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The Most Iconic Abstract Art of the Last 100 Years

Abstract art offers something for everyone - whether you love Jackson Pollock's groundbreaking dripping technique or Mark Rothko's soft rectangles - and is truly a treasure in art history, providing artists with the freedom to experiment and push creative limits.

Abstraction has emerged as an integral component of contemporary artistic practice despite initial resistance by art world critics.

Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich are widely credited with pioneering abstract art as they inspired artists away from representational painting.


Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter and art theorist, pioneered abstract modern painting. Believing that objects damaged a painting, Kandinsky instead explored abstract forms and colors to express spirituality and human emotion through painting. Furthermore, Kandinsky saw connections between visual and auditory perception - hearing sounds as shades of color! - this enabled him to develop his artistic style with remarkable style.

Influenced by Claude Monet, Pointillism, and Fauvism, his paintings were non-representational and comprised of vibrant color patterns without any identifiable objects. In 1903 he first explored abstraction as an artistic technique; leaving behind traditional figurative paintings for more experimental, non-figurative styles of painting. His 1903 work The Blue Rider marked this turning point.

Kandinsky published his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1910 to outline his revolutionary new style. This book discussed universal circles as a motif used by Kandinsky along with color symbolism and psychology to produce abstract compositions.

Kandinsky found success as a painter, yet found it difficult to continue his career in Russia. After moving to Germany in 1919 he became head of art department at Bauhaus school; as proponent of progressive idea that fine and applied arts should be integrated for public and societal benefit he championed this idea; however with Nazi Germany rising in 1933 the progressive principles that Kandinsky held with Bauhaus were dismantled, leading to its closure.

Piet Mondrian

Mondrian began exploring more dramatic compositions with bold colors and brushwork reminiscent of Van Gogh and pointillism techniques in 1905, as he experimented with series paintings focusing on one theme or subject matter; these elements would prove instrumental to his eventual mature abstract style.

Theosophy was an immense influence on Mondrian, leading him toward his goal of depicting perfect harmony. This goal can be seen through his use of black lines that do not serve as outlines but instead serve as planes of pigment itself. Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow marks an evolution toward using his black lines as means of representing reality by placing primary colors asymmetrically against white paint blocks; Mondrian called this composition Pier and Ocean and uses its alternating horizontal and vertical lines as means to represent not just physical structures but kinetic tension of dynamic forces at play within.

Mondrian was living in Holland when World War I broke out, so his return to Paris did not occur until 1919, where he methodically sought to refine his painting style. Around 1918 he met artists Van der Leck and VanDoesburg who together decided to form De Stijl - an avant-garde art movement dedicated to developing an aesthetic language without hierarchy - through which they advocated universal aesthetic expression as opposed to exclusive artistic hierarchy.




Joan Miro

Joan Miro was one of the pioneers of abstract art. A modern renegade, Joan used canvas as an outlet for his subconscious thoughts and to express Catalan pride. His signature pictorial signs, biomorphic forms, and geometric shapes paved a pathway toward greater abstraction among avant-garde painters.

Miro's explorations with color emphasized how fields of unblended hues could interact and became an influence for Color Field painters like Helen Frankenthaler. His harsh brushstrokes and dark, surreal themes reflected the turmoil of his time - both during the Spanish Civil War in Paris and World War 2 back home; during such trying periods Miro used paintings as means to escape reality using them as ladders of escape.

The Black Square is an important work that symbolizes the birth of pure abstraction. Though various artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich, are credited with inventing abstract art, its ultimate form was Suprematism painting style which highlighted intrinsic properties such as colors and geometric forms over any representational elements. The Black Square, however, showcases Suprematism's radical nature through its bold composition centered around one black square resting atop white background with all composition emerging from it; such bold composition demonstrates radical nature of Suprematism painting style!



Ben Nicholson OM

Ben Nicholson created an extraordinary variety of artwork throughout his lengthy career, from paintings to linocuts. His subject matter ranged from still lifes to landscapes; often used these subjects as vehicles for formal experimentation and known for his use of colour resonating with landscape depictions he depicted.

Nicholson made waves when he integrated elements of abstract art into his paintings during the 1920s, an innovative trend for British art at that time and one which demonstrated his pioneering nature. Alongside Paul Nash and Henry Moore, Nicholson founded Unit One group in 1933 before later editing review Circle magazine.

Nicholson was an early proponent of abstract painting and an author of numerous books on its subject matter. He played an essential role in shaping modern art history, with his works still impacting artists today.

Nicholson turned back to still lifes and landscapes in his later years, drawing inspiration from Cubism (Picasso, Braque and Arp) and Neo-Plasticism (Mondrian) techniques. These were employed to produce abstract compositions with multiple planes often interlaced within them - also creating sculptures and reliefs along the way.


Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock led one of the most significant art movements of the 20th century - Abstract Expressionism - which proved influential on future artists. His experimental works allowed artists to express themselves freely while opening up new avenues in abstract painting. Indeed, Pollock's signature method of dripping paint onto canvas became part of what would eventually become Abstract Expressionism.

He attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles before relocating to New York during the 1930s where he studied under Thomas Hart Benton, one of the leading Regionalist painters of his day. Under Benton's influence he developed his own style while incorporating some of Benton's methods, often seen splattering paint across canvas surfaces in order to produce his artworks with great energy and flair.

His early works consisted of geometric abstractions. Subsequently, he explored spirituality and mythologies while using colors to convey specific emotions such as red for anger or deep blues for peace.

