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Understanding Abstract Art: An Art Collector's Guide

ByNathalie Soo
Understanding Abstract Art: An Art Collector's Guide

Sarah Lee, Gesturbation (Subtracted Brushstroke Series #1), 2014. // Available on The Artling

Abstract art is a multi-faceted genre that comes in a diverse range of forms. The ambiguity and lack of objective representation inherent in abstract art has made it tricky for many to understand.

Here, The Artling brings you the definitive guide to understanding abstract art, where we discuss the fundamental ideas and characteristics behind it, the rise of various abstract movements since the late 19th century, and why it continues to be such a popular art genre. Keep reading to learn more about why to incorporate abstract art into your art collection, and how to narrow down your selection.

Zao Wou-Ki, 28.02.67, 1967.

Image Courtesy of Christie's

What Defines Abstract Art?

Abstract art is a wide and varied artistic approach that has influenced various movements over the course of history. Abstract art can be defined as painting, sculpture, photography, design, or any art form that does not objectively nor accurately represent visual reality. Abstraction directly opposes figurative art and anything that directly delineates a subject or object. Artists renowned for conceiving new abstract techniques or using abstraction in dynamic ways over the last century include Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, and Zao Wou-Ki.

Since the early 1900s, abstraction has formed an integral pillar in modern and contemporary art. Today, abstract art continues to be explored in multifarious ways, with many artists expanding and developing this ever-evolving genre.  

What are the Ideas Behind Abstract Art?

Rather than focusing on the truthful depiction or realistic imitation of an object, abstract art looks at other non-objective artistic elements of shape, form, color, and line. Abstract techniques have been used by artists to explore ideas beyond the canvas and our physical reality. Abstraction is often seen to carry a moral dimension – a notion that was particularly prevalent in the late 19th and 20th centuries, where ideas of spiritualism, purity, and order informed many artists and their work. Pulling away from literal and representational art, abstract art is an escape from reality and is vastly open to interpretation.

Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973. 

Image Courtesy of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York — via National Gallery of Art, Washington.

What are the Characteristics of Abstract Art?

A main and fundamental aspect of abstract art is that imagery is non-representational. However, it should be noted that ‘non-representation’ can be slight, partial, or complete. Abstract art is a spectrum, just take a look at the different forms it can be presented in stylistically: from Surrealist dream-like works by Salvador Dali, the Neoplastic works of Piet Mondrian, to Jackson Pollock’s energetic Abstract Expressionist paintings.

Abstraction has been explored and expressed by artists in a plethora of ways, the large number of abstract movements that have developed over the last century just showcases how vast and open-ended the genre is. Hence, we can only understand the specific characteristics of abstract art when looking at specific movements and styles. This will be further elaborated upon in the next section.

Salvador Dali, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, 1938.

Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow, 1930.

Image Courtesy of Christie's

Jackson Pollock, Number 18, 1950. 

Image Courtesy of © 2018 Pollock-Krasner Foundation : Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

When was Abstract Art Most Popular?

Abstract art has existed even as early as the Tang dynasty (618 - 907). However, the rise of abstract art movements only really came in the late 19th century when artists began to deviate from classical and traditional modes of painting as a result of growing feelings of cynicism and disillusionment that followed WWI. Arguably, such tendencies towards abstraction began with the Impressionist movement, which reinforced the notion that art could be non-representational and less objective. The movement subsequently saw the development towards more abstract depictions, which was evident in Cubism and Fauvism.

By the turn of the 20th century, instead of replicating objects from the real world, artists began to paint abstract ideas derived from their own minds and imagination. Many placed precedence on the formal qualities of their work over the actual subject matter and visual accuracy of the painting itself. German Expressionist artist Wassily Kandinsky has been regarded as the pioneer of abstract art and one of the first to truly embrace completely abstract compositions. His bright, dynamic, and colorful pieces have been described to represent the world through emotion and expression. Kandinsky also incorporated his interest in music into his vividly colored paintings and would often use musical terms to describe his works, such as “lyrical”, “improvisations”, and “compositions”.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition 8, 1923. 

Image Courtesy of © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York:ADAGP, Paris

What are the Different Types of Abstract Art?


Expressionism was one of the first abstract art movements to come into prominence in the 20th century. Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky were notable expressionist artists who used gestural markings, an intense color palette, and non-naturalistic brushwork to create bold and sometimes mystical abstract landscape pieces. Images produced placed emphasis on the artist’s inner feelings over replicating reality.

Paul Klee, They're Biting, 1920. 

Image Courtesy of Tate

Cubism & Fauvism

Cubism and Fauvism were two 20th century art movements that had a strong influence on another. These different artistic styles showcased the world in a distorted or fragmented way, which was during that time, was a revolutionary approach in representing reality. Cubism sought to represent the world through geometric and fragmented shapes rendered across a two-dimensional picture plane. Key cubist artists include Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Fauvist art on the other hand was characterized by strong brushwork, separate applications of non-naturalistic colors, with forms delineated in a simplified and abstract manner. Fauvists were largely associated with the scientific color theories that were developed in the 19th century, which explains why many works were executed with bright and bold complementary colors. Henri Matisse and André Derain were some of the most influential artists who promoted fauvism in their work.

Henri Matisse, Still Life with Vegetables, 1905. 

