Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect; it could be based on a subject such as a figure, landscape or object or may have no source at all in the external world

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  • Wassily Kandinsky, 'Cossacks' 1910-11

    Wassily Kandinsky
    Cossacks 1910-11
    Oil on canvas
    support: 946 x 1302 mm frame: 1118 x 1477 x 74 mm
    Presented by Mrs Hazel McKinley 1938 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Naum Gabo, 'Model for 'Construction in Space 'Two Cones''' 1927

    Naum Gabo
    Model for 'Construction in Space 'Two Cones'' 1927
    object: 86 x 108 x 124 mm
    Presented by the artist 1977The Work of Naum Gabo Nina & Graham Williams/Tate, London 2011

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  • Kasimir Malevich, 'Dynamic Suprematism' 1915 or 1916

    Kazimir Malevich
    Dynamic Suprematism 1915 or 1916
    Oil on canvas
    support: 803 x 800 mm frame: 1015 x 1015 x 80 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1978

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The word abstract strictly speaking means to separate or withdraw something from something else. In that sense, it is applied to art in which the artist has started with some visible object and abstracted elements from it to arrive at a more or less simplified or schematised form. The term is also applied to art that uses forms which have no source at all in external reality such as geometric shapes or gestural marks. Some artists of this tendency have preferred terms such as concrete art or non-objective art, but in practice the word abstract is used across the board and the distinction between the two is anyway not always obvious.

There are many theoretical ideas behind abstract art. Art for art’s sake – that art should be purely about the creation of beautiful effects, is one of the main theories. That art can or should be like music is another theory – in that just as music is patterns of sound, art’s effects should be created by pure patterns of form, colour and line. The idea, derived from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, that the highest form of beauty lies not in the forms of the real world but in geometry, is also used in discussion of abstract art as is the idea that abstract art, to the extent that it does not represent the material world, can be seen to represent the spiritual.

In general abstract art is often seen as carrying a moral dimension, in that it can be seen to stand for virtues such as order, purity, simplicity and spirituality.

Pioneers of abstract painting were Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian from about 1910–20. A pioneer of abstract sculpture was the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo. Since then abstract art has formed a central stream of modern art.