After centuries of tradition, abstract artists tried to create paintings that did not conform to conventional ‘rules’ such as naturalism and perspective. This radical style resulted in powerfully lyrical paintings that emphasized color, composition and emotion.
This is how the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian made Composition with red, blue and yellow, which eloquently summarizes his aesthetic philosophy by using straight lines and primary colors. Likewise that of Kazimir Malevich black square is an oft-cited abstract piece for the purity of its simplicity. Other pioneers such as Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky created canvases that also left their mark by proving that there are infinite ways to record human experiences in abstracto.
Here we will explore 10 famous abstract paintings and find out what made them so important.
Broaden your art history knowledge by learning about these 10 famous abstract paintings.
Hilma van Klint, No. 7, maturity, 1907
Though not as well known as many of the male artists of her day, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was a pioneering abstract artist whose radical paintings predate many of her male contemporaries. She requested that her large body of work – most of which was never exhibited during her lifetime – should remain unseen for 20 years after her death. No. 7, maturity is part of Af Klint’s The ten biggest series. The collection represents the stages of life, including childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. They combine botanical elements and recognizable organic objects that refer to birth and growth. This enormous canvas, 3 meters high and 2 meters wide, was painted on paper on the floor of the studio and then glued to a canvas.
Af Klint interprets maturity in full bloom by painting several free-flowing shapes in various sizes and colors against a lilac background. The central yellow symbol resembles a flower, while spirals and biomorphic shapes are symbols of growth and fertility.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913
Russian art theorist and painter Wassily Kandinsky used color and abstract forms to convey different human experiences. Many of his pieces were inspired by music, and he believed that sounds could be found in his brushstrokes.
Composition VII was created when the artist lived in Munich, Germany. While the composition may seem chaotic at first glance, Kandinsky spent months coming up with it, drawing over 30 sketches in oil and watercolor before creating the final piece. The theme of this painting is struggle and redemption. Some symbols, including boars, mountains and figures, can be seen in the labyrinth of colors and symbols.
Kazimir Malevich, black square, 1915
Russian artist Kazimir Malevich honed his painting skills in a variety of styles, but eventually became best known for his Suprematist abstract art, which relied on geometric shapes. black square is his most iconic painting, which he replicated 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, 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 much in common with his contemporary Wassily Kandinsky. Both artists were members of the German Expressionist group The blue rider, and both were heavily influenced by the connection between music and painting. The Twitter Machine is Klee’s most famous representation of sound. It depicts a flock of birds on a wire with a pendulum mechanism. Klee created this mixed-media illustration using watercolor, ink and oil.
Piet Mondriaan, Composition with red, blue and yellow, 1930
After years of painting in a realistic style, Dutch artist Piet Mondrian joined the abstract art movement and quickly became a pioneering figure. He formed his own philosophy on an abstraction called neoplasticism (also called The style), who describes it as follows: “This new plastic idea will ignore the particularities of appearance … on the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and color, that is, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary color.” Composition with red, blue and yellow is a well-known example of these ideas.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939
The last in his series of compositions, Composition X is the culmination of Kandinsky’s exploration of expression through unrepresentative form. The organic forms were influenced by the biomorphic figures of Surrealism, while the colors express the inner emotions Kandinsky experienced towards the end of his life. The black of the background represents the cosmos and the end of life, while the colored parts stand out. The painting illustrates the circle of life and the emotional ups and downs that everyone in the world experiences.
Paul Klee, Death and fire, 1940
Klee painted Death and fire in 1940, just a few months before his death in June of that year. He suffered from a condition known as scleroderma, which caused painful joints and a rash on his hands. This explains why his work became increasingly simplistic during this period, and Death and fire is an important example of this.
Klee was 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. An illustration of mortality, the oil-on-burlap piece shows a central human skull-like motif with the word “tod” (the German word for “death”). “Tod” can be found in the “T” shape of the figure’s raised arm, the golden orb (O) in his hand, and the D-shape of his face.
Mark Rothko, Yellow, pink and lavender on rose, 1950
The name Mark Rothko immediately brings to mind canvases with large flat areas of color. The Russian-American abstract artist specializing in color field painting, which describes art that uses large flat areas of color. Rothko experimented with a range of color combinations to convey different human experiences and emotions. Yellow, pink, lavender on rose is one of his earlier pieces from the 1950s. The warm juxtaposition of colors evokes a sense of joy.
Barnet Newman, Heroic Man Eminent, 1951
Another color field pioneer, American artist Barnett Newman believed, “A painter is a choreographer of space.” He invented what he called the “zip,” a band of vertical colors that distinguished his work from his fellow abstract expressionists.
his painting Heroic man majestic (“Man, Heroic and Sublime”), measuring an epic 95 by 213 inches and was his largest painting at the time. It features large fields of bright red interrupted by occasional vertical “zip” lines. With its overwhelming scale, Newman tried to evoke a strong reaction from the viewer and completely envelop them – and their personal space – with the vibrant hue.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and the sea, 1952
The American artist Helen Frankenthaler developed her own breakthrough technique for filling canvases with large areas of color. She invented the “soak-stain” process, where paint diluted with turpentine was poured onto the canvas. This technique produced vibrant, misty compositions resulting in a whole 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 promptly embraced the method as well.
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