As a new generation of artists emerged in the Post-War United States, these ideas about the function of color and light gave way to greater abstraction of forms. Though the foundations of modernist abstract art had begun elsewhere, the rise of the United States as the new avant-garde center of the art world propelled 20th century art movements like De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, and Color Field painting to new heights of popularity — all having tremendous influences on art history.
While many artists, like Tamara de Lempicka above, have explored abstraction at different times in their artistic careers, several artists’ abstract compositions remain cornerstones of their oeuvre.
One of the most beloved American artists of the 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe had her own perspective on abstraction. Unlike later abstract painters, who oftentimes were not working from any reference in the real world, O’Keeffe’s most famous paintings displayed enlarged, close-up views of flowers. These microscopic views of otherwise quotidian florals allowed viewers to explore the beauty of everyday nature with greater intimacy. Contrastly, in her other famous abstract painting It Was Yellow and Pink I above, O’Keeffe takes a macro perspective, taking a bird’s-eye view of distant winding riverbeds. The resulting visual effect in both Red Canna and It Was Yellow & Pink I is abstracted forms, where the original subject was merely alluded to rather than represented in a recognizable manner. Though Georgia O’Keeffe’s works are overwhelmingly figurative, the unique viewpoint the artist brings to her subjects allows it to become effectively disconnected from its real-world equivalent.
Willem de Kooning
In the late 1920s, Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning emerged in Manhattan among other artistic visionaries of his day. The processual, spontaneous and emotion-driven style that de Kooning would develop would later become known as Abstract Expressionism. Compositions like Untitled above capture the gestural qualities that define so many of the artist’s paintings and abstract artwork. His nearly frantic brushwork and heavy lines delineate a distorted, fleshy female form, a recurrent motif in de Kooning's oeuvre. Collected widely by museums and discerning collectors alike, de Kooning’s most famous work Woman I shows the artist’s interest in intense abstraction while still embracing figural art.
Though he began his career associated with Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko’s distinctive style of abstraction would come to be known as Color Field painting. His oeuvre is characterized by large-scale oil on canvas paintings that display large blocks of color. The American painter wrote extensively about the experience he envisioned for his viewers, describing how he wished his audience to be enveloped within his entirely non-figural paintings in an almost transcendent manner.
Perhaps most famous as the pioneering sculptor who developed innovative mobiles, American artist Alexander Calder also was a skillful painter, beginning to explore the mediums in the early 1920s. Many of his compositions, particularly from the 1950s and 1960s, explore the non-figural abstraction that was becoming popularized by contemporaneous movements. Not unlike his sculptures and mobiles, Calder’s palette frequently consisted of bold, vibrant shades of primary colors. In his 1964 painting Rouille sur journe, the artist has applied a bright wash of yellow over the paper and included geometric components that seem to float off the image. The remarkable work boasts the same graceful whimsy of Calder’s hanging sculptural mobiles, and demonstrates Calder’s admiration of the compositions of Surrealist Joan Miró.
Andy Warhol is not well-known for his abstract compositions, though the great artist’s oeuvre provides several examples. Remembered as the father of Pop Art, Warhol often used commercial and other iconic imagery in his works, which lent itself naturally to figuration. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the artist had begun to explore abstraction — sometimes using non-traditional materials, like in his Oxidation series, and other times utilizing his preferred medium of screen printing like in Shadow above. Works like Shadow represent an intriguing marriage of Pop art and abstraction. The work is derived from a photograph taken at his New York studio, The Factory, and has been executed using the silkscreen process that Warhol himself legitimized. Yet, the aesthetics of the work are almost wholly Abstract Expressionist in style; whether Warhol is paying homage to the greats who came before him or parodying them is a matter of debate. Either way, the work represents a fascinating visual dialogue between two behemoths of 20th-century American art.
Gerhard Richter is considered by many to be one of the most important figures in contemporary art. Famously, the German painter has worked in both abstract and photorealistic styles, both of which have garnered great critical and commercial success. He first began painting in 1962, and has experimented with mediums ranging from oils to watercolors and even oversized photographic prints. In War Cut II, No. 17 above, Richter has applied a smearing, layered field of paint over the cover of his 2004 book War Cut, provoking questions about anonymity, effacement, and censorship. The resulting swath of deep red pigment is reminiscent of early Color Field paintings from Rothko and others.
Regarding his artistic process, Richter is quoted as explaining: “‘When I paint an abstract picture (the problem is very much the same in other cases), I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings [...] who therefore hacks away in the vague hope that by working in a proper, professional way he will ultimately turn out something proper and meaningful.” In Richter’s abstraction, there is no referential material from the real world; even the artist himself is uncertain about how the finished abstract painting will look.
Abstract art plays a significant role in art history, as it has allowed artists to explore the use of different styles, shapes, and colors to captivate their viewers. Browse our selection of beautiful and rare art pieces, including famous abstract art, that speaks to your style.
Gerhard Richter. Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007. Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, p.142.