After centuries of tradition, abstract artists sought to make paintings that did not follow conventional “rules” like naturalism and perspective. This radical style gave rise to powerfully lyrical paintings that emphasize color, composition and emotion.
The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, for example, created Composition with red, blue and yellow, which eloquently sums up its aesthetic philosophy using straight lines and primary colors. Likewise, Kazimir Malevich’s film Black square is an often-cited abstract piece due to the purity of its simplicity. Other pioneers like Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky have created canvases that have also left their mark by proving that there are endless ways to capture human experiences in the abstract.
Here we will explore 10 famous abstract paintings and find out what makes them so important.
Expand your knowledge of art history by discovering these 10 famous abstract paintings.
Hilma af Klint, No. 7, adulthood, 1907
Although not as well known as most male artists of her time, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was a pioneering abstract artist whose radical paintings predate many of her male contemporaries. She requested that her vast body of work, most of which had never been exhibited during her lifetime, remain invisible for up to 20 years after her death. No. 7, adulthood is part of Af Klint’s The ten greatest series. The collection represents the stages of life, including childhood, youth, maturity and old age. They combine botanical elements and recognizable organic objects that refer to birth and growth. This huge canvas, measuring 3 meters high and 2 meters wide, was painted on paper, on the studio floor, then pasted on a canvas.
Af Klint interprets adulthood in full bloom by painting various flowing shapes of different sizes and colors against a lilac background. The central yellow symbol resembles a flower, while the spirals and biomorphic shapes are symbols of growth and fertility.
Vassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913
Russian art theorist and painter Wassily Kandinsky used color and abstract shapes to communicate different human experiences. Many of his pieces are inspired by music, and he believed that the sounds could be found in his brushstrokes.
Composition VII was made when the artist lived in Munich, Germany. Although the composition may seem chaotic at first glance, Kandinsky spent months designing it, creating over 30 oil and watercolor sketches before making the final piece. The theme of this painting is battle and redemption. Some of the symbols, including wild boars, mountains, and figures, can be spotted in the maze of colors and symbols.
Kazimir Malevich, Black square, 1915
Russian artist Kazimir Malevich honed his painting skills in many styles, but eventually became best known for his abstract supremacist art, which relied on geometric shapes. Black square is his most iconic painting, which he reproduced four times with slightly different variations.
The 1915 version is the first of these works and is regarded by art historians and critics as a pivotal work of modern art, and often referred to as the “zero point of painting”. Malevich himself said of the work: “[Black Square is meant to evoke] the experience of pure objectivity in the white void of a liberated nothingness.
Paul Klee, The Twitter machine, 1922
Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee had a lot in common with his contemporary Wassily Kandinsky. Both artists were members of the German expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and both were deeply influenced by the connection between music and painting. The twitter machine is the representation of Klee’s most famous sound. It represents a flock of birds on a wire with a crank mechanism. Klee made this mixed illustration with watercolor, ink and oil.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, blue and yellow, 1930
After painting in a realistic style for years, Dutch artist Piet Mondrian joined the abstract art movement and quickly became a revolutionary figure. He formed his own philosophy on an abstraction called neoplasticism (also called From Stijl), describing it as follows: “This new plastic idea will ignore the peculiarities of appearance … on the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and color, that is to say in the line right and the primary color. ” Composition with red, blue and yellow is a well-known example of such ideas.
Vassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939
The latest in his series of Compositions, Composition X is the culmination of Kandinsky’s exploration of expression through non-figurative form. The organic forms were influenced by the biomorphic figures of surrealism while the colors express the inner emotions experienced by Kandinsky towards the end of his life. The black of the background represents the cosmos and the end of life while letting the colored parts stand out. The painting illustrates the cycle of life and the emotional ups and downs that everyone experiences.
Paul Klee, Death and fire, 1940
Klee painted Death and fire in 1940, just a few months before his death in June of the same year. He suffered from a condition known as scleroderma, which caused him joint pain and rashes on his hands. This explains why his work during this period became increasingly simplistic, and Death and fire is a key example.
Klee has been influenced by primitive art in the past, but this painting is particularly simplistic and critics have even compared it to the style of cave paintings. Illustration of mortality, the oil on jute piece depicts a central motif similar to a human skull with the word “tod” (the German word for “death”). “Tod” is reflected in the “T” shape of the character’s raised arm, the golden orb (O) in his hand and the D shape of his face.
Marc Rothko, Yellow, pink and lavender on pink, 1950
The name of Mark Rothko immediately evokes canvases with large flat areas of color. Russian-American abstract artist specializing in color field painting, which describes art that uses large areas of color. Rothko experimented with a range of color combinations to communicate different human experiences and emotions. Yellow, Pink, Lavender on Pink is one of his first pieces from the 1950s. The warm juxtaposition of colors evokes a feeling of joy.
Barnet Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1951
Another pioneer in the field of color, American artist Barnett Newman believed: “A painter is a choreographer of space. He invented what he called the “zip,” which is a vertical strip of color that sets his work apart from his fellow Abstract Expressionists.
his painting Vir heroicus sublimis (“Male, Heroic and Sublime”), measures an epic 95 by 213 inches and was his largest painting at the time. It features large fields of bright red that are interrupted by occasional vertical “zip” lines. With his overwhelming scale, Newman attempted to evoke a strong reaction from the viewer and completely envelop him – as well as his personal space – in the vibrant hue.
Hélène Frankenthaler, Mountains and sea, 1952
American artist Helen Frankenthaler developed her own revolutionary technique for filling canvases with large fields of color. She invented the “soak-stain” process, which involved pouring thinned turpentine paint onto the canvas. This technique produced vibrant and hazy compositions that gave an entirely new look and feel to the texture of the canvas. Mountains and Sea (1952) was the first work of art in which Frankenthaler used this process, and when fellow color field artists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland saw the work, they quickly adopted the method as well.
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