From its origins in the late 19th century to today, abstraction has manifested through the years. It is an incredibly versatile genre that has allowed for its vast evolution, and can now be categorized in hundreds of different ways and yet still be classified as abstract art. This includes genres such as Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Colour Field, Post-painterly Abstraction, and even Minimalism, to name a few.
The power of abstraction has also seeped into contemporary art and still holds a strong command of the market in commercial galleries and auction houses today. From the rapid insurgence of what is known as Abstraction-Création, the group formed to counteract the influence of Surrealists, to prominent abstract artists who still practice within the genre today, it is clear that this genre will survive many years to come.
In this article, we've compiled these 15 artworks that have and continue to make significant impacts on the genre of abstract art:
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939. Image courtesy of wassilykandinsky.net
Cited as an early champion of abstract painting, Wassily Kandinsky was not only a Russian painter but also an art theorist. The influence he instigated and left on the art world and on abstraction was immense as he co-founded the art group Phalanx and The New Group of Artists thereafter, staging exhibitions for his contemporaries over his years as an artist. He produced over 600 works over the span of his career, with a 1913 painting reaching his record auction price of $41.6 million in 2017.
Despite this impressive record, his most significant work was arguably ‘Composition X’. Last in his lifelong series of ‘Compositions’, he sought to culminate his investigation into the purity of form and expression through this work. Having used the color black sparingly in his practice up to this point, it has been critiqued that this work is both evocative of the cosmos as well as the darkness of foreshadowing nearing the end of his life.
Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930. Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.
‘Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow’ marked subtle turning point for Piet Mondrian’s practice. Striving to achieve complete abstraction, Mondrian believed that universal purity could be expressed through ‘Neo-Plasticism’, also known as the plastic arts. He sought balance through his works and wrote extensively about compositional harmony, he scrutinized the placement of colors, size of shapes and qualities of surfaces in his works, all with the hope of achieving a ‘stillness’ in his works.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably come across this work. This painting established itself as one of iconic status through the second half of the 20th century and permeates through motifs in pop culture today. Essentially, Mondrian has accomplished a certain execution of balance. With the bold wide lines contrasting the big red square, the tiny yellow rectangle emerging from the bottom of the work, the red meeting the blue, it becomes clear that there is more than meets the eye with these simple colored shapes.
Joan Miro, Peinture (Etoile Bleue), 1927. Image courtesy of The Observer.
Although famously known as a surrealist artist, ‘Peinture (Etoile Bleue)’ was Miro’s transition between figurative and abstract art. In 2012, ‘Peinture (Etoile Bleue)’ led Sotheby’s Evening Sale of Impressionist & Modern Art in London and fetched £23.5 million, setting a record for the artist and also making more than three times the price it achieved five years ago.
This painting is known to be one of the most important paintings in Miro’s career. Notably, the scorching blue used can be seen used in several of his future works and even went so far as to influence painters such as Mark Rothko and Yves Klein.
Ben Nicholson OM, 1934 (Relief), 1934. Image courtesy of the Tate.
Motivated by the ways in which paintings can represent space, Ben Nicholson veered away from his figurative and abstract works inspired by Post-Impressionism and Cubism, proceeding to experiment and produce his abstract reliefs. These abstract geometric sculptural reliefs embodied a hand-made quality that Nicholson then painted white.
The importance of ‘1934 (Relief)’ comes from its influences, that being Piet Mondrian and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (who was then his lover). The rapid transition from his prior abstract paintings towards these reliefs was probably accredited to meeting Mondrian the year before they were made, along with being heavily inspired by other abstractionists such as Joan Miro and Alexander Calder.
Jackson Pollock, Convergence, 1952. Image courtesy of jackson-pollock.org.
Over the short 44 years of his life, Jackson Pollock painted an impressive 363 paintings. He is most famously known for his drip techniques, and many of these dynamic paintings that he produced have made their mark on the art world and can be claimed as notable.
