11 Emerging Artists Redefining Abstract Painting

Alina Cohen
Jan 6, 2020 6:00PM

The divide between abstraction and figuration is a false, but helpful, dichotomy. Painters who are primarily concerned with the interactions between color, line, and form also make marks and shapes that may suggest body parts, landscapes, and objects traditionally relegated to still lifes. Even monochrome paintings can conjure familiar settings: A gray canvas might evoke a rock face, while a blue one may suggest the sea.

This principle can go the other way, as well. “I would consider myself a figurative painter fundamentally,” artist Louise Giovanelli told me, “but I certainly have a loose idea of figuration—anything that suggests a form, even if this suggestion is faint.”

A new generation of painters, all 40 years old or younger, are rethinking what we might call, for lack of a better term, abstraction. For them, labels aren’t important. They’re more interested in the infinite ways paint can be applied to develop suggestive, beguiling, and transcendent compositions. They explore what it means to make a painting in the digital age and use contemporary research to generate new patterns and designs. Despite the diversity of these artists’ practices, a near-mystical devotion to the act of making and a desire to communicate via symbols and hues unites them all.

Jadé Fadojutimi

B. 1993, London. Lives and works in London

Jadé Fadojutimi’s canvases burst with energetic brushstrokes, suggestive shapes, and a youthful color palette. Her works give viewers a veritable buffet of lines to follow and connections to make. “I believe my process is no more unique than I am,” said Fadojutimi. Her brand of gestural abstraction indeed draws attention to the singularity of her own mark-making.

In December, ICA Miami announced it would be the first institution to acquire Fadojutimi’s work. Its piece, A point to pointlessness (2019), features looping, cord-like navy and marigold lines against a backdrop of what appear to be thicker, more languid strokes of muddied magenta, blue, and yellow. The hues evoke the inks used in a computer’s printing process.

Fadojutimi’s tangles and snares further suggest ideas about the relationship between technology and art, considering what it means to make something as analog as a painting in the digital age. “I want to paint the indescribable: moments that enthrall and challenge me with a stream of questions that continue to build over time,” Fadojutimi said. “These include feelings of belonging, struggle, pleasure, conflict—aspects of reality which cannot be fully articulated through language.”

Ruairiadh O’Connell

B. 1983, Aberdeen, United Kingdom. Lives and works in London.


Ruairiadh O’Connell’s disparate research interests range from design to contemporary dance; a murder trial to the effect of Parkinson’s on the brain. After studying these subjects, O’Connell formulates an abstracted aesthetic response.

His 2017 body of work, “Profiles in custody,” took inspiration from the Air Jordan shoe print left at the scene of a murder. In chevron-lined canvases—some rectangular, some vaguely shaped like a pair of shoes—he turned the incriminating marks into ambiguous design elements.

Abstraction itself doesn’t drive O’Connell. Instead, he said, he looks “to layer and confront complex ideas with material processes that I discover along the way, which results in surface quality and depth that excites me.”

Recently, O’Connell started working with the English National Ballet to investigate how dance can alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The resulting resin and jesmonite works feature bright metallic hues atop patterns that feel familiar yet difficult to place, making for an uncanny viewing experience.

Han Bing

B. 1986, Shandong, China. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Han Bing hesitates to describe her work as abstract, since she takes inspiration from city streets and architectural façades. She calls these urban elements “poems with authors unknown.”

Han’s layered, jagged shapes conjure the posters torn and replaced, ad infinitum, in the New York City subway stations; her soft scrawls in white and bright yellow suggest graffiti. In some canvases, a representational section adds a moment of surprise. Looking at Broome III (2016), for example, the eye travels over layered, gridded rectangles and ragged, wavy swaths of paint to land on what looks like a segment of a glistening, grilled hot dog. In Silver Lining (2019), two abstracted faces seem to touch, while a central purple shape in QUASH (2019) could be a curtain or floating garment. Yet nothing in these works totally resolves into figuration.

Describing her paintings, Han said that “they are representational at times, but more moments of perplexity, when a few patches met unexpectedly and created a dynamic that made sense to me at that moment.”

Alteronce Gumby

B. 1985, Harrisburg, PA. Lives and works in New York.

For Alteronce Gumby, abstraction feels liberating. During London’s Frieze Week in 2019, he debuted a twinkling series of paintings at Sunday Art Fair—a departure from the monochromes he’s made in recent years. The new works feature colorful shards of glass—in teal, cornflower blue, and peach—embedded in black backgrounds. As viewers walked from one side of the installation to the other, the compositions changed colors before their eyes.

Gumby was coy about discussing his process: “I think every good artist has their tricks, and just like magic tricks, they should remain secret,” he said. The new works revel in their own fantastical deceptions of color and form, while simultaneously suggesting the cosmos and something broken here on Earth. Gumby said that the best abstract painters “are using some form of logic or making reference to nature,” while leaving ample “room for ambiguity and for the viewer to use their own imaginations and experiences to finish the work.”

He recalled childhood reveries of a stick transforming into a spaceship, baseball bat, or rifle. Abstraction allows for similarly imaginative leaps. “There’s no fixed narrative,” Gumby said. “I can change the story or who I am at any moment, and that’s okay.”

Leah Guadagnoli

B. 1989, Chicago. Lives and works in New York.

Leah Guadagnoli’s new paintings resemble stained glass windows. The works pop and puff off the wall, thanks to upholstery foam undergirding the canvas. A white egg form centers Song to the Siren (2019), with blue segments rippling around it. Emerge from the Blush (2019) offers abstracted stems and petals, as well as a pink form that looks like a tongue.

