从印象派画家、保罗·塞尚和爱德华·蒙克的作品中，抽象的艺术家们开始认为，颜色和形状构成了艺术的本质特征，而不是自然世界的描绘。Wassily Kandinsky,Piet Mondrian和Kazimir Malevich都相信将艺术重新定义为纯色的安排。摄影的运用，使视觉艺术的具象功能变得过时，强烈地影响了现代主义的这一方面。然而，这些艺术家也相信，通过拒绝对实物的描绘，他们帮助艺术从唯物主义发展到唯灵论的发展阶段。其他的现代主义者，特别是那些参与设计的现代主义者，有更务实的观点。现代主义建筑师和设计师认为，新技术使旧式建筑风格变得过时。勒·柯布西耶认为，建筑应该像汽车一样充当“生活的机器”，他把它看作是旅行的机器。就像汽车取代了马一样，现代主义的设计应该摒弃从古希腊或中世纪继承而来的旧式风格和结构。在这种机器美学之后，现代主义设计师通常会拒绝设计中的装饰图案，更喜欢强调所用的材料和纯粹的几何形状。这座摩天大楼，如路德维格·密斯·凡·德·罗(Ludwig Mies van der Rohe)位于纽约的西格拉姆大厦，成为现代主义建筑的原型。
Abstract artists, taking as their examples from the Impressionists, as well as Paul Cézanne and Edvard Munch, began with the assumption that color and shape formed the essential characteristics of art, not the depiction of the natural world. Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich all believed in redefining art as the arrangement of pure color. The use of photography, which had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, strongly affected this aspect of Modernism. However, these artists also believed that by rejecting the depiction of material objects they helped art move from a materialist to a spiritualist phase of development. Other Modernists, especially those involved in design, had more pragmatic views. Modernist architects and designers believed that new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete. Le Corbusier thought that buildings should function as "machines for living in," analogous to cars, which he saw as machines for traveling in. Just as cars had replaced the horse, so Modernist design should reject the old styles and structures inherited from Ancient Greece or from the Middle Ages. Following this machine aesthetic, Modernist designers typically reject decorative motifs in design, preferring to emphasize the materials used and pure geometrical forms. The skyscraper, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York, became the archetypal Modernist building.