11 Influential Abstract Artists of the Early 20th Century

The abstract art that emerged in the early 20th century was a significant shift away from the traditional, more realistic art that had dominated the European scene. Artists began to move towards more non-representational forms, focusing on the emotional and visual power of lines, shapes, and colors over replicating the real world.

There are many influential figures in the history of abstract art, but some of the most notable include:

Wassily Kandinsky

Famous painters

Born in Moscow, Wassily Kandinsky spent his childhood in Odessa. He initially studied law and economics at the University of Moscow. Often considered the pioneer of European abstract art, Kandinsky was inspired by music and believed that color could play a similar role in creating emotion as music does.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a pioneering Russian painter and art theorist who is often regarded as one of the founders of abstract art. His work laid the groundwork for a radical departure from traditional representational art to the more abstract form, which he believed could evoke deeper emotions and spiritual experiences.

The Russian artist taught at the Bauhaus, the influential German art and design school, from 1922 until the Nazis closed it in 1933. He then moved to France, where he lived for the rest of his life, becoming a French citizen in 1939. He produced some of his most prominent works during this period.

Some of Wassily Kandinsky’s famous paintings include: “Blue Rider” (1903), “Composition VII” (1913), “On White II” (1923), “Yellow-Red-Blue” (1925), and “Composition X” (1939).

His theories on art and his abstract works influenced a generation of artists. His emphasis on the emotional and spiritual representation in art paved the way for movements like Abstract Expressionism.

The genesis of abstract art is often traced back to the work of Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter who is widely regarded as the pioneer of European abstract art. His work “Composition VII” (1913) is often referred to as the first truly abstract painting.

Piet Mondrian

Known for his minimalistic style, Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944) was a founder of the De Stijl movement, creating works with rigid geometry and primary colors that have become iconic symbols of abstract art.

His evolution as an artist saw him move from representational painting into the abstract style for which he’s best known.

By the 1920s, Mondrian had developed his signature style: paintings with thick, black grid lines filled with occasional blocks of primary colors. He believed this abstraction better represented the spiritual reality behind the visible world.

Mondrian wasn’t just about painting; he had a theoretical side. He wrote about his work and the philosophy behind it. His essays detail his vision for a form of art that was free of natural forms or structures.

Some of Mondrian’s most notable works include “Composition II with Red, Blue, and Yellow” (1930), “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942-43), and “Composition in White, Black, and Red” (1936).

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

An influential figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, Pollock’s ‘drip paintings’ represented a shift from European to American leadership in the abstract art movement.

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) was an influential American painter and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. He is best known for his unique style of “drip painting,” which revolutionized modern art.

Pollock’s approach was revolutionary, shifting the emphasis from a traditional composition to the act of painting itself. His paintings are known for their tangled webs of dripped paint, creating a chaotic yet harmonious appearance.

Some of Pollock’s most notable works include “No. 5, 1948,” “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),” and “One: Number 31, 1950.” These works are characterized by their intricate lattices of dripped and splattered paint.

No. 5, 1948 by American painter Jackson Pollock

Willem de Kooning

A Dutch-American artist, Willem de Kooning was a leading figure in Abstract Expressionism known for his ‘Woman’ series and abstract landscapes.

Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, de Kooning showed an early aptitude for art and attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In 1926, he emigrated to the United States and eventually settled in New York City.

In the 1940s, de Kooning became associated with the abstract expressionist movement, characterized by spontaneous, expressive brushwork. His paintings from this period display a vigorous handling of paint and a tension between abstraction and figuration.

One of de Kooning’s most famous series from the 1950s is the “Women” paintings, in which he combined aggressive brushstrokes with distorted representations of the female form. These works were both celebrated and controversial, evoking raw, primal emotions.

De Kooning’s work and approach to painting have influenced countless artists. His commitment to the act of painting, exploration of the human figure, and the interplay between abstraction and figuration have left a lasting legacy in the art world.

“Woman III” is a 1953 painting by Dutch-American abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. It is one of a series of six Women paintings done by de Kooning in the early 1950’s, which were first exhibited at the Sidney Janis gallery in 1953.

Mark Rothko

Part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Rothko’s color field paintings, featuring large blocks of glowing colors, explore the emotional potential of pure color and form.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) was an American painter of Latvian-Jewish descent, widely recognized for his pivotal role in the development of color field painting and as a foremost figure in the abstract expressionist movement. His work is distinguished by its exploration of color, shape, and emotion.

Orange and Yellow (1956) by Mark Rothko

Rothko viewed his work as a form of spiritual and philosophical exploration. He believed in the transcendent power of art and sought to convey basic human emotions like tragedy, ecstasy, and doom through his paintings.

Some of Rothko’s most famous paintings include: “Orange and Yellow” (1956), “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea” (1944), and “Tentacles of Memory” (1946).

Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea (1944)

Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea (1944) by Mark Rothko

Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin and showed an interest in art from a young age. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) was an American modernist artist who is best known for her large-scale, close-up paintings of flowers, skyscrapers in New York, and landscapes in New Mexico. Her work is iconic in American art, representing a distinct and intimate perspective on the subjects she painted.

