After centuries of tradition,
Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, for example, created Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, which eloquently sums up his aesthetic philosophy utilizing straight lines and primary colors. Likewise, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square is an oft-cited abstract piece due to the purity of its simplicity. Other trailblazers like Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky created canvases that also left their mark by proving there are infinite ways to capture human experiences in the abstract.
Here, we will explore 10 famous abstract paintings and uncover what it is that made them so important.
Broaden your art history knowledge by learning about these 10 famous abstract paintings.
Hilma af Klint, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907
Although she is not as well known as many of the male artists of her time, Swedish artist
Af Klint interprets adulthood in full bloom by painting various free-flowing shapes in different sizes and colors set against a lilac background. The central yellow symbol resembles a flower, while spirals and biomorphic forms are symbols of growth and fertility.
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913
Russian art theorist and painter
Composition VII was made when the artist was living in Munich, Germany. While the composition may appear chaotic at first glance, Kandinsky spent months devising it, creating over 30 sketches in oil and watercolor before he made the final piece. The theme of this painting is battle and redemption. Some of the symbols, including boars, mountains, and figures, can be spotted within the labyrinth of colors and symbols.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915
Russian artist Kazimir Malevich honed his painting skills in numerous styles, but ultimately became best known for his Suprematist abstract art, which relied on geometric shapes. Black Square is his most iconic painting, which he replicated four times with slightly different variations.
The 1915 version is the first of these works and is considered by art historians and critics as a pivotal work of modern art, and often referred to as the “zero point of painting.” Malevich, himself, said of the work: “[Black Square is meant to evoke] the experience of pure-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.”
Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine, 1922
Swiss-born German artist
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930
After painting in a realistic style for years, Dutch artist
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939
The last in his series of Compositions, Composition X is the pinnacle of Kandinsky’s exploration of expression through nonrepresentational form. The organic shapes were influenced by the biomorphic figures of Surrealism while the colors express the inner emotions Kandinsky experienced near the end of his life. The black of the background represents the cosmos and the end of life while allowing the colored sections to stand out. The painting illustrates the circle of life and the emotional ups and downs that everyone in the world experiences.
Paul Klee, Death and Fire, 1940
Klee painted Death and Fire in 1940, just a few months before his death in June of that year. He was suffering from a condition known as scleroderma, which caused painful joints and rashes on his hands. This explains why his work during this period became increasingly simplistic, and Death and Fire is a key example of this.
Klee was influenced by primitive art in the past, but this painting is particularly simplistic and critics even likened it to the style of cave paintings. An illustration of mortality, the oil-on-jute piece depicts a central human skull-like motif featuring the word “tod” (the German word for “death”). “Tod” can be found again in the “T” shape of the figure’s raised arm, the golden orb (O) in its hand, and the D shape of its face.
Mark Rothko, Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose, 1950
Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1951
Another color field pioneer, American artist
His painting Vir heroicus sublimis (“Man, heroic and sublime”), measures an epic 95 by 213 inches and was his largest painting at the time. It features large fields of bright red that are broken up by the occasional, vertical “zip” lines. With its overwhelming scale, Newman attempted to evoke a strong reaction from the viewer and completely envelop them—and their personal space—in the vibrant hue.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and the Sea, 1952