Graphic featuring brush strokes and title of blog about abstract artists.

Brushstrokes of the Imagination: Exploring the Minds of 14 Abstract Artists

For many, the work of an abstract artist might seem complex and difficult to understand. However, it’s important to recognize the artists who have made a significant impact on the style of abstract art throughout history. In this curated list, we will explore some of the greatest abstract artists from 20th century pioneers to influential contemporaries who have pushed the status quo.

What is Abstract Art?

Before we begin, let’s answer an important question: What is abstract art? The popularity of abstract art dates back to the late 19th century with a focus on shape, color, lines, and texture detached from reality. It often invites viewers to interpret their own emotional response in art rather than analyze its intended meaning. It’s a common misconception that abstract art can only be paint on a canvas. The style can be applied to a variety of media including painting, sculpting, and illustration.

Through abstract art, artists communicate ideas, emotions, and concepts that might be challenging to express through traditionally-drawn art avenues. Abstract art comes with its own challenges, however. Artists who are new to the style often struggle with invoking an emotional response in viewers and getting their abstract art to stand out from the crowd. Luckily, there have been many incredible abstract artists to learn from throughout history, so let’s dive into their history, art, and impact on the world.

Pioneers of 20th Century Abstraction

Hilma af Klint

Born in 1862, Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist, was one of the leading figures in European abstract art. Many believe that the artist was ahead of her time, exploring spiritual themes and geometric forms in her works long before they gained recognition. Today, af Klint’s approach to art continues to be celebrated by art enthusiasts worldwide thanks to The Hilma af Klint Foundation who’s responsible for distributing her works to galleries around the world.

Wassily Kandinsky

Another pioneer of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky, believed abstraction had the power to evoke emotional responses in viewers. His use of compositions and abstraction laid the foundation for future generations of artists. “His influence on 20th-century art, often filtered through the work of more accessible painters, was profound,” writes Britannica. One of Kandinsky’s most intricate works, “Composition 8 (1923),” is currently on display in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Piet Mondrian

Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, known commonly as Piet Mondrian, was an abstract painter that brought light to a new, abstract style called Neoplasticism. The style introduced work made of only simple shapes and primary colors. You can find examples of this in his work such as “Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943)” featuring a city grid of Manhattan. Mondrian’s success led to the creation of the De Stijl art movement around 1917 which featured techniques of the Neoplasticism style.

The Action Painters

Niki de Saint Phalle

Growing up in the heart of France, Niki de Saint Phalle’s use of action painting often expresses themes of joy, feminism, and social commentary. One of her notable pieces, “Shooting Picture (1961),” is currently on display at the Tate Modern art gallery in London, England. Phalle was also an excellent sculptor, producing many large-scale projects around the world. Her bold use of color and form create quite the immersive experience for viewers. 

Willem de Kooning

A prominent figure in the abstract expressionist movement, Dutch American artist Willem de Kooning’s paintings are quick to capture viewers’ raw emotions. His dynamic brushwork and innovative approach to color reflect the intensity of human experience. Take a look at Kooning’s piece, “Woman I,” and reflect on what you feel when viewing his abstract work.

Norman Lewis

Born in New York, NY, Norman Lewis explored themes of social justice and racial identity through his paintings up until the 1950s, where he picked up non-objective abstraction, a type of abstract art that aims to showcase simplicity. Perhaps his most notable work, “Harlem Turns White (1955),” explores many interpretations but typically explores the tensions between races during the Cold War era.

Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, known for her powerful abstract paintings, was a key figure in the New York art scene in the early 1900s. Her distinctive style and innovative approach to composition continues to inspire artists today. Krasner is often overshadowed by her husband Jackson Pollock, however, Kranser’s work is of incredible caliber and deserves just as much recognition.

 The National Museum of Women in the Arts explains that “Krasner was actually an established abstract artist well before she met [Pollock]. Fully engaged in the New York art scene of the ’30s and ’40s, she introduced Pollock to the artist Willem de Kooning and critic Clement Greenberg, among other key figures.”

Color Field Painters

Helen Frankenthaler

American abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking “soak-stain” technique revolutionized color field painting that emerged in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. The technique blends different hues that bleed into one another on the canvas, whereas traditional color field painting involves a single color presented throughout a painting. Today, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation continues Frankenthaler’s legacy through education, artwork donations, and community outreach.

