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

Morris Louis, 'Phi' 1960-1
Morris Louis
Phi 1960-1
Acrylic paint on canvas
support: 2650 x 3620 mm
Bequeathed by Dr Marcella Louis Brenner, the artist's widow 2007, accessioned 2011© Tate

Introduction to abstract art

The word abstract strictly speaking means to separate or withdraw something from something else. Abstract art is art which is not representational, it could be based on a subject or may have no source at all in the external world.

Drawn from reality vs pure abstraction

  • The term abstract art can be applied to art that is based an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised to create an abstracted version of it. Cubist and fauvist artists depended on the visual world for their subject matter but opened the door for more extreme approaches to abstraction.
  • The term is also applied to art that uses forms, such as geometric shapes or gestural marks, which have no source at all in an external visual reality. Some artists of this ‘pure’ abstraction 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 not always obvious.

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

Georges Braque, 'Bottle and Fishes' circa 1910-2
Georges Braque
Bottle and Fishes circa 1910-2
Oil on canvas
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2004
László Moholy-Nagy, 'K VII' 1922
László Moholy-Nagy
K VII 1922
Oil on canvas
support: 1153 x 1359 mm
frame: 1308 x 1512 x 80 mm
Purchased 1961© DACS, 2002

Further reading

DLA Piper Series: The Twentieth Century
Jump to the second floor of this exhibition which was at Tate Liverpool in 2007, to look at the abstract artists of the twentieth century.

A brief history of abstract art with Turner, Mondrian and more
Read our feature which gives quick tour through the history of abstract art, taking in some unexpected pioneers such as Turner and Matisse.

The theories behind abstract art

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.

Development of abstract art

Browse the slideshow of Tate artworks below and read the image captions to see how abstract art developed from its beginnings in the early twentieth century to become a central stream in modern art.

1 of 11
  • Wassily Kandinsky, 'Cossacks' 1910-11
    Expressionism (early twentieth century): Expressionist artworks involved highly intense colour and non-naturalistic brushwork, often based on the artist’s inner feelings. Kandinsky saw his abstract paintings as an alternative pathway to spiritual reality.
  • Juan Gris, 'Bottle of Rum and Newspaper' 1913-4
    Cubism (from 1907/8): Cubist artworks always began with a subject from reality (often objects and figures), with its elements then broken down into distinct areas or planes, showing different viewpoints at the same time. Cubism directly influenced other forms of abstraction including constructivism, neo-plasticism and orphism.
  • Kasimir Malevich, 'Dynamic Suprematism' 1915 or 1916
    Suprematism (1913): Malevich created a new form of abstraction in order to free art from the real world. As well as the ‘suprematist square,' Malevich developed a whole range of forms often produced in intense colours floating against a usually white ground.
  • Naum Gabo, 'Model for 'Construction in Space 'Two Cones''' 1927
    Constructivism (c.1917): Developed by the Russian avant-garde, the constructivists were influenced by the cubist three-dimensional abstract still lifes made from scrap materials. The constructivists made their own constructions made from industrial materials to reflect the dynamism of the modern world.
  • Theo van Doesburg, 'Counter-Composition VI' 1925
    De Stijl / Neo-plasticism (c.1919): The movement, which aimed to create paintings in their ‘purest state’, was a direct response to the chaos of World War I. Only primary colours and non-colours were used in the form of squares, rectangles, straight, horizontal or vertical lines in order to stick to the core elements of painting: colour, line and form.
  • Joan Miró, 'Painting' 1927
    Automatism (c.1920): Inspired by Freud’s idea of free association (the desire to reveal the unconscious mind), artists such as Joan Miro and Max Ernst created automatic paintings. This free way of creating art led to simplified organic shapes, which Miro developed into his own personal sign language.
  • Jackson Pollock, 'Yellow Islands' 1952
    Action painting (1940–1950s): The action painter abstract expressionists were directly influenced by automatism. Pollock channelled this into producing gestural, improvised ‘drip paintings’ by placing his canvas on the ground and pouring paint onto it from the can or trailing it from the brush or a stick.
  • Mark Rothko, 'Red on Maroon' 1959
    Colour field painting (1940–1950s): Another form of abstract expressionism, the colour field painters produced simple compositions made out of large soft-edged areas of colour with no obvious focus of attention, with the aim of producing a meditational response in the viewer.
  • Morris Louis, 'Alpha-Phi' 1961
    Post-painterly abstraction (1950s): This form of abstraction focused more than ever before on the basic elements of painting: form, colour, texture, scale, composition and were ruthless in their rejection of mysticism and of any reference to the external world.
  • Frank Stella, 'Hyena Stomp' 1962
    Hard edge painting (1960s): Seen as a subdivision of post-painterly abstraction this style of hard-edged geometric abstraction reacted to the more gestural forms of abstract expressionism by only using monochromatic fields of clean-edged colour which reinforced the flatness of the picture surface.
  • Victor Vasarely, 'Banya' 1964
    Op art (1960s): Seen as a subdivision of post-painterly abstraction this style of hard-edged geometric abstraction reacted to the more gestural forms of abstract expressionism by only using monochromatic fields of clean-edged colour which reinforced the flatness of the picture surface.

