The Evolution of Abstract Art

by Evan Gillespie

What is abstract art?

By the most technically accurate definition of the term, abstract art is art that begins with something real—an object, a scene, a figure—and depicts it in a way that somehow departs from reality, most often in an attempt to extract the emotional or intellectual essence from a complex picture. Abstraction in art typically simplifies the objects it represents, reducing three-dimensional forms to flat areas of color and eliminating non-essential detail from the image. More complicated types of abstraction experiment with techniques such as showing objects from multiple points of view.

As abstraction becomes more pronounced, the typical viewer may have trouble discerning the subject of the picture. Abstract artists alter colors, distort the representation of three-dimensional space, simplify forms and disregard the rules of perspective; all of these techniques, when practiced to the extreme, tend to make their subjects unrecognizable to viewers accustomed to pictures that try to mimic reality.

A picture that uses techniques of abstraction to alter its subject—but which still makes a definite reference to that subject—is referred to as an example of partial abstraction. Virtually all art, even pictures that try to be faithful to reality, can technically be described as partial abstraction, since a perfect duplication of the real world in a picture is theoretically impossible. Extreme forms of abstraction, however, attempt to divorce themselves entirely from the representation of reality, a goal referred to as total abstraction.

Art that does not make reference to any real subject—but that is instead something as simple as geometric shapes or fields of color—is more accurately called nonrepresentational, nonobjective or nonfigurative art, but such pictures are commonly called abstract art. These pictures do not attempt to represent anything in the real world, but rather strive to imitate nothing outside of themselves and be nothing more than what they are.

Early Abstract Art

The earliest prehistoric art, with its geometric symbols and simplified depictions of animals and humans, can be considered to be abstract art, and much of the history of art can be characterized as a progression from this initial abstraction to increasingly accurate imitations of reality. Not until the nineteenth century did artists, consciously and in great numbers, begin to progress in the opposite direction, from the naturalistic to the abstract.

Near the middle of the nineteenth century, European artists began to experiment with color and form in bold ways that would lay the foundation for later abstract art. Romantic painters such as J.M.W. Turner, for example, employed techniques of abstraction in their quest to depict the power and grandeur of nature. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed–The Great Western Railway (1844) depicts a train crossing a river via a railway bridge, but the picture is essentially an explosion of vigorous brushstrokes that represent the scene with a minimum of detail.

Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir traded naturalistic detail for abstraction in their paintings, as well, and their subjects are often significantly simplified.

Monet painting, Impression, Sunrise
Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) 1873; Oil on canvas, 48cm x 63cm.

Even more than Turner’s railway bridge, the boats, buildings and water of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) are reduced to a economical use of brush strokes and patches of color. Critics of this new style dubbed the paintings “impressionism” because the pictures provided only an impression of reality, instead of a fully detailed imitation of nature.

After the Impressionists, the advance toward total abstraction began in earnest, as painters like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin began more and more to privilege color and technique over the accurate depiction of the real world; these post-Impressionists took a step beyond Impressionism as, in addition to their alterations of color and texture, they manipulated the depiction of three-dimensional space. Paul Cézanne went even further, seeking to reduce the representation of real objects to simple geometric forms—cubes, cones and spheres—and flat areas of color.

Fauvism and Dadaism

Early in the twentieth century, several art movements developed styles that would conclusively sever art from its obligation to imitate the real world. These movements concentrated both on technique—the details of how to put paint on canvas—and the philosophy of art itself—whether art should even be about putting paint on canvas at all. When the dust settled, the future of abstraction in art was secure.

In the Salon d’Automne of 1905 in Paris, a group of artists exhibited paintings which were described by one critic as the work of “les fauves,” or wild beasts. The paintings were extremely bold in their use of color, vibrant hues that bore very little resemblance to the real-world color of their subjects. The most controversial of the paintings was Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse.

Woman with a Hat (La femme au chapeau) by Henri Matisse
Woman with a Hat (La femme au chapeau) by Henri Matisse; oil on canvas; 79cm x 60cm; 1905.

The subject’s green, yellow and orange features fit into a color palette that also included bright purple, blue and red. Even more significantly in terms abstraction, the painting’s space is decidedly unrealistic; the picture’s background is a flat assemblage of color splotches, and the subject herself is composed mainly of blocky chunks of color.

While not a movement that specifically set abstraction as a goal, Dadaism is important in the development of abstract art because of its attempt to free art from the traditions of the past. Dadaists argued that the traditions of society—which included the traditions of art—had led the world into an age of war and that a break from these traditions was necessary. Dadaist art positioned itself as the opposite of traditional art; where traditional art was beautiful, Dadaist art was offensive, and where traditional art imitated the real world, Dadaist art pursued absurdity.

