What is Abstract Art?

Jessica Ellis

Abstract art is an art form based on non-realistic portrayals, rather than visually accurate depictions of objects or scenes. Popularized in the 20th century, abstract art has become iconic, including the works of such renowned artists as Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian. Much of the work of abstract artists and painters is based on the concept that shape, color and texture have inherent value in their own rights, and can provoke a response even when used to create unidentifiable or non-realistic work.

People interpret abstract art differently.
People interpret abstract art differently.

The movement toward abstract art grew from the impressionism and post-impressionism periods of the 19th century, when color and style became more important than accurate depiction. Painters like Monet, Seurat and Cezanne are often cited as influences on the movement, as they chose to emphasize the inherent artistic point of view that is involved in creating a work of art, as well as in the work itself.

Cubism is a form of abstract art.
Cubism is a form of abstract art.

Interestingly, abstract art as a valid form seemed to spring up simultaneously around the Western world in the first decades of the 20th century, leading to considerable debate regarding who was the first truly abstract artist. Because the form is so variable in technique and medium, classification as to semi-abstract and fully abstract works is often confusing and misleading. The form encompasses several different styles, including cubism, neo-impressionism, and orphism.

Iconic images of abstract art are familiar to any fan of 20th century artwork. Vibrant splashes and splatters of color dance across the canvases of famed painter Jackson Pollock, while simple geometric shapes in bright and brilliant colors mark the work of Piet Mondrian and Dutch master Theo Van Doesburg. The work may include mixed-medium components, including metals, photographs, random manufactured objects, and paper mache.

Abstract art is a controversial form, particularly to those rooted in a concept of art as a faithful depiction of scenes or objects. A far cry from the portraits of Hans Holbein or the incredibly detailed still life scenes of the 17th and 18th centuries, abstract art often shows no fixed or identifiable object. This can lead to serious criticism among some, exasperated in the idea that they should be able to find beauty or an emotional response in something unrecognizable. Yet abstract work can be strangely freeing, according to some experts. Not having fixed objects that you can associate with reality, the viewer becomes in tune with other things, like color, shape and form.

If you enjoy art and wish to broaden your experience with modern work, contact your local modern art museum to see if they have any examples of abstract artworks for you to view. Many experts believe that abstract paintings and sculptures must be seen in person, as size, scale and lighting can be enormous factors in their affect. Seeing great artwork can be an emotional and enlightening experience, even if the form is not something you understand or have ever truly examined. By opening yourself to the experience of this unusual and highly individualized sector of the art world, you may discover a passion and appreciation for abstract art that will broaden your artistic horizons forever.

Ideally, abstract paintings should be visited in person in order to grasp the size, scale, and lighting of the painting.
Ideally, abstract paintings should be visited in person in order to grasp the size, scale, and lighting of the painting.

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Discussion Comments


@ Fiorite & Amphibious54- I have to give my input on this discussion about modern abstract art. While I would rank the blue balls series in my top five Francis works, I would have to go a little further back. To me, nothing tops 'Meaningless Gesture', 1958. This 12-foot by 18-foot abstract expressionist masterpiece hangs in Kunstmuseum in Basel Switzerland, among the great paintings by artists like Picasso, Warhol, Chagall, Dali, and Matisse. I was lucky enough to see this piece hanging when I was in Switzerland on a visit to Bern some years back, and it really peaked my interest in his works.

The painting is a sea of white linen separated by a rift of color. The scale of the painting is massive, and as the color tears through the immense white space, it drips down, creating an even more dramatic effect. The museum is worth visiting, and this piece should be viewed in person to really understand what I am talking about.


@ Amphibious54- I am a fan of Sam Francis' contemporary abstract art. His portraits and skulls are great pieces, but I think I am more into his monochromatic works, especially the paintings from his blue period. I have never seen an artist create such complex paintings while only using different shades of one color. I especially like his oil on paper blue period works from the early 60s. There is something magical about the orbs of varying shades of blue. I think these have to be some of his most iconic pieces.


One of the great abstract artists not mentioned in this article was Sam Francis. He was an artist from the late 1950s until his death in 1994, and his work went through a few very distinct periods. He painted all over the world, but some of his greatest masterpieces were created at his Santa Monica studio.

His earliest works definitely had an impressionist feel with a slight Japanese influence, but eventually his work progressed to almost a purely abstract form. One theme that I particularly enjoy are his portrait and self-portrait pieces. These pieces are more abstract expressionist, and they are beautiful when seen in person. There is one piece in particular that is labeled as a self-portrait, but seems to be more a portrait of one of the loves of his life. If you have never seen his work, it is worth taking a look at.

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