A short history of abstract art Part 2 – The trailblazers

Welcome to part two of a short history of abstract art. In Part 1 I talked about the emergence of the form and the artists who decided to experiment with conventions that had existed for hundreds of years. They saw that even a small divergence from realism could open the floodgates to new forms of expression.

This realisation permeated the art world and other artists emerged with philosophical and artistic fervour.

Here are just a few of the trailblazers that cemented abstract art’s place in history.

One of the Dutch pioneers of abstract art, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), went from landscapes to pointillism to cubism, eventually settling on an abstract style he called neo-plasticism, which uses only horizontal or vertical lines, often in a grid and primary colours.

From 1907-1920 Spanish born painter Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed cubism, a technique wherein objects were analysed from different perspectives broken up and put back together to show all the relevant perspectives present.

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) experimented with abstract geometrical shapes and striking colours to explore spiritual purity. He proclaimed his defining work, The Black Square (1915), as the ‘face of new art…the first step of pure creation.’ He called his art, suprematism, and felt that objective visual phenomena were meaningless – engagement with a painting was all about feeling.

Henri Matisse was the leader of the French movement called fauvism (1905-1910) which was typified by non-naturalistic vibrant colours and flourishing dabs of paint. The technique created a simplified version of reality that was abstract in quality.

Mark Rothko began his artistic career in the mid 1920s. As he developed as an artist he experimented with fields of colour, wanting to start with colour first rather than a concept or an object. He described his journey towards abstraction as “clarity.” His 1945 work, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, was seen as a total embrace of abstraction.

Franz Kline studied painting in Boston and was defined by his paintings from 1950 onwards which featured large scale black and white abstractions influenced by calligraphy. He wanted to create physical engagement with the viewer through their experience of the bold drama in the paintings.

By the early 1950s Joan Mitchell has gained acclaim as one of the leading artists in the New York School. Her paintings are remembrances of landscapes and poetry. Her brush strokes swept across the canvas and her compositions held an emotional and visceral intensity. She once said:

“My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me – and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed a short history of abstract art. I encourage you to further browse my blog posts as I explore abstract art in more depth and view my current work.