The most famous piece of Dadaist art is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal which Duchamp signed and hung on a gallery wall.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain
Marcel Duchamp's, Fountain, 1917.

Duchamp’s point was that anything could be art if an artist said it was art, a revolutionary idea that opened the door for new extremes of abstraction.


Building on Cézanne’s idea that real-world objects could be represented in paintings by simple geometric forms, a pair of artists initiated a deliberate art movement in Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque worked together to develop a style that, thanks to a critic who described one of Braque’s paintings as being constructed from “little cubes,” would come to be called Cubism.

The Cubists began with Cézanne’s reduction of objects to basic shapes, and then they applied the technique to all the objects within their paintings, even the background plane. The result is a picture made up of fractured surfaces, like the facets of a jewel. Picasso and Braque modified the point of view of their paintings as well, combining multiple viewpoints within a single image. This technique allows the subject of a portrait, for example, to be seen both head-on and in profile at the same time, or a table to be seen both from the top and from the side. This approach to the abstraction of three-dimensional space and time is the signature innovation of Cubism.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is generally thought of as the most significant pre-Cubist painting, and the later paintings of Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris are some of the most important works of Cubism’s early period, known as Analytic Cubism.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso; 244cm x 234cm; 1907.

After 1912, the three artists began to incorporate paper and other objects into the surface of their paintings, a technique that characterizes the beginning of Synthetic Cubism.


While the Dadaists sought to break from societal traditions as a sort of anti-war protest, the Italian writer Filippo Tommasso Marinetti expressed his disdain for the past in a very different way. The artistic movement he founded, Futurism, also wished to break away from tradition, but the Futurist focus was on technology, youth and violence. The Futurists admired the power of new technology—which in 1909 meant fast trains and automobiles—and as painters tried to incorporate the Futurist manifesto into their works, they looked for ways to depict speed and power in painting.

Cubism, with its multiple viewpoints and references to moments in time, provided the answer. Futurists adopted Cubism’s faceted space and its interest in geometric abstraction, but Futurist painting used the geometric division of space to achieve the effect of motion and energy. Umberto Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House (1911) is a typical example of this type of Futurist abstraction;

Umberto Boccioni - A strada entra nella casa
Umberto Boccioni - A strada entra nella casa; oil on canvas; 100cm x 100cm; 1911.

the street scene is a riot of action, with buildings that twist and lean and crowds of workers layered on top of one another as they labor.

Futurists also expanded upon the constructions of Synthetic Cubism in order to bring abstraction to sculpture. Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), for example, is an abstracted human form cast in bronze; the figure’s limbs and features dissolve into flame-like curves and lines, accentuating the implied movement of the body’s striding pose. Boccioni made specific reference to the Cubist inspiration for the sculpture when he claimed that the work was striving for “synthetic continuity” rather than “analytic discontinuity.”

The Russian Avant Garde

Geographically far removed from the abstract movements in western Europe, Russian artists in the early twentieth century were nonetheless inspired by the territory that their western counterparts were exploring. For decades leading up to the turn of the twentieth century, many Russian artists had been searching for ways to distance themselves from the state-sponsored art academies and the traditional styles taught there.

In 1913, the painter Alexander Shevchenko published a book titled Neo-Primitivism, in which he described a style of art that drew upon the ideas developed by Cézanne, Picasso and the Futurists. Shevchenko’s Neo-primitivism, however, advocated putting a uniquely Russian spin on the western styles by merging them with traditional Russian folk art. Shevchenko’s ideas were illustrated in the work of artists such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and Kazimir Malevich. Neo-primitive elements can also be seen in the work of Marc Chagall, whose paintings incorporated traditional Jewish imagery.

Russian Neo-primitivists looked to centuries-old art forms for inspiration, including religious icons and folk wood-cut prints called lubki. These forms, which had always been characterized by simplified forms and flat areas of color, harmonized well with the new abstract styles, and Russian artists were able to celebrate their Russian artistic heritage while simultaneously diverging from the traditions of the Russian art establishment.

Larinov’s A Soldier Riding a Horse (1911) and Goncharova’s Haycutting (1910) are typical examples of Russian Neo-primitive paintings.

Michel Larionov, Soldier on a Horse
Michel Larionov, Soldier on a Horse; 87cm x 99cm; c.1911.