Bernice Bing

Bernice “Bingo” Bing was a Chinese American abstract artist who didn’t gain recognition for her activism, artwork, and adversity until the late 2010s. Growing up as an orphan in San Francisco, Bing’s upbringing was nothing short of tragic. After the passing of her parents, Bing was transferred from foster home to foster home, never quite settling down. From these experiences and others, Bing aimed to create works that held meaning rooted in inclusivity, identity, and social justice. Today, Bing’s artwork is recognized worldwide and you can find many of her best works in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

Ellsworth Kelly

“I feel that the freedom of colors in space is very much what I’ve always been involved in,” explained Ellsworth Kelly in The Art Newspaper. Color field painting was a favorite of Kelly’s throughout his life and is present in almost all of his artwork. You can find work from Kelly displayed around the world from the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Abstract Sculpture and Dimensional Art

Barbara Hepworth

Not all abstract art is painted on a canvas and that is especially true when discussing the work of British artist Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth, a leading figure in abstract sculpture, explored the relationship between form and space in her large-scale modern sculptures. Her sculptures, often made of bronze, are currently displayed in Tate Museum’s Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Constantin Brâncuși

It would be hard to find a 20th century Romanian artist with more ambition than Constantin Brâncuși. In fact, Brâncuși walked most of 1,300 miles from Romania to Paris just to complete his art studies. Brâncuși’s incredible abstract sculptures often depicted abstract, egg-shaped heads.

Eva Hesse

American artist Eva Hesse’s innovative approach to sculpture has landed her a well-deserved spot on our list. Her unconventional and experimental works challenge viewers to rethink what to expect from post-minimal artwork. 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts writes that “Her allusions to body parts, sexuality, and a feminine element have made her work particularly meaningful to many female sculptors.” Hesse’s work is now revered for her contributions to modern abstract sculpture.

Louis Nevelson

Although many famous sculptures are often made of bronze, iron, or stone, Louis Nevelson takes a unique approach and creates her installations out of wood. Nevelson’s installation art can be best described as a monumental, monochromatic experience for the eyes. Her most notable work, “Sky Cathedral,” is on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and truly represents her style as an artist.

Anish Kapoor

It’s estimated that over 5 million visitors see Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” also known as “The Bean,” in Chicago each year. Kapoor’s large-scale and reflective abstract sculptures often challenge a spectator’s sense of perception. In addition to his many sculptures, Kapoor’s abstract art, made on canvas, often features dark reds and ominous shapes.

Contemporary Abstract Artists

Isa Genzken

Modern artists have proven that abstract styles aren’t fading from the spotlight any time soon. German artist Isa Genzken’s multidisciplinary practice incorporates a blend of found objects, installations, and modern sculpture. Perhaps Gensken’s most notable contemporary abstract art series, “Money Pictures,” aims to give money a new look that separates it from its current power connotation.

Gerhard Richter

Known as one of the most influential German artists of our time, Gerhard Richter’s diverse body of work ranges from abstract paintings to photorealistic images. His innovative use of color and texture push the boundaries of painting, which is evident in his record-setting art sales at auction. Richter’s piece, “Abstraktes Bild (1986),” sold for $44.52 million in 2015 at Sotheby’s London auction house.

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu’s monumental artworks combine social issues with her love for abstract line and color. Her large-scale canvases invite viewers to navigate through artwork as high as 80-feet tall. “Ethiopian-born and currently living in Harlem, the 54-year-old artist has been recognized through such awards as the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ in 2005, and was listed as one of the ‘100 most influential people’ by Time magazine in 2020,” writes The New York Times.

The Enduring Legacy of Abstract Art

Today, abstract art continues to prove its place in the world of galleries and exhibitions. From Lee Krasner’s action paintings to Barbara Hepworth’s modern sculptures, legendary artists of the past have positively shaped the future with their willingness to push the status quo.

Dive Into Abstract Art at RMCAD

Feeling inspired to learn more about the complexities of abstract art styles? At Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, you have the ability to not just study the style, but become your own abstract artist. Reach out to learn more about our online and campus degrees today.

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