Contemporary Abstract Art and Figurative Art: What Are We Looking At?

When looking at contemporary art, there are some basic stylistic features we look at to break down the works we are viewing. One of the foundational elements of style to recognize is whether the work is abstract or figurative.  

John Chamberlain |
John Chamberlain, Sweet William, 1962

This distinguishing element transcends contemporary art and stretches back through art history. Today, the stylistic difference of abstract versus figurative remains a dividing categorization amongst artists of all mediums from painting and sculpture to even new technological mediums. The duality spurs new trends, methods, and even divisive opinions on artistic methodologies.

This article is here to help you understand the distinctive factors that make up abstract art versus figurative art and how these two styles appear in contemporary art.

What Does Figurative and Abstract Mean in Art?

Before we dive into the visual qualities of both abstraction and figuration within contemporary art, let us take a moment to comprehend each of these terms and how they fit into the scope of art history.

Jasper Johns, Alphabet, 1959

Figurative Art

So, what does figurative mean in art? We can understand figurative art as any artwork that attempts to recreate or model itself after something in the world. While this may not always be 100% true to life, figurative pieces base themselves in the reality of different forms, figures, and settings. As a term, it has become commonplace to define this method of artistic creation in relation to the rise of abstraction.

Figuration has been an ever present, if not primary, style of artistic production in the history of art. However, figuration began to change in the age of Modern Art, encouraging artists to question tradition. The need for hyper-realism faded as the Impressionists movement helped us see the world through a new lens of color and emotion.

Post-Impressionism followed exploring the natural forms through minimalized techniques like Pointillism. Famed modern artists dabbled between abstraction and figuration, like Picasso and Giacometti, but the popularity of figurative art began to dwindle in the face of new revolutionary modes of art creation.

George Baselitz, Three Stripes-The Painter in a Coat, 2005

Often overshadowed in the mid-20th century are the artists from the School of London. This movement bordered between surrealist and expressionist methods featuring the ingenious work of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

From this point, we see figuration making small strides in the more popular movements of Pop Art, with notable names like David Hockney and Jasper Johns, and Neo-Expressionism, like Georg Baselitz. Despite its origins and continued practice, figurative art seemed to lose significance in the age of modern art as the popularity of abstract avant-garde styles and movements took hold, but is seeing a revival in the present day.

Abstract Art

Abstract art on the other hand exists in defiance to naturalistic representation. Abstract art rejects attempts to recreate a figure or moment in a realistic manner. This leads to artists rethinking the use of symbolism, color, and shape in unpredictable ways, and the act of art-making evolving.

Sam Francis, Untitled, 1980

This novel way of thinking opened up the possibilities for representing the intangible; emotions, experiences, or moods; by finding creative solutions to putting them into visual forms. While figurative art has been developing since the dawn of human creation, abstract art is a more recent development that gained rapid and undeniable momentum.

While we see the early attempts at abstraction in the 1800s with the Impressionists taking liberties with how to represent the world around us, it is Russian painter of the Expressionism movement Wassily Kandinsky that is often noted as the trailblazing force behind abstract art. By the turn of the 20th century, we saw new movements embracing abstraction.

Cubism, with names like Picasso and Duchamp, took figuration far beyond the point of comprehending the original form, breaking them down into their foundational pieces. These burgeoning movements influenced others who visited Paris or encountered their works, like Piet Mondrian who has become renowned for his colorful geometric abstractions of the DeStijl movement.

Pollock, Number 27, 1950

While there were countless movements that followed in their footsteps, experimenting and innovating, we first witnessed the true embracing of abstraction in the realm of fine art in the 1940s with the Abstract Expressionists. Artists like Jackson Pollock allowed art to become an extension of themselves, pure emotion driven through gesture. Splatters of paint, fields of color, all became an experiential form of art with no basis in naturalistic reproduction.

From here, Abstract Expressionism led the way for movements that not only abstracted aesthetics but ideas. Conceptual Art and Minimalism, for instance, abstracted the themes behind their work.

What is Contemporary Figurative Art versus Contemporary Abstract Art?

Now that we have a foundational understanding of these terms and where they come from, we can begin to understand how they have evolved into the art we see being created today.

Keith Haring, The Chicago Mural, 1989

Contemporary Figurative Art

In Contemporary Art, we have been seeing a rise and resurgence in the field of figurative art. The major developments in contemporary figurative art revolve around two key ideas, exploration of stories and explorations of style.

Figurative art is being used to help tell the stories, reveal the histories, and illuminate the issues that can be overlooked in our society today. Contemporary black figurative artists are reimagining the social, cultural, and political implications of race through their manipulations of the art form. This has been prevalent in portraiture with notable artists like Kehinde Wiley, who cemented his legacy with his presidential portrait of Barack Obama.

Conversely, we can see the world of figurative art expanding through experimentation with new styles. Some artists are taking to a reductionist approach, portraying their subjects in reduced elemental forms, seen with Dana Schutz and Marlene Dumas. Others are embracing new techniques regarding color. Reinterpretations of the 1980s Neo-Pop style incorporate bright color and a heightened two-dimensional flatness in their works, such as the work of Jonas Wood.

Gerhard Richter, Reader (804), 1994

We also see the intersection of these two notions. Artists like Aliza Nisenbaum are telling important stories through unique approaches to figuration. Nisenbaum engages bright colors to comment on the diverse multicultural nature of her community.

