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by Robert McIntosh

28 June '18

Abstract Art History, Origin To Present

Where did abstract art originated, trends and historical progress

From its beginnings in the early twentieth century, abstract art has baffled, outraged and been the site of a negotiation on the part of artists and spectators alike. We will trace these origins from French Fauvism and Pablo Picasso's and Braque's Cubism which respectively abstracted color and form from nature, and travel through the varying incarnations in abstract art history, from the Geometric, the Abstract Expressionist, the Technological and the Lyrical.

Modern abstract art manifests the deepest philosophical and spiritual concerns of twentieth-century man.The 1980s, which we will briefly outline in terms of the evolution of modern abstract art, presented new challenges and indeed thereby new opportunities for abstract painting, and we will observe a few of the major names and styles from that decade onward.


we will present a case for the continued exploration of abstract painting by artists and spectators into the twenty-first century and argue that this tradition is far from exhausted but is as vibrant and exciting as it was a century ago.

The history of abstract art

The roots of abstract art in the west stretch back to the early twentieth century. The rapid advance of technology in the previous century led many artists to observe a need for a new method and means to represent the world and man's place within it – both humanity and the world were thus felt to be changed by these advances.

Fauvis and Cubism

Formally, that is, intrinsically to artworks, abstraction of at least some degree could be seen in ancient art and the art of non-western cultures.

Fauvism abstract painting abstract art origin

In the west, the influence of these cultures came to light in French Fauvis, which deployed non-naturalistic color in the depiction of scenes from the external world such as landscapes, and in Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braque's development of Cubism which broke up and fractured forms and spaces within the pictorial world.

Cubism abstract painting abstract art origin

These two art-historical movements are generally considered to be the foundation of avant-garde Modernism in the west and represent a rejection or a dissolution of the traditionally accepted sense-data of the visible world.

Abstract geometric art

A seminal moment for the abstract in painting came in 1923 with the Russian Kasimir Malevich's Black Square. Although linked by the artist with political inspiration, this work which contained merely a black square on a white ground set in motion a concern with the qualities of the painted surface itself and led to the sub-movement of abstract geometric art that is in evidence in American Modernist theory and practice from the 1940s on.

Black Square Kasimir Malevich abstract painting art gallery geometric abstract images
Black Square, geometric abstract images

This geometric abstraction favored the impersonal, the technological and the mathematical over the expressive qualities of most previous art. Simultaneously in Europe, abstraction took on a metaphysical or religious concern and cited color and form as the inspiration for a more meditative and humanist bent.

Abstract Expressionism

However, up until the 1970s, a celebration of science pervaded abstract art and held technological 'constructions' to be of paramount importance, as opposed to the inward-looking individual.

Science was seen by many as most conducive to the absolutes of beauty and truth.

This technological positivism in abstract art followed one of the pioneering and most canonical modes of abstract art in the U.S., i.e. Abstract Expressionism, with such painters as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Helen Frankenthaler bucking the geometric trend and restoring to art mythic, religious and personal meaning.

Abstract Expressionism abstract art origin
Jackson Pollock

These meanings were established largely by the work's titles as their fields of color or 'all-over' painting techniques revealed a lyrical and individual use of color and form.

These paintings – along with the High Modernist theory that championed them – showed a concern also with the literal objecthood of the painted canvas. Simultaneously in Europe, abstraction took on a metaphysical or religious concern and cited color and form as the inspiration for a more meditative and humanist bent.

Broadly, these trends within abstract art persisted up until the late 1970s, providing the ground for much contention and appreciation.

Strands of Abstraction

Abstraction in the art can either be complete or partial. Complete abstract art bears no resemblance to the natural world and is most identifiable with the aforementioned geometric abstract art, such as Malevich's Black Square.

Yet it is also discernible in Abstract Expressionism, where fields or blotches of color are painted on the canvas. Partial abstraction is usually that which is taken from nature, for example, Helen Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea of 1952.

