A Brief History of Abstract Art

Art has existed for thousands of years. When we talk about art being universal, we mean that it is not exclusive to a certain region or culture and it cannot be claimed by any one individual or entity. Abstraction in art tells the tale of a global phenomenon and a truly universal artistic language that has evolved over time. And when it comes to abstract art and its evolution, American abstract expressionism played a pivotal role.

Art has gone a long way from the stick drawings on the cave walls to paintings created by acclaimed painters hundreds of years ago, to the contemporary modern art using conventional and less conventional media artists are making today. Abstract contemporary art as we know it today officially began its journey in the 20th century, but abstraction in art is truly hundreds of years old and in the Western world, that journey truly began in the 19th century.

But on a more global scale, the abstract movement in art reached its peak in the 20th century. Abstract art or non-representational art is characterized by a departure from reality in the depiction of imagery and either partial or total abstraction. It does not strive for an accurate depiction of visual reality and does not depend on the visual references around us. It uses, instead, a visual language to create a composition. To convey its message, it relies on shape, form, line, and color.

The objective of abstraction in art, according to art historians, would have been to establish a universal shared language throughout which art would transform into a profoundly pristine method of communication. This futuristic ambition was ahead of its time. It was the anchor around which future movements would revolve.

It seems that this supposedly global language wasn’t really universal. Even though its origins are mostly European, the pioneers of abstraction drew inspiration from sources worldwide, including Chinese landscape painting, indigenous sculptures, and even elements of pre-Modern Western art.

It has frequently been noted in the archives of art history as having European roots and evolving into a tradition and legacy that American painters of the post-World War II era embraced, which would evolve into American abstract expressionism. 

However, this is a limited perspective, as demonstrated by academics and gallery curators who are progressively focusing on the sometimes overlooked concurrent strains of creativity in abstraction that is transpiring in regions like Latin America and Asia. What matters more is that all the different art movements that evolved over the course of the 20th century were interconnected on a global scale.

The Evolution of Abstraction in Art

At its most fundamental, the history of abstraction can be summarized as a constant drive forward into form reduction. Its history is frequently oversimplified from the Western-centric viewpoint. Cubism, Constructivism, and Suprematism were twentieth-century European movements, and in the post-World War II era, there were the American inventions of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.

But the global stories that are being told are not taken into account by this rudimentary chronology. The foundation created by their European forefathers was being reinterpreted by artisans from all over the planet to construct their unique languages of abstraction, while simultaneously, abstract expressionism and minimalism were emerging in the United States. Once taken as a whole, the numerous global trends in twentieth-century artistic growth toward abstraction create a vast and tightly knit network of influence and motivation.

The most straightforward way to comprehend this cross-cultural communication without words is to analyze the history of geometric abstraction, which at first appeared as the natural result of Cubist deconstruction and reassessment of the rules of space and form. Cubism, which was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, had a profound influence on subsequent generations of abstract expressionists. Abstract expressionist features provide a stunning illustration of a ground-breaking design aesthetic.

A further striking form of form-reduction and space consolidation emerged from cubism, as seen in some works of Kazimir Malevich. The key foundational elements for the later development of abstraction have been the technical and intellectual innovations of artists like Picasso and Malevich, which have been developed and expanded upon by Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters, Jean Arp, and Joan Mir, as well as the Surrealists.

The groundbreaking innovations of the initial generation of European abstract artists were consumed and reflected in a multitude of roughly comparable artistic progressions all throughout the twentieth century. The impact on Japan may be clearly seen in Takeo Yamaguchi’s 1959 painting, Yellow Eyes, which strikingly resembles Malevich’s austere geometric style. Artists in Eastern Europe, like Blinky Palermo, adopted a hyper-reductive approach with pieces like his incredible Rot and Gelb. He brought together the history of European abstraction with the contemporary dominance of minimalism in 1968.

Contemporary Abstract Art

During the remarkable artistic advancement and change of the 20th century, basic, customary beliefs were called into question. We might reflect on and reexamine the function of the artist; the connection between representation and meaning; and the rising significance of images created in large quantities. 

