What is abstract art: 21 important questions answered

What is abstract art: 21 important questions answered

If you are interested in art and are wondering, what exactly abstract art is, who invented it, how to understand it and is it art at all - you are at the right place. 

I realised that art lovers have so many hesitations when it comes to abstraction that I decided to get to the basics and summarise everything I know about abstract art and also, answer the most common questions.

In this article the following topics are covered:

  1. The definition of abstract art
  2. What qualifies as abstract art
  3. Why is abstract art important
  4. Is abstract art really art
  5. When, where and who invented abstract art
  6. Types of abstract art
  7. Abstract artists
  8. Understanding abstract art

Moreover, I have answered 13 frequently asked questions about abstract art at the end of this article.

So let’s start from the basic definitions.


1. The definition of abstract art

Abstract art is a creation of an artist that does not portray any particular object or subject, but expresses thoughts, emotions and ideas through shapes, colours and textures. 

You may find several definitions of abstract art, but the main and the most important thing is that abstraction does not portray any easily recognizable things or people from the real world, like figures, animals, landscapes or florals. 

However, some abstract artworks may have allusions to the reality and the longer the viewer observes such artworks, the more one sees and recognises, but only after a deep and close look at the artwork.

"Red Shoes", abstract painting by Gina Vor.

2. What qualifies as abstract art

All artworks that don't depict recognisable, or easily recognisable objects from the real world, can qualify as abstract artworks: paintings, sculptures, prints, photography, digital and mixed media art.

3. Why is abstract art important

Abstract art provides us with aesthetic satisfaction and, as it does not portray easily recognisable, realistic things, it challenges our brain to wonder and explore our inner emotions and feelings. In other words, abstraction brightens the horizons of our creativity and affects our emotional state.

As famous abstract artist Bridget Riley once said: “My work is completed by the viewer”.

That means that people, who are looking at her paintings interpret her artworks throughout their own eyes, based on their own experiences and values.

Bridget Riley at her studio

Bridget Riley at her studio in London (photo credit: The Sunday Times)

It is also worth noting that the birth of abstraction marks a very important milestone in the world of art. It evolved when artists started questioning the nature of reality and were challenged by developing technology, especially photography, so they were looking for new forms of expression. 

Simply put - artists invented a new way of seeing the world through abstraction, as depicting realistic objects did not make much sense to them any more - it all could be done perfectly with the help of technology.

4. Is abstract art really art

Yes, it is, because it is a result of the artist's imagination, creativity and skills. And - if it moves us emotionally, pleases us aesthetically, raises questions or doubts - it is definitely a good abstract artwork.

Read my previous blog post What Is Art if you would like to dive deeper into this subject.

Visit our virtual exhibition of large abstract artworks

5. When, where and who invented abstract art

According to my research, the first abstract paintings were created by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint in 1906. Perhaps art historians are still discussing who deserves to be called the pioneer in abstract art, but Klint is definitely worth mentioning. 

Her series of 193 large paintings, titled “Paintings for the Temple” inspired by the spiritual world, which she was passionately interested in, definitely developed a new artistic language - the language of abstraction. 

I find it striking that she did not want to show these works to the public as she believed they can only be appreciated by future generations and she was totally right.

6. Types of abstract art

When talking about the types of abstract art it is important to distinguish if we are talking about movements or styles. 

To give you a broader view and clearer classification, I decided to focus on the movements of abstract art, as it gives a perspective not only on the style, but also on the time period when one or other movement evolved. 

So, the abstract art movements are:

  • Constructivism
  • Cubism
  • Orphism (Orphic Cubism)
  • Optical Art (Op Art)
  • Geometric Art
  • Organic forms
  • Informel, lyrical/gestural abstraction
  • Abstract expressionism
  • Post-painterly abstraction
  • Minimalism
  • Neo-expressionism 

It is important to say that contemporary abstract art is rarely a pure representation of one or another movement, as it can be a mix of several movements and may be created in various, mixed techniques and very different styles.

7. Abstract artists

Joan Mitchell studio

Abstract artist Joan Mitchell at her studio (photo credit: Loomis Dean, 1950). 

Abstract art has been with us for more than a hundred years now, so I would not be able to list all abstract artists even if I knew them all. However, I would like to share a list of my favourite creators and maybe you will discover some new, interesting names.