An artist, Jungian psychoanalysts were brought in to help with his alcoholism, which greatly influenced the symbolism in his paintings - this can be seen in Male and Female, which uses traditional Fembot symbols reinterpreted. Additionally, he developed his unique style of painting through thick layers of pigment with viscous pourings.



Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler is considered to be one of the most influential female painters in modern history, her pioneering Color Field paintings having earned her the respect of Abstract Expressionism's tightly knit community as well as having inspired generations of artists. Born in 1928 and receiving an education at Dalton School and studying with Rufino Tamayo before graduating Bennington College Vermont. At Clement Greenberg's suggestion she began taking classes from Hans Hofmann who would ultimately become her lifelong mentor and later her husband.

Influenced by Jackson Pollock's drip technique, Frankenthaler experimented with staining thinned paint onto raw canvas with staining thinnerned brushwork. She created her groundbreaking painting Mountains and Sea, in 1952 - a 7x10 foot work that marked an important departure from her cubist roots - by thinned oil paint until they seeped through to absorb into raw canvas like watercolors; later coining post-painterly abstraction as her trademark technique.

Frankenthaler was prolific throughout her career and displayed her works at galleries and museums worldwide. Her achievements were the subject of several monographs as well as numerous articles written by prominent art historians, curators, and critics; she can be found among numerous notable museum collections such as Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Museum and Tate Modern among many others.


Mark Rothko

Born Markus Rothkowitz and raised in Portland, Oregon; Rothko spent most of his adult life living and working in New York. Although well educated - speaking four languages fluently - his artistic talent was mostly untaught. Yet Rothko became one of the first American artists to gain widespread acclaim as an Abstract Expressionist artist with works known to evoke emotional and spiritual experiences and his color field paintings are considered among some of the most influential works from last century.

Rothko was deeply influenced by European Surrealism and its use of biomorphic shapes; these often appeared as floating zones or registers over colored grounds in his paintings of the 1940s before gradually giving way to more mysterious and symbolic motifs that would come to define his later work.

Rothko experimented with horizontal bands of color that have since become his signature style in the 1950s. These paintings, featuring richly saturated rectangles of red, orange, and purple on black or gray backgrounds were his way of responding to his mother's death in 1948.

Rothko used these works to create an environment conducive to contemplation and reflection. Unlike his other canvases, which should be seen as series, these pieces serve more as individual works that communicate the complexity of human emotions ranging from tragedy to joy.



Gerhard Richter

Richter would go on to develop an extraordinary range of styles and subject matters after leaving East Germany in 1961, from realistic to abstract works--sometimes all within a single painting! This was due to his mistrust of images and their perceived realism as well as his desire to explore various possibilities of representation.

His early works were photo-based, depicting military subjects, family portraits and images from the media. By the mid-1960s however, Richter began exploring abstract forms of expression through Vermalung or "inpainting". Here squeegees were used to deposit, spread or scrape down layers of paint using various tools; creating paintings which appear both abstract and figurative simultaneously.

Richter blends realism and abstraction in Clouds, giving the impression of viewing through a window despite its bold tracks, scrapes and smudges of paint above. As a result, an optical illusion is created that is later broken by his playful aggressive techniques further complicating this piece of artwork.

Though Richter often avoided political themes in his art, much of it focused on historical or personal memory. His 1988 series October 18, 1977 for instance depicted the controversial deaths of members of Baader-Meinhof terrorist group in prison; its morbid imagery created feelings of uneasiness while suggesting an image's incapacity to fully convey truth regardless of how carefully rendered.


Robert Motherwell

Motherwell was one of the youngest and most prolific Abstract Expressionists, but initially wanted to become a philosopher before turning his focus towards art. Early encounters with Alfred North Whitehead and French symbolist poets exposed him to abstraction's potential in writing and art; when painting began he employed various approaches including automatic drawing and collage as methods to explore this medium further.

Motherwell used these forms to explore new approaches to elaborating, organizing and editing compositions without compromising their integrity or expressive force. He often preferred working with small groups of shapes in order to observe how their interrelationships shifted and changed with time.

After moving to New York in 1939, he quickly learned of Surrealist "psychic automatism", which championed chance and spontaneity. Subsequently he coined his own concept called "artistic scribbling", which describes the deliberate, fluid brushwork found in Elegies paintings as well as other works from the Fifties.

Momwell's works from this period - such as Mallarme's Swan and In Plato's Cave No. 1- have an arresting concentration and energy, while others - such as his collages made of Gauloise cigarette wrappers - may appear more decorative. Still, Motherwell's exploration of small forms and their interaction in an intimate range of colors suggests an ethos of collage as both creative principle and technique.


Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly was an artist whose art combined painting and text to express ideas about history and power through its brushstrokes, both decorative and symbolic. A member of American art's Critical Generation between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Twombly captured a cross-continental audience ever since his debut in the 1950s with his rhythmic lyricism that explored themes of violence, eroticism, death and destruction - yet his destruction still felt subtler than usual due to thinking in centuries; when depicting human-scale violence such as Commodus' death series of 1961 paintings; instead the soft strokes of color softened its impact compared to what might have happened otherwise.

While at Black Mountain College, Twombly met poet Charles Olson and became interested in breath-based poetry. This in turn had an enormous influence on his art which often used white paint along with fragmentation, sparse surfaces, and erasures to create expressive environments.

Twombly was one of the pioneering artists who used visual information from daily life--postcards, reproductions, sketches and scientific illustrations--to explore the relationship between form and content in his paintings. He utilized this technique through collages that connected theme with individual aspects. Twombly may not have directly had an effect on later artists but helped spark an autobiographical and confessional trend which can be found in work by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin among many others.


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