Special Drawing No. 2, 1915, charcoal on laid paper, National Gallery of Art

Some of her most famous works include: “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1932), “Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue” (1931), “Black Iris III” (1926), and “Red Canna” (1915).

O’Keeffe was one of the few female artists of her time to achieve significant recognition and financial success. She was recognized as a trailblazer for women in the arts, though she preferred to be seen as a great artist irrespective of gender.

O’Keeffe’s 1915 “Red Canna”, Yale University Art Gallery

Did you know…?

In 2014, O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” sold for more than $44 million.

Kazimir Malevich

The founder of the Suprematism movement, Kazimir Malevich focused on simple geometric forms, such as circles, squares, and lines, painted in a limited range of colors. His abstract work and revolutionary ideas had a profound influence on the development of abstract art and modernist architecture

Born in Kiev, Malevich was of Polish descent. He moved to Moscow, where he was initially influenced by Impressionism, Symbolism, and Fauvism.

In 1915, Malevich laid the foundation for Suprematism, which focused on basic geometric forms, such as squares and circles, in a limited range of colors. The movement was about feeling and pure artistic sensibility, free from the portrayal of objects.

One of Malevich’s most famous and revolutionary works is “Black Square” (1915). This painting, a black square on a white field, represented the zero degree of painting, a sort of ground zero for art. Over time, it became not only an iconic work of abstract art but also a symbol of a new artistic reality.

As the movement evolved, Malevich started to introduce more complex geometric shapes and a wider color palette in his paintings. Works like “Suprematist Composition: White on White” (1918) are testament to this evolution.

Apart from the aforementioned pieces, other significant works by Malevich include “Red Square” (1915), “Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying” (1915), and “White on White” (1918).

“Black Square” (also known as “The Black Square” or “Malevich’s Black Square”) is an iconic 1915 painting by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich

Did you know…?

Malevich faced challenges under the Stalinist regime. His works and ideas didn’t align with the state-mandated Socialist Realism style, leading to his persecution in the late 1920s and 1930s. He was forced to abandon abstract painting, returning to a more representational style, albeit with a modern twist.

Joan Miró

This Spanish artist’s works, while not fully abstract, used abstraction and surrealism to create biomorphic forms, geometric shapes, and semi-abstracted objects, pioneering techniques that were influential in the abstract art world.

Spanish painter Joan Miró’s early works show influences of Fauvism and Cubism, but as he progressed, he leaned towards Surrealism, embracing its emphasis on the subconscious mind. He never formally joined the Surrealist group but was warmly received by its members.

He is known for his playful and imaginative style, often featuring dreamlike scenarios, fantastical creatures, stars, moons, and whimsical abstract shapes. His use of bright, pure colors and simple forms gives his work a childlike quality, but there’s a sophisticated underpinning in the symbols and structures he employs.

Some of his most notable works include “The Farm” (1921–1922), “Harlequin’s Carnival” (1924–1925), and “The Birth of the World” (1925).

Paul Klee

A Swiss-German painter, Klee’s highly individual style was influenced by various art movements including Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. He has been widely acclaimed for his innovative theories on color and his abstract works that often incorporated a sense of humor and whimsy.

Many of Klee’s works possess a dreamlike or magical quality. He frequently used symbols, signs, and lines to create images that exist somewhere between abstraction and figuration.

Some of Klee’s most renowned pieces include “Twittering Machine” (1922), “Fish Magic” (1925), and “Ad Parnassum” (1932). These works exemplify his whimsical style and fascination with color and form.

Flower Myth (Blumenmythos), 1918 by Paul Klee

František Kupka

Born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), Kupka began his artistic studies in Prague before continuing his education in Vienna and eventually settling in Paris in 1896. Paris was then the hub of the art world, and his move proved decisive for his artistic evolution.

Initially, Kupka’s work gravitated towards Symbolism, characterized by emotive content, mysticism, and spiritual symbolism. However, he gradually moved towards abstraction, driven by his interest in color theory, the fourth dimension, and his philosophical leanings.

By the 1910s, Kupka was producing entirely abstract paintings, making him one of the first artists to do so. His works explored the interplay of color, shape, and form, devoid of any representational content.

Some of his most renowned abstract works include “Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors” (1912) and “Vertical Planes” (1912-1913). These paintings are notable for their bold use of color and the breakdown of form into geometric elements.

Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors) (1912)

Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors) (1912) by František Kupka

Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) was a German artist renowned for his groundbreaking work in collage, assemblage, and sound art, as well as his development of the artistic concept known as “Merz.” His eclectic style and innovative approach made him a significant figure in the Dada, Constructivist, and Surrealist movements.

Schwitters spent his last years in the Lake District of England, continuing to produce artworks and integrating himself into the local arts scene.

Though not as commercially famous as some of his contemporaries during his lifetime, Schwitters’ influence on the art world is profound. His innovative approach to materials and his blurring of the lines between different art forms can be seen as a precursor to the Pop Art and Fluxus movements. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg have cited him as a significant influence.

Das Undbild (1919)

Das Undbild (1919) by German artist Kurt Schwitters

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