Image Courtesy of MET Museum


Neoplasticism, also known as De Stijl, is a Dutch art movement that was developed shortly after the outbreak of WWI. It is a style of abstract painting pioneered by Mondrian that sought to reproduce reality in its purest form. Going far beyond aesthetic considerations, Neoplasticism not only addressed the social and political anxie­ties brought about by the war, but it was also imbued with the philosoph­ical and religious ideas of theosophy. It was a style that proposed that abstraction could explicitly illustrate the human mind through purely geometric forms and primary colors.

Piet Mondrian, Composition C (No. III) with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935.

Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is an American art movement that developed following WWII. Works of this style are often characterized by strong, thick, and gestural brushstrokes and active mark-making. Abstract expressionists tend to fall under two groupings, the first is action painters, and the second is referred to as color field painters.

Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell became widely recognized for their ‘action paintings’, in which spontaneity and improvisation played an important part of the art-making process. Often, the canvas would be taken off the easel, laid on the floor and large quantities of paint would be splattered onto the canvas using powerful and emotive brushwork.

Other abstract expressionists took a different approach. Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, known as color field painters, created simple compositions by filling an entire canvas with blocks of singular colors. Artists like Rothko believed that his canvases attained spiritual and divine qualities, and were able to produce emotional responses from viewers. Color field painters focused on the aesthetic, textural, and abstract elements of the painting.

Joan Mitchell, Ladybug, 1957.

Image Courtesy of MoMA

Why is Abstract Art so Popular?

Abstract art, design, and architecture can be found everywhere – it is all around us, and because of the unlimited ways it can be explored, it is understandable why this popular genre has formed a major part of a lot of artistic practices today.

The employment of abstract techniques has enabled artists to explore and represent their personal thoughts and feelings without the need for direct representation. Abstraction paved the way for artistic freedom, where anything from spirituality, materiality, to psychological and mental states, could be explored through the imaginative application of color, line, and form.

The popularity and attraction of abstract art is largely due to the fact that it is an incredibly versatile genre that continues to evolve till this day. With the rise of technology, social media, digital applications, and tools, we are already seeing abstract art developing and taking new shape.

Why Collect Abstract Art?

Abstract art makes wonderful additions to any collection for their timelessness and infinite appeal. Abstract works are great alternatives to figurative and more representational pieces that may directly allude to a specific narrative. What makes abstract art so versatile is that it is open to interpretation, and at the same time can be extremely meaningful and emotive.

What are the Qualities of Good Abstract Art?

When in search for the perfect abstract work, there are a few essential factors that you need to take into consideration to ensure that you are selecting a work of impeccable quality. Not only is it important to collect work that is visually appealing to you, but there are other more technical elements to look out for before making that decisive purchase.

Art is very subjective, but there is such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. When browsing through abstract artworks, quite often the ‘representational’ elements and subject matter of the piece rest in the application of materials and the formal qualities of the work. Hence, it is vital to take into consideration the Colors used by the artists. The use of complimentary colors that enhance each other is extremely important, it showcases the mastery and technical ability of the artist.

Sumit Mehndiratta, Electra // Available on The Artling

Skill and technique are integral when examining a good abstract work. These tend to be highlighted in the textures, both visually and physically in the piece. Dimensionality, layering, thick impastos, skilled brushwork quite often create striking and visually alluring works. Paying attention to the splatters, the markings, the composition, and the movement and flow all add to the uniqueness of the work.

Perhaps the most important quality in good abstract art is the culmination of all visual elements that evokes a certain emotion from the viewer. Think about how the work makes you feel, does the work have some form of meaning behind it? A work is worth investing in when you can see the artist’s personality in the piece and makes you feel something – it does not matter if it is positive or negative. Good abstract art should have affective effects upon the viewer.

View of Jorge Pérez's living room in Florida, featuring a vibrant and large abstract painting

Image Courtesy of Architectural Digest

Abstract Art for Home Décor

Decorating your home with abstract art can help to enhance and build the desired atmosphere within your living space. Depending on the color of the work and type of abstract piece you select, it can really elicit an emotional response and connection when people come into the space. Abstract works are great ways to introduce color to the living area, you can also use these pieces to enhance other materials and textural elements in the room.

View of Frank Stella's, The Pequod Meets the Delight, at LinkedIn's San Francisco Office

Image Courtesy of Business Insider

Abstract Art for the Workspace

Many offices and corporate workplaces choose to decorate their spaces with abstract art. This is because abstract art can create a profound impression on a viewer – even if it is not explicitly pointing to something specific. Abstract works allow people the freedom to assign their own meaning to the work, whilst having a dramatic impact on that individual. Such pieces can form a sense of dynamism and energy within the office space that is reflective of the company’s style and core values. Abstract paintings or murals are also great ways to fill up vast and empty wall spaces. They can certainly breathe life into the room. 

Abstract Art on The Artling

Discover a varied selection of abstract artworks by some of the finest and established artists from all over the world, right here on The Artling!


A Fine Line - Tay Bak Chiang (Available on The Artling)


Green Quill - Tay Bak Chiang (Available on The Artling)


Particle 170531 - Yongsun Jang (Available on The Artling)


Particle SN120429 - Yongsun Jang (Available on The Artling)


Shape Shifter - Leelee Chan (Available on The Artling)


Late Night - Leelee Chan (Available on The Artling)


Dinner Time - Kazuhiro Higashi (Available on The Artling)


Phantom - Kazuhiro Higashi (Available on The Artling)


Birds I - Farnaz Jahanbin (Available on The Artling)


Curve Line 7 - Farnaz Jahanbin (Available on The Artling

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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