Abstract artists in focus

Kazimir Malevich

Black Square was Malevich’s first abstract painting. His concept of non-representational abstraction opened unlimited possibilities for future generations.

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913
Kazimir Malevich
Black Square 1913

Five ways to look at Malevich’s Black Square
This article explores the background of Malevich’s most iconic work and the reaction to the work through time.

This exhibition, which was on display at Tate Modern in 2014, was the first retrospective of Malevich’s work in the UK. Read the exhibition guide, watch the exhibition film and see which works were on display.

Five key works from Malevich
Achim Borchardt-Hume, curator of Malevich picks his five favourite paintings by Malevich and writes how significant these works were on modernist painting.

David Batchelor on Malevich
David Batchlor, an artist who has shown work in exhibitions such as Extreme Abstraction at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, discusses his various encounters with Malevich’s work.

Piet Mondrian

Mondrian felt that his pure, geometric works in the form of neo-plasticism, reflected a greater, universal truth beyond everyday appearance.

He developed the language of abstract art as we know it today
Michael White

Curator Michael White talks about Mondrian’s areas of colour in perpendicular relationships, and talk us through the Mondrian and his Studios exhibition which was at Tate Liverpool in 2014.

The Sound of Mondrian playlist
Listen to the Mondrian playlist, compiled of jazz records which influenced his works.

Mark Rothko

Rothko’s iconic paintings, composed of luminous, soft-edged rectangles saturated with colour, are among the most enduring and mysterious created by an artist in modern times.

Curator Achim Borchardrt-Hume gives us a tour of Tate Modern’s 2008 Rothko exhibition including his iconic Seagram Murals, Black-Form paintings, and the Black on Grey painting.

Explore the immersive environment of Rothko’s paintings by taking a virtual tour of the Rothko exhibition

Landscapes of the mind
Simon Grant talks to abstract and minimalist painter Brice Marden about his enduring fascination with Rothko’s paintings.

Temple of mysteries
Writer John Banville gives a personal appreciation of Rothko after a visit to Tate Modern’s Rothko Room.

Abstract art in context

What comes across through all of these works is a great energy, artistic change and dynamicism as Britain becomes modernised and the centre of an empire.
Chris Stephens

Watch Curator Chris Stephens talks us through the 1910–1914 room at Tate Britain, when abstract art was beginning to form.

The first abstract artist? (And it’s not Kandinsky)
Read our Tate Etc. article which looks at the evidence that a Swedish female artist called Hilma af Klin was the pioneer of abstract art not Kandisky.

Other perspectives: music and poetry

Rothko: Shadows of Light
Watch a performance of composer Jim Aitchison’s response in music to Rothko’s Seagram Murals.

Tate: Remixed, Francesca Beard on Rothko
Poet Francesca Beard imagines an alternate universe, where Rothko’s Seagram Murals did not go to the Tate Modern, but to the Four Seasons as it was originally intended to be places in 1961.

Victor Pasmore’s Black Abstract
Contemporary artist Gabriel Kuri poetically describes Victor Pasmore’s Black Abstract.

Abstract art in detail

Gerhard Richter, 'Abstract Painting (726)' 1990
Gerhard Richter
Abstract Painting (726) 1990
© Gerhard Richter

Richter’s paintings. How did he make them?
Curator Mark Godfrey and painting conservator Rachel Barker discuss the process and what lies underneath Richter’s abstract paintings.

Abstract Connections conference audio recordings
Listen to this conference which explored abstraction in reference to Tate exhibitions on Van Doesburg and Arshile Gorky.

Abstraction and Interpretation Study Day video recordings
This study day focuses on the interpretation of abstract art, from Russian Suprematism to Minimalism and beyond, with speakers including leading Tate curators and artist Phyllida Barlow.

Related glossary terms

Abstract expressionismpost-painterly abstraction, objective abstraction, concrete artrayonism, constructivism, neo-plasticism, tachisme, suprematism, simultanism, cubism, minimalism

Techniques and approaches:
Gestural, art informel, non-objective art, art autre, automatism

Groups and societies:
Abstraction-Création, American Abstract Artists, Penwith Society of Art, De stijl, Cercle et Carré, Réalités nouvelles, The Seven and Five SocietyBauhaus