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How to Appreciate Abstract Art

A Guide to Understanding Contemporary Artwork

Some people love abstract art, some people hate it, but we can’t deny the importance that it has had on the art world, not just in the past, but into today’s art. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, and Willem de Kooning are some of the revolutionaries of this movement.

What is Abstract Art?

Many people hear “abstract art” and think that it is art that is easy to make or takes less effort than other art styles. In reality, that is not the case. Abstract art uses the elements of art - line, shape, colour, texture, form, space, and value – to create an image that isn’t representational of the real world – which is why it can also be called nonrepresentational art. Abstract artists don’t paint the world as we see it through our eyes, but instead focus on how the elements work together to create a visually interesting artwork. Although abstract art does not use real-word references (like an image of a tree or a face), it might reference an idea or a feeling.

The Creation of Abstract Art

Abstract Expressionism - Matisse, Picasso, Marc
(From left to right) Woman With a Hat by Henri Matisse, Blue Horse I by Franz Marc, Girl with a Mirror by Picasso

Abstract art gained popularity through the Abstract Expressionism movement in the 1940s, but did not come out of nowhere. Before Abstract Expressionism, movements like Fauvism (Henri Matisse), Expressionism (Franz Marc), and Cubism (Pablo Picasso) began to alter what was considered art. The art world switched from very realistic paintings to artwork that was deconstructed, emotional, and vibrant.

The Swan no. 7 by Hilma af Klimt (left), and Caoutchouc (Rubber) by Francis Picabia (right).

Although Abstract Expressionism – defined as abstract art that was fueled by the artist’s emotions – was invented in the 1940s, abstract art is known to have been started in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky, but may have actually been invented (in the West) years prior by other artists named Francis Picabia or Hilma af Klimt. There are many reasons why these two artists are not usually credited with the invention of the art style. First, Hilma af Klimt never displayed any of her abstract work in an exhibition, so the works didn’t have the chance to become well known. Francis Picabia, on the other hand, made Caoutchouc (Rubber) in 1909, but many art critics still considered it to have some representation to it, so it wasn’t considered fully abstracted.

Who are the Most Famous Abstract Artists?

Wassily Kandinsky

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian painter who is considered the founder of abstract art (although he may not actually have been the only founder, he is credited for the style’s fame). Kandinsky’s art was made based on his experience with synesthesia -- when someone can experience one of their five senses through another. For Kandinsky, hearing music allowed him to see colours, so his paintings were visual depictions of what music looked like to him. Abstract art allowed Kandinsky to depict something that was not visually accessible to the rest of the world -- the colours of sounds.

Piet Mondrian

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian was a Dutch painter who is known as a key leader in the abstract art movement. Although his work started off with an attention to realism, he became inspired by Picasso’s cubism and soon began making purely abstract paintings. In the 1940s, Mondrian worked with primary colours (red, blue, and yellow) and square shapes to create his iconic style. His paintings are known to be associated with the rhythm of New York City streets, like in the example above, where the yellow is said to represent taxi cabs.

Jackson Pollock

Autumn Rhythm by Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock was an American painter and one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement that took off in the 1940s and 1950s. Pollock is famous for his drip paintings, like the one above, which were made by physically pouring or dripping paint onto canvases. This process usually took weeks. Drip paintings were a way for Pollock to express emotion through movement, and that movement was depicted through the use of paint. This style of paintings were known as action paintings. They were not actually about the final aesthetic of the product, but a way of capturing the journey of how he made them.

Willem de Kooning

Woman I by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning was a Dutch-American abstract artist and, like Pollock, was one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Unlike Pollock, de Kooning used some form of reference in his abstract paintings. He is known to have said that “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” meaning that his work did reference the real world in some way. Similar to Pollock, de Kooning was an action painter that deconstructed references and applied paint with aggressive and gestural strokes.

What Makes Abstract Art Special?

Although different from the realist art that many are used to, abstract art gave artists the chance to express themselves in ways they couldn’t before. They were now able to show viewers what existed in their mind, instead of what already existed out in the world. Instead of merely seeing an image on a canvas, abstract art lets us see an artist’s movements, emotions, and interpretation of the world. We can see how Kandinsky sees colour and how Mondrian sees New York City; how Pollock moves and de Kooning feels. This rare experience is possible because of abstract art, which might explain why abstract art is still one of the most popular styles of art today! Many people prefer abstract art in their homes and public spaces because it can be interpreted differently by everyone who sees it and are seen as conversation pieces rather than a representational subject or scene.

How Does Abstract Art Make You Feel?

Abstract art (like all art) is subjective. The artist may not always create something visually pleasing, but instead wants to spark viewers emotions, reactions, and personal ideas. Take a look at some of these famous abstract artworks and think of how they make YOU feel.

Orange and Yellow by Mark Rothko

Rothko used rectangles of colour to capture human emotion. What emotions does this painting bring out of you?

Dots Obsession by Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama often creates immersive art experiences, where you enter into a room that is her art. In this work, Kusama wants to show the viewer the hallucinations of patterned rooms that she experienced as a child.

Blue and Green Music by Georgia O’Keeffe

Similar to Kandinsky, O’Keeffe believed that sound and music could be transformed into a visual art experience. This painting reveals the movement of sound.

Fun Abstract Art Project for Kids

A fun way to create abstract art is through blow art! This is when the artist uses a straw to blow paint around their canvas/paper and creates really cool designs like you see above. This will let you experiment with the elements of colour and movement, just like Kandinsky and Pollock! Here are five easy steps to create blow art:

  1. Prepare paper (cardstock or other heavy duty paper) on a tray to avoid mess

  2. Mix watercolour or acrylic paint with water in small containers

  3. Drop small blobs of wet paint onto paper (use a dropper or pour small amounts)

  4. Use a straw to blow at pools of paint and tilt the surface to guide the pigment

  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have a painting you are satisfied with!

Click here for abstract art projects inspired by Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centred around abstract artists and their artwork, visit these quick and easy resources!

If you’d like more worksheets related to art, check out our teachers pay teachers page where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we break down the elements of art, art history, and more!

Any teacher now can facilitate world-class visual art lessons — even with no art experience! Get our art courses designed for classrooms, complete with step by step video lessons, assessment tools and handouts you can use every year.

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