Guadagnoli doesn’t believe a painting can ever be truly abstract, and that tension excites her. “Even the simplest of shapes have meaning—especially when made into visual art,” she said. “We cannot help but see something, insert personal meaning. The history of abstraction, geometry, and pattern at large, across centuries and cultures, cannot go ignored. Abstraction, above all, is a common language composed of many dialects.”

Guadagnoli’s playful palettes suggest Memphis design, while her pared down forms and references to female anatomy might connect her to Georgia O’Keeffe. Her plush, three-dimensional surfaces tease viewers, beckoning them to push into the foam to see how the material gives.

Trudy Benson

B. 1985, Richmond, Virginia. Lives and works in New York.

The sharp angles and dancing, riotously colored blocks in Trudy Benson’s paintings suggest that her most significant reference is the grid itself. “To me, abstraction means that the material and process are essential to the schematics of the painting,” she said. “I am illustrating sets of relationships between colors, mark-making, and surface.”

As viewers notice the interactions between shape, color, and line, they are led to assess the logic that makes the painting’s structure cohere. In Circling Back (2019), for example, a series of lines cut through squares filled with smaller squares. Looking at one of Benson’s canvases is like playing an optical game, searching for small moments and brushstrokes for the eye to latch onto and analyze.

To make these works, Benson employs a multi-step process that results in the appearance of varied textures and depths. She applies and layers paint via spraying, brushing, and squeezing directly from the tube. Benson occasionally employs a “hard-edge painting technique,” lightly masking certain sections with tape so that her paint bleeds under the tape edge. The results are jazzy and joyous.

Osamu Kobayashi

B. 1984, Columbia, South Carolina. Lives and works in New York.

The simple, minimal appearance of Osamu Kobayashi’s compositions belies the artist’s painstaking process. He paints thick, sweeping marks with a wide brush. “What looks to be an effortless stroke is actually a process of masking off entire areas, loading and reloading the brush multiple times, and redoing the mark countless more times to achieve the one I think is most successful,” he explained. “It’s important for me to capture something that feels improbable, to have the work hover between reality and illusion.”

Kobayashi’s titles offer simple, accessible starting points for the viewer. Drip (2019) draws the eye to the vertiginous, pink-and-yellow pendant that hangs between the royal-purple volume that takes up most of the canvas. Yet the even, exquisitely textured brush strokes on that volume soon become the focal point as they cascade down the canvas and around the yellow drip, then glide back upwards before elegantly exiting the canvas. The longer you look, the more the flat, deceptively straightforward composition appears almost theatrical.

Tracy Thomason

B. 1984, Gaithersburg, Maryland. Lives and works in New York.

The gritty surfaces of Tracy Thomason’s oil and marble dust paintings recall stucco siding and the scratched-into exteriors of ceramic urns. “I aim for a clay-like surface to accept scars and constellations through carving into something like a stalactite or initials on a tree trunk,” Thomason said. Her process can be slow or quick, as she employs tools she describes as “surgical” to develop the biomorphic shapes on her canvases. Thomason noted that her grandmother was an artist and a practicing Buddhist. “I no doubt inherited a level of patience from her in making,” she said.

Thomason’s restrained palette conveys a sense of cohesion. With a palette of bubblegum pinks, chalky whites, lemon yellows, and fire-engine reds—mingled with soft, feminine curves—she turns her canvases into sites of strange, female symbologies. The works recall Hilma af Klint’s spiritual communions through painting, or of Joan Miró’s abstract storytelling via repeated, rearranged shapes.

Jason Stopa

B. 1983, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York.

Jason Stopa makes paintings-within-paintings that suggest multiple browsers open on the same desktop. A red background lined with yellow stripes and diamonds, for example, might feature two distinct foregrounds on two vertically oriented rectangles of the same size that contain more color and pattern. Such compositions complicate ideas of foreground and background; of surface and support.

Stopa said he ultimately believes that first and foremost, painting is “about color as light and light as space.” He’s interested in rethinking painterly space and connecting his ideas to the virtual, domestic, public, and interior worlds that he and his viewers occupy. The entire divide between abstraction and figuration seems retrograde to him, “a 20th-century problem.” He considers non-objective art impossible: The brain is wired to make connections between aesthetic elements, such as color and line, and ideas beyond the canvas.

Beatrice Modisett

B. 1985, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in New York.

Splashes of scarlet red, sea green, and fiery orange and yellow rush across Beatrice Modisett’s canvases, evidence of her dynamic process. She rarely uses brushes, instead preferring to pour paint onto her canvases. The artist alternately blocks off different segments of her work at a time to direct the paint flow, creating tension between control and chance on her surfaces. In her studio, Modisett said she wrestles with “anticipation, loss, and physics” as she allows her paint to fan out or pool, mix with other hues, or keep to itself.

Modisett’s bold colors enhance the drama embedded in her process and create associations for the viewer. “My paintings reference the terrestrial and the corporeal: eruptions, tsunamis, blood vessels, and more,” she said. “These references erode as I form an image filtered through my own experiences as a human and painter.”

Yevgeniya Baras

B. 1981, Syzran, Russia. Lives and works in New York.

Yevgeniya Baras textures her paintings as she layers oil and paper pulp onto stretched and unstretched canvas. The rough surfaces alternately feature letters, numbers, squares, circles, squiggles, and a variety of suggestive shapes. Look hard enough, and you might see a keyhole, a river, or a clock. A sense of improvisation and play unites her disparate symbologies—a tinge of the faux-naïf, perhaps, or an attempt to access some primal understanding of the world and systems around us.

Baras values the experimentation and invention that abstraction allows. “My process is rooted in my feeling for the material and for transforming those materials,” she said. Though her work appears abstract, she notes that it “considers the body” and attempts to capture ethereal emotions with concrete elements. Her paintings aren’t ideas, but gritty, swirling, explicitly three-dimensional objects.

Alina Cohen