Famous Abstract Artists | Caroline Ashwood

January 11, 2018 1 Comment

"There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality" (Picasso)

There are several forms of abstract art. Each having its own raison d'etre and leading exponents of the art form. Perhaps the most famous, but not the only, abstract artist is Pablo Picasso. In my view, he was also the most adventurous. Picasso challenged art on so many levels. I believe that his fearlessness and curiosity was underpinned by his unquestionable virtuosity as an artist. He could draw and paint anything will such skill that only a master could claim. But that wasn't enough for Picasso. He questioned the literal view points of art and set out to explore realms of perception. In doing this he, along with fellow artist George Braque, he created the movement of Cubism - a refraction of everyday points of view through a prism of deconstruction that disregarded and accepted understanding of dimension and relativity. Picasso would paint a still life as if it were reflected in a broken mirror. Fragments of objects melded and ricocheted off each other. Three dimensional plains distorted and led the eye in different directions. This obsessive abstraction of normal everyday objects like a candle, a guitar or a bottle of wine challenged our perception of light and form, colour and perspective. Pablo Picasso was not the only abstract artist to become famous for breaking rules of geometry and relativity. Many of his works are the most renown and famous abstract art.
Other famous abstract artists of note are Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro and Willem De Kooning. Each of these artists is profoundly different from the others and their works are visibly vastly juxtaposed to anything the others produced. 

"I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own". (Pollock)

Jackson Pollock literally threw paint at his large canvases; building layer upon layer of deep texture and colour to create a form of visual static that provided the viewer with no point of focus for the eye.
Mark Rothko also used scale to present carefully selected tones and broad expanses of flat colours that were designed to evoke instant mood changes (often sombre) in the viewer.

“A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.” 

Spaniard Joan Miro, was more whimsical and playful with shape and colour. He also worked in three dimension, sculpture and mobiles, and collage. In his own words, "I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music."

"I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music."

Willem De Kooning was a dutch abstract expressionist who became the famous darling of the New York Modernist scene in the 1920s and 1930s. De Kooning's work was characterised by his distorted portraiture and still life, which was drawn or painted with such energetic intent that the subject matter is subordinated by the furious expression and explosive use of the medium. It would be no coincidence that De Kooning's work also coincided with the advent and popularity of what would became improvised modern jazz. 
These are just a handful of famous abstract artists that can be found adorning the walls of art galleries all over the world. In the late 20th century some of the most famous, and certainly the most highly paid, artists could still be described as abstract artists. Simply because the moment an artist seeks to express an idea or an emotion by deconstructing and distorting objects and placing them in an out-of-place situation, they are abstracting the visual objective.

"Museums are for dead artists. I'd never show my work in the Tate. You'd never get me in that place". (Damien Hirst)

Probably the most famous living artist is Damien Hirst. His dissected and preserved cows, sharks and sheep are both concept art and abstract art by virtue of the materials used are confined to create a visceral response over any literal interpretation. Further examples of Hirst works include dot painting and and revolving splash paintings. Visually abstracted forms of concept art. However, in Hirst's case, he is now more famous for how much his art earns than what it says. Rendering him more famous than important. In contrast, Michangelo, Da Vinci and Van Gogh died in comparative or literal poverty. And yet their importance eclipses their universal fame. Of course, once art becomes famous and important, it can only be viewed as abstract. An idea. Such is art.

It is not uncommon for artists to live a life of poverty and anonymity, despite them spending their lives craving recognition and reward. 

Van Gogh for example, never actually sold a single painting. He exchanged his art for food and lodgings. But, he had no well-heeled patrons or galleries to give him support and an audience; instead, depending heavily on his loving brother Theo for subsistence and art materials. This lack of recognition incensed the vulnerable Vincent for most of his turbulent life.

