abstract art

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A trend in painting and sculpture in the twentieth century. Abstract art seeks to break away from traditional representation of physical objects. It explores the relationships of forms and colors, whereas more traditional art represents the world in recognizable images.

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


What is abstract art?

Abstract art is art that doesn’t use recognizable depictions of physical objects. Instead, it uses colors, lines, and shapes to express its message.

When you think of art, you might think of a painting of a person like the Mona Lisa, a painting of a landscape, or a sculpture of a person. Abstract art doesn’t depict actual objects or physical locations. It more closely resembles a collection of colors, lines, and shapes used to represent objects or emotions.

As a formal style of art, abstract art is usually considered to have emerged in the early 1900s in the work of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Herni Matisse. These artists used colors, forms, and shapes to represent complicated things like emotions and human spirituality. In the 1950s, artists, particularly painters, would use colors and brushstrokes to represent intense emotions, like anger and love. Abstract artists from this period include Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Today, you are likely to see examples of abstract art in many museums and art galleries. It can be difficult to describe, but if you see a painting or sculpture that seems to be “random colors” or “a bunch of shapes,” it is most likely abstract art.

Why is abstract art important?

The phrase “abstract art” was used as early as the 1860s to describe different works of art. It combines the word abstract, which describes something that is not part of physical reality, and the word art, a complex word that refers to creative expression and aesthetic beauty. Abstract art expresses itself through colors and forms rather than actual depictions of reality.

Abstract art often faces passionate criticism unique to it. Many people who don’t have an artistic background or have only a passing interest in art consider abstract art not to be art at all or to be an artform that requires no skill or talent. While actual artists and art critics wouldn’t agree with these beliefs, abstract artists have had a wide range of opinions and thoughts on what abstract art even is.

Did you know … ?

In 2011, two psychologists performed an experiment to see if art students and people with no art experience could tell the difference between abstract art created by respected artists and finger paintings created by children and animals. Participants were right 60–70% of the time and often preferred the actual abstract art even when both choices were said to be made by respected artists.

What are real-life examples of abstract art?

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock is an example of abstract art.


Abstract art is often memorable and sometimes baffling to many people.

What other words are related to abstract art?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Abstract art doesn’t use recognizable depictions of physical objects.

How to use abstract art in a sentence