead, it focuses on shape, form, color and texture, leaving the piece open to a viewer’s interpretation. Although some argue that abstract art takes less skill than representational art, Wassilly Kandinsky, widely believed to be the pioneer of the Abstract Art Movement, had this to say:

 "Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet.”


The Abstract movement evolved from the Cubist movement, which depicted distorted views of reality. Picasso is one of the most widely recognized cubist painters. Cubism followed Expressionism, and in both of those movements, artists began to explore the difference between art and reality and view art’s potential as pure imagination brought to life.

Around 1910, the Abstract movement took off by pushing the boundaries of Cubism well beyond reality. Although Kandinsky is credited with being the father of abstract art, some art historians say that Swedish artist Hilma Klint perhaps created an abstract painting that predated Kandinsky’s. The two never met, nor knew of the other’s existence, but somehow independently traveled the same artistic path. The Czech-born Frantisek Kupka or his contemporary Francis Picabia also could have laid claim to the title of first, but some argue that a distorted reality can be viewed in their works, making them not quite purely abstract painters.

It’s interesting that anyone could proclaim themself to be first. Consider cave paintings, which toe the line between representational and abstract. Of course the animals and hunters in cave paintings are recognizable, but perhaps their two-dimensional style influenced abstract artists of the 20th century.  

After World War II, Abstract Expressionism took hold in the US and shifted the art world’s focus away from Europe. Abstract Expressionism embraces spontaneity and improvisation. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning are among the most well-known abstract expressionist painters. Pollock is known for pouring, flicking or splashing paint onto his large canvases. His movements when creating the art became the focus of the artistic process rather than the art itself. His style of art is referred to by art historians as gestural abstraction.


Beginning in the 1960s, abstract art’s Optical Art trend emerged. Hungarian Victor Vasarely is considered the father of the Optical Art movement. Optical Art, like all abstract art, focuses on shape, form and color, but it uses those elements to create optical illusions for viewers. Along with Optical Art came the minimal trend, which was characterized by economy of form. Frank Stella was at the forefront of this trend with his Black Paintings, a series of 24 paintings that consisted of geometric bands of white paint on a black background. The shapes used in minimal art were strictly geometrics with a focus on simplicity and order.


The abstract art movement seemed to have run its course by the mid-1950s, making way for Pop Art, but its legacy is far-reaching. The Abstract movement removed rules from art-making. Artists explored their imaginations, developed new painting techniques, experimented with new materials and generally called into question every accepted idea of art that came before them.