Abstract Art: Then and Now

Abstract artists have consistently pushed the boundaries of traditional aesthetics and representation in painting throughout history. Their influence continues to shape the practice of artists today.

By Nicole Bitanga

Emerging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Abstractism is regarded as one of the most revolutionary art movements. At the beginning of the 20th century, society was undergoing a transformation, driven by industrialization and scientific discoveries that expanded our understanding of the universe. During these exponential developments, artists sought to express the intangible, the spiritual, and the emotions that transcended mere representation. Visionaries such as Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky created paintings that challenged aesthetics and defied representational art. Their profound impact on art history is not only evident through their works, but their legacy continued by the contemporary artists of today.

Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist who worked in relative obscurity during her lifetime, is believed to be the first abstract painter. She was a member of The Five (De Fem), a group of spiritually inclined artists who believed in channeling otherworldly messages into their art. Af Klint’s work was groundbreaking, not only for its obscure shapes but also for its deep engagement with spirituality. She used geometric shapes, bold colors, and intricate symbolism in her works, often featuring circles and spirals. Her iconic shapes and colors are manifestations of emotions, sounds, and experiences never before seen. A fusion of the mystical and the esoteric, her art was well ahead of her contemporaries.

Hilma af Klint
Left: Hilma af Klint’s: undated self-portrait, Image source Wikimedia Commons. Right: Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 1, Childhood, 1907, ©Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

Wassily Kandinsky, an artist from Munich, was independently exploring abstract art at the same time. He was influenced by a wide range of artistic and intellectual movements, from symbolism to theosophy. It was his encounter with a seemingly ordinary painting in 1910 that ignited his transformation into a pioneer of abstraction. He saw in this painting the potential for non-representational art, where emotion and spirituality were conveyed through color and form rather than recognizable objects. Kandinsky’s journey into abstraction was driven by his deep belief in the emotional and spiritual power of color and form. He created works that evoked a symphony of emotions through a visual language of pure abstraction. His compositions, particularly the Improvisation series and Concerning the Spiritual in Art, set the stage for the development of abstract art. In his art, color and shape took center stage as powerful tools for conveying emotion and spirituality.

Wassily Kandinsky
Collage of Gabriele Münter, Portrait of Wassily Kandinsky, 1906, Museum in Murnau, Murnau, Germany; and Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, USA. Arthive.

The work of both pioneers, Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky shattered traditional understandings of art, challenging viewers to see beyond the familiar and venture into the uncharted territory of the abstract. Their groundbreaking contributions inspired a wave of artistic experimentation that continued throughout the 20th century, giving rise to movements like Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. Abstract art revolutionized not only the art world but also opened new dimensions for self-expression, spirituality, and emotional connection in art.

Moving forward in time to contemporary modern artists, we find a diverse and dynamic group, each with a unique perspective and approach to their craft. As society progresses, so do technology and art. Artists such as Noriyoshi Morimoto, Harry T. Burleigh, César Martiniano, and Ai-Wen Wu Kratz continue the legacy of innovation and self-expression that Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky pioneered.

Noriyoshi Morimoto, for instance, expresses a deep connection to nature as a wellspring of inspiration. He eloquently conveys, “I always try to feel nature work around us. I find it both inspiring and relaxing to feel the confident repetition at work there, which functions independently from us.” For Morimoto, the process of drawing is akin to nature’s steady, independent progression, and he strives to infuse his work with the emotions that arise from this harmony. Through acrylic paintings, he brings these emotions to life, allowing them to “find root in the viewer’s mind.” Unlike af Klint and Kandinsky, however, Morimoto sticks to a monochromatic palette of blacks and grays bringing focus to linework and movement. 

Noriyoshi Morimoto
Noriyoshi Morimoto, With Respect Area 11-120-4, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 76″ x 51″
Noriyoshi Morimoto
Noriyoshi Morimoto, With Respect to Area -Repose of soul-1, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 46″ x 35″

Harry T. Burleigh similarly experiments with fluid shapes and lines, conveying the sense of movement using oil paint. Burleigh’s approach to art is a journey of discovery. He explains, “The adventure of creating a painting is not knowing exactly what or who will appear before my eyes until the very seconds in which my brush touches the canvas.” His work is a testament to the captivating nature of creation, driven by inspiration rather than a predetermined plan. Burleigh’s process is therapeutic and deeply personal, guided by influences ranging from music to human nature. His work is a testament to the beauty of art born from spontaneity.

Harry T. Burleigh
Harry T. Burleigh, A Fetching Breeze, 2010, oil on canvas, 36″ x 24″
Harry T. Burleigh
Harry T. Burleigh, The Hand Of God, 2010, oil on canvas, 36″ x 24″

César Martiniano, on the other hand, leverages his background in graphic design and graffiti to create art that challenges the conventional boundaries of creativity. His work more closely resembles another abstract pioneer, Jackson Pollock. By surrendering to free movements, the lack of control in his marks alludes to the boundless limits of abstractism. He states, “I’m a passionate artist with a mission to stretch the boundaries of creativity using unconventional tools and a unique vision.” His art, often a fusion of acrylics, spray paint, chalk, and crayons, invites viewers to explore their own inner landscapes and embrace a childlike curiosity. His series Atlantic Whispers is a celebration of the beauty of nature, with hidden text that can only be revealed with the flip of a light switch, encouraging viewers to engage with the art in a playful and interactive way.

César Martiniano
César Martiniano, Organic Green 3, 2023, acrylic, colored pencil and spray paint on paper, 23.5″ x 15.5″
César Martiniano
César Martiniano, Purple Energy 6, 2023, acrylic, colored pencil and spray paint on paper, 16.5″ x 12″

Ai-Wen Wu Kratz‘ artistic mission goes beyond individual expression; it fosters a sense of community. She invites a diverse array of artists, from visual artists to dancers, to form a sanctuary for people seeking shelter from life’s demands. Through this collaborative effort, they offer respite and renewal, akin to the birds’ mating calls and the warmth of the earth.  Kratz’ vision exemplifies the profound role of art in creating spaces for comfort and communal rejuvenation. Instead of painting direct landscapes, she integrates the sense of movement and sound by manipulating the natural lines and shapes. Further, the use of color contributes to the ambiance of  Kratz’ fantastical rendition of the natural world.

Ai-Wen Wu Kratz
Ai-Wen Wu Kratz, To Plant Flowers While Waiting, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 108″
Ai-Wen Wu Kratz
Ai-Wen Wu Kratz, Upon Far and Near, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 36″

The contemporary artists we’ve explored, like their predecessors af Klint and Kandinsky, showcase the richness and complexity of the evolving artistic landscape. They continue to challenge boundaries, break new ground, and inspire audiences with their unique perspectives and approaches to abstract art.

The evolution of abstract art is a testament to the enduring capacity of artists to test the limits of creativity, offering observers new ways to engage with and interpret the world around them. From the early pioneers of the 20th century to the contemporary artists of today, the abstract art movement has left an indelible mark on the art world, forever changing the way we perceive and experience artistic expression.

Nicole Bitanga is a Filipina artist and writer based in New York. She recently received her degree in Art History with Studio Art and French Studies minors at the College of Arts & Sciences at New York University. Formerly working for Untitled Art and The Armory Show, she continues to build her career within New York’s contemporary art scene. She can be found on Instagram @un.framed.art.


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