And yet, ‘Convergence’ finds itself rising to the top of the list. It exemplifies an important and innovative development in the history of painting due to its embodiment of free speech and freedom of expression. Pollock, through this painting, expressed thoughts of the threat of Communism and the cold war with Russia. It has been described as “everything that American stood for all wrapped up in a messy but deep package”.
In 1964 jigsaw puzzle company released ‘Convergence’ as a 340-piece puzzle, promoting it as “the world’s most difficult puzzle”. Thousands of Americans purchased this, further marking Pollock’s impact on the country.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952. Image courtesy of Guggenheim Bilbao.
At the interstice of Abstract Expressionism and Color-field painting lies Helen Frankenthaler’s ‘Mountains and Sea’. Frankenthaler was celebrated for her ‘soak-stain’ technique with this being the first work created using it. In this technique Frankenthaler thinned down her paint with turpentine or kerosene, and the resulting fluid would be absorbed through her unprimed canvases. This stain would leave an aura that gave her works a sense of perpetual movement.
Frankenthaler encountered Jackson Pollock’s black-and-white paintings at a gallery in New York and thereafter embodied a more liberated process with her practice. Her abstract works, shifting and with an almost translucent feel, propose illusions to its viewers. Her light and flowy works contrasted that of the popular heavy impasto techniques at the time and thus went on to influence many artists around her.
Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950. Image courtesy of the New York Times.
A household name to the world of abstract art, Mark Rothko’s produced many works that have achieved recognition. His mainstream fame and notoriety came stemmed from ‘White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) when it was sold in May 2007 by Sotheby's on behalf of David Rockefeller to the Royal family of Qatar for $72.84 million, setting the record of the most expensive post-war work of art sold at auction.
1950 was the year that Rothko began dividing his canvases into horizontal bands of color, causing them to appear as if they were floating in front of the color field they were placed against. During this period, he successfully achieved through subtle variations a wide range of motions and moods, with ‘White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’ exemplifying these ambitions.
Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting 599, 1986. Image courtesy of gerhard-richter.com.
Gerhard Richter is a multidisciplinary artist that has produced not only abstract art, but also photorealistic paintings, photographs, and glass works. Regarded as one of the most important contemporary German artists of our time, his works have also gone on to set several record prices at auction.
He began creating abstract paintings in the late 70s, stating them as “fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.” Whilst he made many of such paintings in his career, ’Abstract Painting 599’ is notable as it is one of Richter’s favorites. It later sold for $46 million dollars to an anonymous buyer in 2015, making it Richter’s most expensive painting thus far.
Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic 108, 1965-67. Image courtesy of MoMA.
Although Robert Motherwell was only 21 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, its atrocities affected him greatly in the years to come. This resulted in him creating a series of more than 200 paintings in response to it. The series ‘Elegy to the Spanish Republic’ serves as a multiplicity of commemorations of human suffering, as well as “abstract, poetic symbols for the inexorable cycle of life and death.”
About the Elegies, Motherwell stated that, “After a period of painting them, I discovered Black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish. They are essentially the Spanish black of death contrasted with the dazzle of a Matisse-like sunlight.”
Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962. Image courtesy of Christie's.
Unseen for over 30 years, ‘Leda and the Swan’ came to auction as the most anticipated picture of the season in 2017 and sold for more than $52 million. Deeply inspired during his time in Rome and with an overall affinity to events of classical antiquity, Cy Twombly created paintings associated with Roman mythology.
The title of this work points to the Roman myth where Jupiter having been transformed into a swan, attempts to seduce Leda who would later give birth to Helen of Troy. Instead of depicting the conventional female figure entangled with a swan (as has been executed by artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo), Twombly armed himself with an arsenal of mixed media and thrashed around his canvas. Twombly embodies Jupiter here rather than depicts it, taking his practice out on the canvas to produce this wholly encapsulating work.
Zao Wou-Ki, Juin-Octobre 1985, 1985. Image courtesy of The National.