So it is somewhat unusual that the very first recorded example of abstract art was deliberately kept secret, at the express wish of the artist, for 20 years after the artist’s death. What is even more unusual is that the artist was a woman. Her name was Hilma af Klint, and she was Swedish. 

Kandinsky's intent was to capture the essence of spirituality in all its amorphous forms. 

However, until the late 20th century, it was Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky who was credited and recognised as the Father of Abstract Art. Kandinsky was a highly gifted artist and intellectual with a keen interest in spirituality. And it was this obsession that drove him to move away from his early, yet recognised, figurative style to experiment with form and colour in a purely visceral exploration of otherness as defined by spirituality. He was heavily influenced by the writings of Madame Blavatsky; notably by her book, The Secret Doctrine, a somewhat enigmatic collection of bizarrely expressed ideas and opinions that only a student of the abstract might interpret. He also joined the burgeoning Theosophical Society. His intent was to capture the essence of spirituality in all its amorphous forms. 

And, in that, he was successful enough. Along the way, he joined forces with other artists like Paul Klee and Franz Marc. On an invitation from Walter Gropius, he spent time at the ground breaking Bauhaus in Berlin.

Before his death in 1944, he was already acknowledged as the first abstract artist. In in some circles, he still is. 

Before her death, she instructed her heirs to lock her work away for a minimum of twenty years. 

However, what Kandinsky never knew was that his pioneering art form was predated by the slightly older and reclusive Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint, who had been working in isolation on an island where no-one got to see her paintings

Several years before Kandinsky experimented with shape, tone and colour in a purely abstract manner, af Klint had already built a collection of works that were totally abstracted and expressive. 

The intriguing point about both artists is that they were oblivious to each other and their respective work, and yet they both embarked on their individual abstract journeys having been inspired by a desire to understand and express spiritualism.

Af Klint was deeply committed to spiritualism. With other female artists, she formed a small art moment called The Five. They met regularly; conducting séances before they painted. 

It was at these séances that Hilma af Klint was ‘instructed by The High Master’ to embark on a collection of artworks that would adorn The Temple; a nonspecific entity which af Klint had no clear understanding or point of reference. However, despite the vagueness of the brief, she threw herself into it and completed the task. With this rather quixotic quest completed, she no longer sought spiritual guidance to do her work. She continued her exploration of abstract expression, living to the ripe old age of 80. Before her death, she instructed her heirs to lock her work away for a minimum of twenty years. 

She and Kandinsky died within a couple of months of each other. 

When Hilma’s work was eventually exhibited and assessed, at first, it was regarded with some caution. Maybe because, by all intents and purposes, she was a comparative unknown, even in Sweden. And, perhaps more likely, because she was a woman. 

Regardless, of early uncertainty, with the discovery of copious, meticulously maintained diaries and notebooks, the provenance of her work was confirmed and her status as the first abstract expressionist was enshrined and documented into art history. 

Today, her pioneering work hangs in the world’s most prestigious galleries. 

Observers are struck by her geometric shapes and use of powerful colours. The series for The Temple appear like open portals into that spiritual world she sought to find. Windows and doorway that invite the viewer to delve with all senses turned up to the maximum. 

Of course, af Klint and Kandinsky were not the only artist to make the mark with an obscure brush stroke. Abstract expressionist art grew to penetrate and influence jazz and design.  

1 Response


November 29, 2019

Your work is inspiringly beautiful and full of enchantment. Your colours sing to me – I hear their music! I’ve read all your comments about your art and that of some of the accepted great artists, and suddenly understanding began to dawn! I shall explain – I have a B.A.(HONS) in Fine Art and Integrated Media, and at art college I struggled to get to grips with the various ‘isms’ and accepted ways of producing artwork. The tutors didn’t seem to know what pigeon-hole to put me into! After hours of art history lectures that perplexed me at times, you are the one, with your insightful words, who has made it seem much more clearer! I thank you for that – I am more than grateful. I wish you a successful, creative and lucrative 2019!! xx

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