Famous Abstract Artists

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The Famous Abstract Artists list is an inventory of the most important abstract artists you need to know. But what were these guys doing?  What is abstract art anyway?

Step 1:  Realistic Art

You might be thinking a little ironically, uh-uh, well that was easy enough:  just make a list of all the artists doing work that you can’t figure out what it is.  Fact is, that might be a lot closer to the truth than you might think.  The famous abstract artists are not doing something that started sometime at the end of the nineteenth century.  It’s been around much, much longer than that. 

To understand what these famous abstract artists are up to, let’s start by taking a look at this image.  The animal below was photographed in Wichita Mountain, Oklahoma, in the United States. 

Bison, Wichita Mountain, Oklahoma.

Now imagine a scale of the visual arts world.  At one end it’s going to have reality:  everything is very concrete and looks as much like the actual subject as possible.  This is the extreme where we are going to put all of the artists who make very realistic looking paintings.  And why do they choose to make paintings that look so much like their subjects?  Because they are in love with the beauty and complexity of the physical world around them, and their goal as an artist is to try to capture it.  Therefore, to a greater or lesser degree realism has to be involved.

Step 2:  Simplification

Now take a look at this animal.  This is a bison too, but it was painted on a cave wall between 8,000 and 20,000 years ago, in a place in Spain called Altamira.  Interestingly, you can see the resemblance the Spanish bison has to the American one.  It is roughly the same overall shape.  Yet it clearly isn’t the same.

Bison, Altamira Cave, 8,000 to 20,000 years ago

In the case of the bison in the States, we know a lot of very specific detail.  We know that he is big and blackish, but with areas that are darker and lighter, blacker and browner.  We know that he has a sort of grim look to his eye, and that the fur of his coat is matted on his back.  We even know details as small as the fact that he has a little white spot on his right horn, and a roundish paler brown spot on his right flank, and that there’s a chunk of fur like a hairball clinging to his belly on the right side.  In other words, we know a lot of specific detail that tells us about this one bison in Wichita Mountain, Oklahoma, so specific that we could distinguish from all the other bison in Wichita Mountain, Oklahoma.

In the case of the Spanish bison, we don’t know a lot of specific detail.  There is nothing as specific as clumps of fur or scars on his skin to differentiate him from the others.  His form has been greatly simplified, and his color too – he’s more or less a nice warm red all over.  That makes no logical sense, because we know now that real bison are black and dark brown.

Yet we know this is a bison too.

What has happened is we have progressed toward the other end of the scale.  We have started simplifying our bison to make him less complex, less realistic, less specific…and simpler, more symbolic, more…universal.  In other words, much closer to the idea of a bison than of a specific bison out there eating grass.

But note, we haven’t got to the extreme other end of the scale.  The Spanish bison is about halfway across the scale.  Because the other end of the scale from realism is abstraction, what those famous abstract artists like to call the “non-objective” world, where things don’t look anything like reality.  This is the world where visually speaking the bison’s shape and color is simplified so much that it has become a pure symbol for “bison-ness”.  And what does that look like?  Something like this, a piece of art I've done for this page that I've decided to call, for lack of a better name, "Bison Squared":

Step 3:  Abstract Art

"Bison Squared", sanguine pencil and ink on paper

You still have the squareness of the bison, its solidity, it immoveability, its thickness.  You still have the red ochre color the famous abstract artists of the Paleolithic used.  But we have gone to the far end of the scale now, towards abstract art.  And if you were to see just this hanging in a museum, without having gone through steps 1 and 2 in your mind, you just might start thinking "Good grief, Bison Squared!  My two-year-old nephew could have done that!"

Abstract Art is Everywhere

All you have to do is look around you - the world of advertising used these principles all the time.  In fact, just this morning I had poured some milk over my granola and was stolidly munching away when I realized I had a great example of a Cow Squared.  See right, for my carton of half-skim milk with its funky graphic art.

It gets a lot more complex than that, in fact.  If you want to go further, take a look at this page for understanding abstract art.  Meanwhile, you can start your discovery of the world of famous abstract artists with the following list, to which I'll be adding as I research them:

Famous Abstract Artists List

German Josef Albers (1888-1976) was one of the founders of Op Art, and was a celebrated geometric abstract painter and Bauhaus instructor.

Pierre Alechinsky (1927- ) is a Belgian engraver and painter in France; his work is linked to Abstract Expressionism and Lyrical Abstraction.

Richard Anuszkiewicz (1930- ), founder and foremost proponent of Op Art, is an American sculptor, painter and printer.

Karel Appel (1921-2006) was one of the founders of the COBRA avant-garde movement in Amsterdam in the 1940s.

Jean (or Hans) Arp (1887-1966), painter, poet and sculptor, was French-German and co-founded the Dada movement.

German-born Frank Auerbach (1931- ) lives and works in England, where he paints expressionistic figurative works.  Photo by Andrew Billen, The Times Magazine, ©2012. 

Click here to go to the Wiki Commons page of Abstract Art.

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