In these works, figures are flat and rendered in the naïve style of folk artists. Three-dimensional forms are reduced to simple shapes, and the rules of perspective are subverted to Cubist-style multiple viewpoints. The depiction of space also takes advantage of abstraction, as foreground, middle ground and background are flattened into planes that are layered on top of one another with little regard for an illusion of depth; in this way, the paintings are like both Russian traditional art and the latest western European styles.


The Russian abstractionists took an abrupt turn after about 1912, when some of the artists who had established Neo-primitivism embraced the ideas of European Futurism. Rather than continuing to look backward at traditional art for inspiration, these artists, including Larionov, Goncharova and Malevich, began to look forward to the future and the promise of technology in the same way that the Italian Futurists were.

The Russian Futurist style of painting, dubbed Cubo-Futurism in reference to its self-conscious combination of the styles of Cubism and Futurism—which was itself, of course, already a modification of Cubism—was concerned with the depiction of energy and motion in a visual form, just as the Italian Futurist style was. Like the Italian Futurists, Russian Cubo-Futurists painted images with fragmented, faceted shapes, bold colors and flattened pictorial space.

Malevich’s The Knife Grinder (1913) and Goncharova’s Cyclist (1913) are excellent examples of Cubo-Futurist painting.

Malevich, The Knife Grinder
Malevich, The Knife Grinder; Oil on canvas, 79.5cm x 79.5cm; 1913.

In Malevich’s picture, a knife sharpener bends over his grinding wheel, intent on his work. The man, his tools and his environment are rendered using a complex arrangement of geometric shapes, each filled with simple gradations of color. Motion and action are indicated by multiple images of the knife, the man’s hands, his face and his foot on the treadle, and the varying pace of the action is suggested by variation in the size and complexity of the facets that make up the image. Goncharova’s painting is less complex, with only a simple multiplication of key lines to show the motion of the bicyclist; the space of the painting is flat, however, and Goncharova further separates the subject from reality by overlaying the cyclist with text.


As they worked to define a style that would point abstract art into the future, the Russian abstractionists looked for the next logical step beyond Cubism and Futurism. Around the same time that they were painting their Cubo-Futurist works, Larionov and Goncharova developed a new theory of abstract art, and in 1913 they exhibited their Rayonist paintings for the first time.

Rayonism was, as Larionov and Goncharova described it, an attempt to free painting once and for all from the restrictions placed upon it by the old traditions. The style was built around the idea of the ray, a line inscribed on the surface of the canvas, and Rayonist pictures are a complex web of these intersecting colored lines.

The significant innovation of Rayonism is that it is the first movement to explicitly try to separate painting from representation and move it toward total abstraction. Although Rayonist paintings still refer to actual objects—such as a forest in Goncharova’s Blue-Green Forest (1913)—the principal concern of the painting is not to show the objects themselves, but rather the way that the objects interact with the world. “

Blue-Green Forest by Natalia Goncharova.
Blue-Green Forest by Natalia Goncharova. Oil on canvas, 54cm x 49cm, 1913.

The objects that we see in life play no role here,” Larionov and Goncharova wrote, “but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all—the combination of color, its saturation, the relation of colored masses, depth, texture.”

The Rayonists understood that they were making a radical distinction between the objects represented by a painting and the surface of the painting itself. “Perception, not of the object itself, but of the sum of rays from it, is, by its very nature, much closer to the symbolic surface of the picture than is the object itself,” they wrote. “Rayonism erases the barriers that exist between the picture's surface and nature.”


In the wake of Rayonism, another Russian artist took another bold step, this one almost all the way to total abstraction. Malevich introduced his own theory of artistic evolution in 1915, when he exhibited his first Suprematist works. His theory of Suprematism made a final, firm break with representation and replaced it with a visual vocabulary of purely abstract geometric shapes.

The roots of Suprematism can perhaps be found in Cézanne’s assertion that everything in the real world can be represented by basic shapes—cubes, cones, spheres—but Cézanne’s shapes still held on to the ideas of imitation despite their abstraction; cubes, cones and spheres are, after all, three-dimensional shapes, and Cézanne created the illusion of these three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional canvas. Suprematism, however, dispenses with this paradox by doing away with the notion of illusion; the Suprematist vocabulary of shapes is entirely two-dimensional, and no attempt is made to refer to any imaginary three-dimensional space within a Suprematist painting.

The extremity of Suprematist abstraction is made clear in the titles of the paintings that represent the pinnacle of Malevich’s Suprematist work. Black Square (1915) is just that: a two-dimensional black square painted on a white canvas. Black Circle (1915) is similarly self-explanatory.

