Abstraction in Action: Highlights from the Collection

Marketing and Communications Detail and Museum Assistant Caroline Polich on abstract works in the collection.

Abstract art is a genre of art that doesn’t seek to accurately represent reality, instead using a visual language of shapes, colors, marks, and forms. From Color Field to Cubism, and from Suprematism to De Stijl, this genre encompasses many techniques, approaches, and movements. Abstraction has a long and nuanced history across many cultures, but it received new interest and experienced many new developments starting in the early 20th century in Europe. It has played a pivotal role in art and art history ever since. As a museum of modern and contemporary art, The Phillips Collection has a wide variety of abstract works. Learn more below about several artistic approaches to abstraction, exemplified by three paintings in our permanent collection.

Many artists use abstraction to depict a place in a more profound and multidimensional way. Wassily Kandinsky’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) (1913) uses color, shape, and line to convey the feeling or “emotional sounds” of Moscow. Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first Europeans to adopt abstract art, was born in Russia but spent much of his life abroad. In this work, he creates a sense of place through motifs strongly connected to his home country. The three parallel lines in the top left of the composition convey the movement of a troika, a three-horse sled. The undulating brown, black, and white lines on the right, which intersect with a bold white line, represent the legendary figure of St. George on horseback with a lance. Through abstraction, Kandinsky captures the essence of a place, its culture, and his connection to it.

Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913, Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 30 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift from the estate of Katherine S. Dreier, 1953

For some artists, abstraction is a way to explore new processes and reinterpret traditional mediums. Sam Gilliam (1933-2022) was known for his draped paintings on unstretched canvas, and his improvisational approach to painting, inspired by jazz. Red Petals (1967) is an early example of Gilliam’s unique process, in which he poured paint over unprimed and unstretched canvas, then folded, rolled, and splattered it to create his vibrant and fluid compositions. The work is a balance between control and chance, the artist’s actions and the properties of the mediums (both the paint, the canvas, and how they interact). Red Petals, unlike many of Gilliam’s later works, was re-stretched so it could be hung on a wall like a traditional painting. However, this work still demonstrates how the artist saw canvas as a medium to engage and create with, not just a two-dimensional surface to paint on. Working abstractly allowed Gilliam to reimagine traditional approaches and processes in painting.

Sam Gilliam, "Red Petals" American, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., Acquired 1967.

Sam Gilliam, Red Petals, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

Other artists use abstraction to visualize intangible or philosophical ideas. Anil Revri (b. 1956) is an Indian artist born in New Delhi, who lives and works in Washington, DC. Revri’s abstract paintings on handmade paper—two of which are recent acquisitions at the Phillips—draw from a wide range of influences, from the Washington Color School to Eastern philosophy. Geometric Abstraction 3 (2020) uses geometry and repetition to explore ideas of meditation, truth, order, and journeys. Symmetry creates a sense of calm and order within the complex composition of shapes, lines, and marks. The contrasts in value and color—scarlet, white, and gold against a dark background—affect how the eye moves around the composition, a sort of visual and perhaps philosophical journey across the surface of the work.

Anil Revri, Geometric Abstraction 3, Mixed media on handmade paper, 18 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Nuzhat Sultan, 2021

These works by Kandinsky, Gilliam, and Revri are just three examples of how artists can approach abstraction. This genre has opened up new ways of making and thinking about art that are still being explored today. Next time you see an abstract work, think about how it uses elements like color, shape, and line, what traditions it might be reimagining, and what feelings it elicits.

Read More

Wassily Kandinsky | The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation

Sam Gilliam | Pace Gallery

Anil Revri | Artist’s Website

The Phillips Collects: Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam, Purple Antelope Space Squeeze, 1987

Sam Gilliam, Purple Antelope Space Squeeze, 1987, Diptych: Relief, etching, aquatint and collagraph on handmade paper with embossing, hand-painting and hand-painted collage, 41 ½ x 81 ⅝ in., The Phillips Collection, Bequest of the Estate of Marion Goldin

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Sam Gilliam received his BA and MA from the University of Louisville. In 1962, he moved to Washington, DC, where the Washington Color School led by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, and Thomas Downing had flourished. Following a period of figurative painting, Gilliam embraced abstraction and hard-edge geometric designs, and then experimented with expressive pourings. In 1967, The Phillips Collection purchased Gilliam’s Red Petals, and hosted his first solo show. While preparing for this exhibition, Gilliam discovered that by creasing, bunching, or crumpling paper still wet with watercolor, he could create an armature for his color combinations, a kind of drawing to structure his compositions. These experiments also shaped his approach to printmaking.

In the early 1970s, while a visiting artist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Gilliam practiced printmaking with William Weege. In 1987, Weege founded Tandem Press, and Gilliam was the first artist invited to print there. Purple Antelope Space Squeeze is the first editioned work created for Tandem. Gilliam first sent Weege a drawing of the shape he wanted the paper to be, and a mold was made according to those specifications. The initial image was a relief print using carved woodblock elements and lithography inks. Then Gilliam attached handmade paper collage pieces he had painted. A variety of printing techniques followed involving inked and un-inked metal relief plates, steel and zinc etchings, and aquatint plates. Gilliam then hand painted details on the surfaces to prepare them for their final printing while inks from previous runs were still wet. Each impression of the print bears a unique pattern because the artist placed the printing elements in different positions and inked them in a variety of colors. Purple Antelope Space Squeeze is the second print and the eighth work by the artist to enter the collection.


In this series, Education Specialist for Public Programs Emily Bray highlights participants in the 2016 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show, on view through September 19, 2016.

Brittany O'Dowd, "Study of Adam"

Brittany-Rose O’Dowd, “Study of Adam”


Brittany-Rose O’Dowd

Brittany-Rose O'Dowd, Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Brittany-Rose O’Dowd, Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Tell us about yourself.

I am an amateur of many media—I photograph nature, paint bright abstract pieces, and do still life and studies in charcoal.

What do you do at The Phillips Collection? Are there any unique/interesting parts about your job that most people might not know about?

I work in Membership and Development, and my job consists of keeping our database clean and up to date, processing gifts, and helping out wherever the Membership team needs it.

Who are your favorite artists in the collection?

I love Sam Gilliam. The first time I saw his work in the gallery I gasped, it was so beautiful! I’m also a big Degas fan. I was home-schooled when I was very young and he was a favorite artist of ours to learn about.

What is your favorite gallery or space within The Phillips Collection?

I enjoy the second floor of the original Phillips house a lot. I always find something that I love there, and since it’s small and quiet I get to spend time alone with the works.

What would you like people to know about your artwork on view in the 2016 Staff Show (or your work in general)?

I selected this study because I had seen an image with the figure posed this way, and found the torso almost disturbing—it seemed twisted and uncomfortable. I never had an art-anatomy course so it was new to me to think about what the muscles and bones are doing under the skin. Portraits and figures are not something I usually draw, so it was a challenge to me, but I enjoyed it.

The 2016 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show is on view August 14 through September 19, 2016.