  • Hilma af Klint
  • Joan Miro
  • Bridget Riley
  • Gerhard Richter
  • Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Jiri Dokoupil
  • Sonia Delaunay
  • Mark Rothko
  • Daniel Mullen
  • Frank Stella
  • Sam Francis
  • Jean Dubuffet
  • Tony Cragg
  • Henry Moore
  • Jackson Pollock
  • Lee Krasner
  • Victor Vasarely
  • Kazys Varnelis
  • JonOne
  • Joan Mitchel 
  • Helen Frankenthaler
  • Piet Mondrian
  • Francis Picabia

8. Understanding abstract art

Why abstract art is hard to understand? Well, the thing is that our brain seems to like the things it can recognise. Remember the last time you were in your car and an old song comes up on a radio - you feel immediately uplifted. 

Something similar happens when we look at art. If we see pleasant landscapes and beautiful portraits - we seem to like it, because it reminds us of something we know and like.

"Spheres" digital abstraction by Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis.

Abstract art is different - every abstraction we look at is something new for us. We don’t recognise any objects and therefore find it difficult to understand.

However, the longer we communicate with the artwork, the more we are starting to like it - just like with the songs on the radio - the more often we hear it, the more we want to dance to it.

One does not need any special skills, knowledge or methods to understand abstract artworks. Abstractions need to be experienced. Just be with them, look at them and let your mind take you on an exciting journey to the world of subconsciousness and imagination.


9. What is the main idea of abstract art?

Abstract art does not depict any realistic objects and does not provide the viewer with the realistic images, but the viewer is challenged to discover the meaning of the artwork himself.

Abstract art can be a reduced representation of some objects or emotions, but can also be created purely for aesthetic pleasures that arise through certain composition of shapes and colour schemes.

10. Can abstract art be decoded?

Yes, if the artist expressed a certain idea, feeling or portrayed an object. Sometimes the idea of abstract artwork lies in the title and attentive observation may allow the viewer to decode the abstraction.

11. What are the characteristics of an abstract art?

The characteristics of abstract art may be applicable separately to various artworks, or all at once to one work of art. Abstract art is:

  • Nonobjective
  • Nonrepresentational
  • Nonfigurative
  • Spontaneous
  • Experimental
  • Emotional
  • Conceptual
  • Visually sensible
  • Technique centered

12. What is semi abstract art?

Semi-abstract art allows us to identify a certain glimpse of reality, yet in a quite reduced, abstract way. Meaning that shapes, lines and colours of the artwork would allow us to see what is portrayed by the artist, but it won’t be detailed as in realistic paintings, most likely composed from rough strokes and/or shapes.

13. Can abstract art be representational?

Abstract artwork may be representational, but it won’t be realistic. For example, an abstract landscape would not depict fields and forests, but we may recognise it from colour palette and composition. Such work of art would be considered as semi abstract.

14. Is abstract art contemporary?

Contemporary art is created in the second half of 20th and in the 21st century, so most abstract artworks can be called contemporary. However, some of them might fall under the Modern Art category, which includes artworks created between 1860 - 1970.

15. Is abstract art popular?

Yes, it is one of the most popular art genres and is beloved by collectors and interior designers all over the world.

16. Abstract art vs realism?

Abstract art does not portray any realistic objects and realism, on the contrary, depicts objects and subjects in a very recognizable and detailed way.

It is not possible to say which style is better, it all depends on individual taste. However, abstract art seems to be more popular among collectors and generates better sales at art auctions than realistic artworks created by old masters.

17. Is Cubism abstract art?

It is considered that Cubism inspired the development of abstraction. Some cubist paintings are purely abstract, others depict objects or people through cubic shapes.

18. Is Jackson Pollock an abstract artist?

Yes, Jackson Pollock’s work is abstract art that belongs to the abstract expressionist movement. He created paintings using an innovative technique at the time, called dripping.

19. Was Picasso an abstract artist?

Although Picasso represents the Cubism movement and painted figures and objects, his art, especially a painting “Three Women”, gave an important push to the development of abstract art. 

20. Is abstract art expensive?

It depends. Abstract artworks created by famous artists may cost millions, but art created by emerging contemporary talents is really affordable. 

21. Where to buy abstract art?

There are very different abstract artworks available for sale, you have to consider your budget, taste and the purpose of the acquisition. If you are looking for art as an investment - you should check what art auctions have to offer (like Christie’s and Sotheby’s). 

If you need an aesthetically pleasing artwork for your home - you are welcome to visit our online art gallery where you can buy abstract art online.

We offer affordable contemporary paintings, sculptures and works on paper available within a few clicks!


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