Mountains and Sea (1952) abstract art origin
Mountains and Sea (1952)

Here, nature is not as it appears to the eye but its forms are flattened and Frankenthaler uses expressive sweeps of color that show, rather than merely a landscape scene, both the effects of the scene on the sensibility and the operations of the aestheticizing mind upon that scene. As such, this abstract artwork is as much evidence of an inner psychological state as it is of a landscape formation.

Abstraction from nature has a long historical tradition – from ancient cave paintings to Robert Delaunay's experiments with light effects in the early twentieth century. Italian-originated Futurism in the 1920s carried with it elements of abstraction from nature in their paintings also, with artists like Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla manipulating scenes from nature or the street according to their aesthetic visions.

With the advent of Malevich in Russia and Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands in the 1920s, however, pure or complete abstract art set off in earnest. In the 1960s Abstract Expressionism gradually relinquished its canonical status to the likes of Optical abstraction which could be seen as a more rigorous successor to the earlier art of Delaunay with its concentration upon pure color and light effects.

Robert Delaunay abstract art origin
Robert Delaunay

Optical abstraction directed the spectator to fixate on the process and the data of visual perception, with light itself becoming the form for artists like Kenneth Noland. His abstraction has been termed 'post-painterly abstraction' because it eradicates personal expression.

High Modernism

With the return to figuration and the increasing pluralism of influences, media and styles came the decline of the pre-eminence of High Modernist abstraction. Yet from the 1980s onwards abstract painting persisted, this time in a riot of color and varying textures that reflected new preoccupations – sometimes within a single artwork.

These works could either be expressive, putting the artist at the center of the work or materialistic and utterly concerned with the painted surface itself as an object.

Prominent practitioners from this decade on were Howard Hodgkin, John Hoyland, Peter Halley, Gerhard Richter and Frank Stella whose pursuit of the progress of formalism had already extended over a long career.

Gerhard Richter abstract art history
Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter's work has been described as more in the 'metaphysical' abstract art tradition. His paintings show the results of paint being poured and dripped on as well as swiped and painted. This fact itself could be a comment on the varied, perhaps limitless, the potential of human choice and agency.


Artists like Frank Stella – a painter, sculptor, and print-maker – that explored Minimalism and post-painterly abstraction have developed a more syncretic or hybridized approach to art-making since the 1980s, as the deep reliefs of his paintings were transformed into sculptural elements incorporated in his abstraction.

Frank Stella abstract art history
Frank Stella

This culminated in his design of abstract free-standing public sculptures that renounced the perceived exclusivity of abstraction in the 1990s.


Similarly, syncretic is the late work of Gheorghe Virtosu who mastered a code building technique to create the most representational abstract ever. Each of his artworks carries a title that guides the viewer to the interpretation of the work.

Gheorghe Virtosu
Gheorghe Virtosu

These recent developments in the abstract art show it to be a resilient medium or style and rich in associative potential. Also, due to increasing globalization of influence in the digital age, abstraction cannot be summarised in its current inceptions, with artists across the world bringing both transcendent and local concerns to abstract art.

The Trend that Persists

While with the invention of photography in the 1840s there occurred an initial pessimism about the validity of painterly representation on canvas, and again in the 1960s with the recession of the influence of Abstract Expressionism in America,

painterly abstraction and indeed painting has proven to be especially current and persistent up to the present day.

Technology, despite its visual exhaustiveness, when separated from expressive and lyrical abstraction, presents only an image of the world. It cannot cover, explain or articulate the gamut of interior human emotion or thought. A lyrical and expressive abstract art – that which includes the individual, artist, and spectator, is of a necessary humanist tradition. It restores the individual to the world and the world to the individual as part of a conspectus of existence: what it means to be alive and to perceive and share. This abstraction's democratizing nature, its invitation to a productive discourse makes it, despite its age, thoroughly new.

More read...

The Art Movements That Defined Abstract Art In The 20th Century

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About author Robert McIntosh was born 1965 in Amsterdam, North Holland. He studied at Royal College of Art in South Kensington. Educated in England and the United States. Lives in Amsterdam. Has also lived in Russia. He works mainly with oil paintings and sculptures and is interested only in authentic and genuine art. He writes extensively on abstract art.

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