As was previously indicated, abstract elements were included in the works of several artists’ groups. As a result, abstract expressionism paintings and sculptures share connections with non-figurative artwork and writing from societies where calligraphy is prized for its beauty, as well as with religious art from Europe and Islam. 

What Is Abstract Expressionism in Art

To understand the meaning and definition of abstract expressionism, we have to go back to post-war New York. A style of abstract art known as abstract expressionism developed in the 1940s and 50s. Unlike previous movements in art which had arrived in the US from Europe, abstract expressionism was a genuine American invention. Many of those who started abstract expressionism came of age during the Great Depression and were influenced by European modernism, especially surrealism. 

The movement is often referred to as the New York School, which was a group of mainly NYC-based artists practicing various forms of art. These artists were of the then-popular Social Realist and Regionalist conventions and wanted to bring about a change in the art scene. 

They explored modernist tendencies in search of a way to express their post-war trauma and the anxiety crises induced by the goings-on of the post-war years. Despite the diversity of their fields, they all shared the conviction that art should be a personal expression of emotions. The surrealist influence was especially apparent, especially its sharp focus on the unconscious mind, myth, and archetype. Abstract expressionism did not last long, but it left a monumental legacy.

Why, When, and Where Did Abstract Expressionism Start


In 1945, Rothko and Gottlieb state the key ideas of abstract expressionism. The term itself was coined in 1946. The movement lasted roughly until 1953, but it lived on through the movements and styles that it had influenced.

Abstract expressionism artists today are not as relevant. But at the time when it was born, abstract expressionism was the first truly American movement that became a global phenomenon that affected Japan’s Gutai movement, or Viennese Actionism which took place in the 1960s and 1970s in the Austrian capital. The dynamic and greatly influential movement attracted attention from the international art scene. Paris was no longer the center of it all. New York was. 

Abstract expressionist artists like Pollock in particular reimagined the canvas which inspired numerous performance artists. The impact of the abstract expressionist movement on minimalism and pop art was especially strong. Abstract expressionism and American abstract expressionist artists in particular had a significant influence on post-painterly abstraction and neo-expressionism. 

Famous Abstract Expressionist Artists

The list of famous abstract expressionists includes male and female artists:

  • Jackson Pollock
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Franz Kline
  • Robert Motherwell
  • Mark Rothko
  • Adolph Gottlieb
  • Joan Mitchell
  • Lee Krasner
  • Helen Frankenthaler
  • Elaine de Kooning

Abstract Expressionism Characteristics and Style

Abstract expressionism is characterized by the rejection of conventional artistic standards. The movement embraced spontaneity and improvisation instead. The abstract expressionist painting and sculpture style was all about individualism. The mission was ambitious: introducing innovations that centered around freedom of personal expression and spontaneity. This inevitably led to groundbreaking innovations in the technical and aesthetic sense. 

Trivia time! Do you know which abstract artist created paintings by dripping paint onto a huge canvas laid out on the floor? It was Jackson Pollock, perhaps the most influential action painter of all, and the pioneer of a radical technique of pouring and dripping paint onto a canvas laid out on the floor. This turned the floor itself into a canvas. So what is action painting?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of abstract expressionism. Within the domain of painting in abstract expressionism, we can distinguish between two key tendencies: color field painting and action painting. 

Color field painting is the more intimate, more subtle of these two abstract expressionist techniques. Color field painting characteristics are easily recognizable: the composition is reductive and broad strips of color are applied to the canvas, inviting meditation.

Mark Rothko is the most famous color field painter. His works are easily distinguished: luminous, soft-edged rectangles. Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still used a similar technique.

When it comes to action painting, there’s more improvisation involved, and an interplay of control and deliberation and chaos and spontaneity. Paint is applied more energetically, sometimes in brushstrokes, sometimes just by splattering or dripping paint without the use of a brush.

Action painting also best describes Willem de Kooning’s approach to painting. De Kooning employed a vigorous gestural style to depict figurative imagery and abstract pieces. Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell exemplified a similar approach.