Contemporary Figurative Artists

Figurative artists continue to make waves and gain acclaim. Amongst those with established or rising prestige in Contemporary Figurative Art are:

  1. Kehinde Wiley (Painting)
  2. Gerhard Richter (Painting)
  3. Alison Saar (Sculpture & Installation)
  4. Keith Haring (Painting)
  5. John Currin (Painting)
  6. Michael Armitage (Painting)
  7. Shelley Reed (Painting)
  8. Aliza Nisenbaum (Painting)
  9. Sanam Khatibi (Textiles, Painting, and Sculpture)
  10. Jordan Casteel (Painting)
  11. Kris Martin (Sculptures & Interventions)
  12. Alejandra Hernández (Painting)
  13. Marlene Dumas (Painting)
  14. Jenny Saville (Painting)
  15. Kiki Smith (Sculpture, Printmaking, and Drawing)

Contemporary Abstract Art

Abstract art has remained a staple of the art world since its inception. Today, we see artists from around the globe embracing abstraction and incorporating elements into our expansive contemporary world of new mediums.

There are artists today who are channeling the energies of the masters. Their work calls back to the gestural nature that made abstract art an innovative art historical force. Young artists Jadé Fadojutimi and Brenda Zappitell channeled the expressive nature in their distinctive form of mark-making that embraces color and movement. We also see up-and-coming names such as Ruairiadh O’Connell, embracing the entrancing patterns of masters like Agnes Martin.

Mark Bradford is amongst the top names for contemporary black abstract artists. His abstract collages and installations channel art historical methodologies of critical race theory to expose societal inequalities of the black community. His massive enveloping installations lead to another facet of abstraction today, the experiential.

Yayoi Kusama, A Bouquet of Love I Saw In the Universe, 2021

Amongst the top names of contemporary art, abstract or otherwise, is Yayoi Kusama. Kusama embraces color and pattern in her works that range from sculptures to installations that can consume her viewers. Known for her infinity rooms, abstraction becomes more than an appreciation for the intermingling of their compositional components, but for the impact of the experience of transcending reality.

The immersive experience proves that abstraction has lifted itself from its two-dimensional and sculptural origins. Today, we see artists constructing their own abstract environments that allow us to question our realities. Sarah Sze forms architectural worlds that highlight the overlooked details of life to question materiality and temporality. Her work becomes abstract not only in approach but in theme and experience for the viewer.

Contemporary Abstract Artists

Some major names and rising stars in the realm of Contemporary Abstract Art include:

  1. Yayoi Kusama (Sculpture & Installation)
  2. Mark Bradford (Painting, Collage, Installation)
  3. Cecily Brown (Painting)
  4. Anselm Kiefer (Mixed-Media, Painting, and Sculpture)
  5. Miquel Barcelo (Mixed-Media Painting)
  6. Christian Rosa (Painting)
  7. Ingrid Floss (Painting)
  8. Ugo Rondinone (Sculpture & Installation)
  9. Sterling Ruby (Interdisciplinary – Installation, Sculpture, Painting, Video, etc.)
  10. Christopher Wool (Painting & Text-Based)
  11. Sarah Sze (Sculpture & Installation)
  12. Elliott Hundley (Painting & Collage)
  13. John Chamberlain (Sculpture)
  14. Adriana Varejão (Painting, Sculpture, Installation, and Photography)
  15. Carlos Arnaiz (Painting)

Future Thoughts on Figurative Art and Abstract Art

While abstract and figurative art seem to be two opposite ends of the creative spectrum, the lines have always been blurred. Figurative artists abstract their scenes in novel manners, such as the sculptural work of Kris Martin, while abstract artists, like Cecily Brown, enhance their work with figurative elements. Other artists, like Gerhard Richter, refused to be defined by one or the other and gained esteem as both figurative and abstract artists.

Cecily Brown, Untitled 6, 1999

Despite this, we have observed a set of divisive opinions on these artistic methodologies. While Abstract Art has been seen dominating the canon of modern and contemporary art history, figurative art appears to be on the rise.

An increase in figurative art across mediums has been noticeable at established art fairs, biennials, and exhibitions around the world highlighting the top contemporary art. Writers, curators, and major publications have noticed the shift in reviving the status of figurative art. This is a trend beyond the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture.

There are contemporary artists like Jacolby Satterwhite who use technology to obscure the lines between abstraction and figuration. Satterwhite’s digital videos and projects create surrealist environments. Through embracing both the abstract and the figure, he tells stories of his past and creates a dialog about race and sexuality in contemporary society.

While individuals hold strong opinions over what constitutes fine art, true art, or ‘good’ art, neither abstract art nor figurative art is superior to one another. This ongoing dispute has forced abstract artists to reconcile figuration within their practice and expand their critical frameworks while it has inspired figurative artists to become more assertive, innovative, and experimental in their approach to their art.

Sam Gilliam, Double Merge, 1968

Styles of art are in continuous flux. The prevalence of abstract art and figurative art are constantly waxing and waning at the whims of critics and curators forcing their subjective opinions into trends across the art world. These trends have evolved even more rapidly in the wake of our society’s exponential technological revolution.

While we witness these changes and evolutions of the abstract-figurative dichotomy before our eyes, we are forced to remember the esteemed lineage of art that brought us to this groundbreaking moment in time.


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