One of the few Chinese artists whose career has risen to global levels, the last few decades have seen an insurgence of popularity for Zao Wou-Ki’s abstract works. At Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale on 30 September 2018, Zao’s ‘Juin-Octobre 1985’ was estimated to sell for $45 million, and later exceeded this dramatically with a hammer down price of $65 million.
This monumental triptych was an extremely rare one having been commissioned by the celebrated architect I.M. Pei for Raffles City in Singapore. Both Zao and Pei were close friends and developed a friendship that would last for over 60 years. At Raffles Place, this painting was displayed alongside works by notable artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Nolan.
Chu Teh-Chun, Autumn, May 1, 1978. Image courtesy of China Daily.
‘Autumn, May 1’ by Chu Teh-Chun is classified as a seminal work as it showcased the artist’s entire move into the realm of abstraction. Brilliantly balancing the contrast between dark and light, it is through this work that Chu most notably conveyed strong elements of Chinese aesthetics.
Chu, along with Zao Wou-Ki and Wu Guanzhong was dubbed one of “three musketeers” who successfully brought Chinese art into the modern era by gaining international recognition. Chu moved to Paris in the 1950s where he transformed his style from figuration to abstraction. During this transition, he integrated classical strokes of Chinese calligraphy with that of Western color palettes. This artistic evolution brought him success, making him the first ethnic Chinese to be invited to join the Academy of Fine Arts of France.
Christine Ay Tjoe, Small Flies and Other Wings, 2013. Image courtesy of The Alternative Vision.
Christine Ay Tjoe holds herself strongly against her Indonesian contemporaries such as I Nyoman Masriadi and Handiwirman Saputra. ‘Small Flies and Other Wings’ had a high estimate of $154,120 at Phillip’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Evening Sale in 2017. It was then realized at over 700% of this estimate with a hammer price of $1.25 million.
One of Indonesia’s most prominent artists, Ay Tjoe’s works exude the traits of abstraction. This includes her internal world of thoughts, melancholy struggle, pain and happiness that manifests through her practice and onto her dynamic canvases.
Tomoo Gokita, Scorn, 2011. Image courtesy of Japan Times.
Tomoo Gokita’s abstract works are perfectly melded with the figurative. At his impressive first museum solo exhibition at Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Chiba in 2014, ‘Scorn’ was cited by many to have stood out as the strongest painting of the show. This painting “perfectly balances the melancholy seductiveness of the soft gradations of gray, recalling an out-of-focus photograph, with an obscured face (a recurring image in his paintings)”.
In another accomplished abstract painting in the show titled ‘Kushiyaki Class Reunion’, we note how he avoids generic expressions of abstraction. He even goes as far as to explain how “straightforward abstraction would be embarrassing.” Gokita’s presence as an abstract artist remains strong on the contemporary auction market today.
Hilma Af Klint, Altarpiece nº1-3, 1915. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim.
Even though this post is about the most famous artwork in the last 100 years, we felt our list will be incomplete without mentioning this series by Hilma Af Klint.
Hailing from Sweden, Hilma Af Klint never dared to show her work to her contemporaries and even requested that they should be kept secret for at least 20 years after her death. As a result, she was not known as an abstract artist during her time - but she is now, with many attesting to her as a pioneer alongside contemporaries such as Wassily Kandinsky. Over her years as an artist, Af Klint produced more than 1200 paintings along with 150 notebooks with her thoughts and studies into abstraction, the spiritual, and her philosophical ideas.
The Altarpiece series were produced fittingly as the final pieces for the Paintings of the Temple. Following consistently with themes of spirituality in her practice, these works are almost diagrams and abstractions from her ideas, representing Af Klint’s interpretations of an unseen world and its invisible forces. Af Klint’s long overdue retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York from 2018 to 2019 appropriately highlighted this series along with her body of work from 1906 to 1920.
While not everyone can own the most famous abstract paintings of the century, we definitely have the best abstract artworks from the finest contemporary artists just for you.
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