Black Circle by Kazimir Malevich
Black Circle by Kazimir Malevich, 1915.

White on White (1918) is even more revolutionary; it is a white square painted on a white canvas, a style known as monochrome Suprematism.

Abstract Expressionism

After the Russian revolution and the establishment of the Soviet government, the Russian abstractionists were increasingly discouraged by the authorities, and the Russian avant garde, which had driven the development of abstract art through the first 20 years of the twentieth century, was eventually supplanted by the relatively uninspired official artistic style, Socialist Realism. With the dimming of Russian innovation, the burden of pushing abstraction further into the twentieth century shifted back to the West. Movements such as the German Bauhaus carried on the artistic ideas introduced by the Russians during the period between World War I and World War II, but in the post-war period, American artists moved to the forefront for the first time.

Abstract Expressionism is a term that was first used to describe the works of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, who, during the inter-war years, was making paintings that critics saw as combining the emotional power of German Expressionists and the anti-representational philosophies of European abstractionists. When American post-war artists began making a new kind of nonrepresentational art, the term seemed to fit, and the Abstract Expressionist movement was born.

One of the first and most successful Abstract Expressionists was Jackson Pollock, a New York-based painter who made paintings by laying a canvas on his studio floor and covering it with splatters of paint slopped directly from paint cans with a saturated brush.

Black Circle by Kazimir Malevich
Autumn Rhythm by Jackson Pollock, enamel on canvas, 266cm x 525cm, 1950.

Pollock’s paintings represented nothing other than the action of making them, a fact that led this style of painting to be called action painting.

Later Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clifford Still made paintings that were less energetic than Pollock’s and were not nearly as concerned with capturing the process of painting as were action paintings. The works of Newman, Rothko and Still were often characterized by broad areas of undifferentiated color—sometimes only one color that covered the entire canvas—and this variation of Abstract Expressionism came to be known as Color Field painting.

Abstract Expressionism is entirely nonobjective; it makes no reference to real-world objects, and it has no desire to imitate anything. Calling these paintings abstract—even granting that they represent total abstraction—contradicts the intent of the artist to make a painting that does not represent anything, no matter how abstracted. Rothko, in fact, was one of many Abstract Expressionists who vehemently denied that their work was abstract.


In the 1960s, some artists in Britain and America fully embraced the ideas of total abstraction and nonrepresentational art and began producing art that was devoid of any connection to the real world and reduced to the simplest forms. In this way, Minimalist art picked up the banner dropped by Suprematism, but Minimalists did not need the complex philosophical underpinnings of Suprematism. Their art was purely formal, and it hoped to create an experience for the viewer on a very basic level.

Important Minimalist painters include Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and Ellsworth Kelly, whose colorful geometric designs are reminiscent of the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman.

Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II
Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II by Ellsworth Kelly, 1951.

Although the basis of Minimalist art comes from painting, some of the most well known Minimalist works were produced by sculptors. Tony Smith made metal sculptures that were simple rectangular forms painted in pure colors, and David Smith created similar works in stainless steel.

Many art critics, including those who had championed the evolution of art toward pure abstraction, derided Minimalism for going too far and misunderstanding the intent of artists who concentrated on making nonrepresentational art. Abstraction and the absence of references to subject matter are not automatic guarantees of quality in art, these critics argued, and they found the Minimalists’ self-conscious reduction of art to simple forms off-putting.

Postmodernism and Beyond

As the twentieth century came to a close, the art world’s emphasis on abstraction began to wane. What had originated as an intentional break with artistic tradition had itself become the dominant artistic tradition, and artists intent on innovation looked beyond abstraction for the next logical step in art’s evolution.

Pop artists drew imagery from popular culture, none of it particularly abstract, and movements such as environmental art, installation art and performance art made statements so far removed from the traditional ideas of representation and imitation that they couldn’t truly be considered abstract. Postmodern artists attempted, with limited success, to declare a new era of art, one that transcended the ideas of modern art, the very ideas that gave birth to abstraction at the end of the nineteenth century.

Still, the innovation of abstraction and its decisive departure from centuries-old tradition was so powerful that abstraction became the defining characteristic of modern art. Abstract art was the signpost that indicated that art had entered a new age, and even after modernism gave way to postmodernism, abstraction remained, in the minds of many, the hallmark of art’s cutting edge.

Evan Gillespie holds a Master of Arts in art history from the University of Notre Dame and currently teaches courses in art history and visual culture at Indiana University.