Contemporary Art
Postmodernist Visual Arts (Mid-1960s-present).



Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969)
(central Panel) By Francis Bacon.
Most expensive triptych ever sold
at auction.

GREATEST ARTISTS
For a list of the Top 10 and Top 20
of the finest painters & sculptors:
Best Artists of All Time: Top 10.

Contemporary Art

What is Contemporary Art?
What Makes Contemporary Art Different from Modern Art?
What are the Main Contemporary Art Movements?
Who are the Top Contemporary Artists?
What is the Most Expensive Piece of Contemporary Art?
Who are Currently the Top-10 Best Selling Contemporary Artists?
What are the Most Famous Prizes for Contemporary Art?
Where Can You See Outstanding Collections of Contemporary Art?
What are the Main Museums of Contemporary Art?
Important Questions About Contemporary Art
• Quick Reference Guide to Twentieth Century Painters.
Modern Art Movements
Contemporary Art Movements
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art



Woman Taking Off Man's Shirt
in Two Stages (2003)
By Julian Opie (b.1958), graduate of
Goldsmith's College, member of the
New British Sculpture movement, and
one of the more creative of Britain's
postmodernist artists.


Shop Until You Drop (2011)
Stencil graffiti. London.
By Banksy.

VISUAL ARTS CATEGORIES
Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

What is Contemporary Art?

No one seems to agree about the exact meaning of contemporary art. Critics, curators and historians define it in varying ways. One of the reasons for the confusion is that "Contemporary Art" is preceded by "Modern Art", and there is no precise agreement on when "Modern Art" ended.

To make things even more complicated, a third term "Postmodernist art" is sometimes used as a synonym for "Contemporary Art." This buzzword denotes the main style-trend after Modernism or Modern Art, but it applies to dozens of other disciplines including architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, design, fashion, and technology, all of which have differing timelines, so it's hard to get a fix on exactly when postmodernism begins. Also, it's not synonymous with contemporary art. The latter refers to an era (a time period) while postmodernism is more of an attitude and style within this period. In due course, postmodernism will be superceded by a newer "-ism" but both will be forms of Contemporary art.


Fulcrum (1999) by Jenny Saville.

What is a Simple Definition of Contemporary Art?

Skipping the theoretical stuff, there are three main meanings or usages of the terms "Contemporary Art."

Art produced after 1945.
This is the definition adhered to by most museums when defining their collections of contemporary artworks. However, most art historians now consider this to be outdated.

Art produced in our era or lifetimes.
This accords with the definition of "contemporary" used by general historians, but it's too vague for our purposes.


Dream Like Love (2005) by Li Wei.
Contemporary Chinese artist
who combines performance art
and photography. Two important
forms of avant-garde art.

CONTEMPORARY IRISH ARTISTS
For biographies of contemporary
painters and sculptors in Ireland
see: Contemporary Irish Artists.

MOVEMENTS, PERIODS, ARTISTS
For more information, see:
History of Art

WORLD AUCTION RECORDS
For information about the world's
most highly priced works of art
and record auction prices, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings

ART APPRECIATION
For contemporary sculpture
appreciation, please see:
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture
19th/20th century sculptors.

Art produced since the 1960s.
This definition is the one most commonly used by art critics, but disagreement persists as to the exact cut-off date. Is it 1964, for instance, or 1968, or 1969? Some experts prefer 1970, simply because it's tidier. (See: Top 20 Contemporary Artists.)

How We Define Contemporary Art

In this article, we take the early 1960s as marking the change-over from Modern to Contemporary, although it's true to say that the decade included both types. After all, artists around the world didn't just get up one day and become Post-Modernists!

What Makes Contemporary Art Different from Modern Art?

The answer to this question requires an entire book. We only have a paragraph, so here goes. First, some background. The Italian Renaissance established the basis for Western art after the Classical Antiquity and Medieval eras. Renaissance ideas and rules were disseminated across Europe through various Academies of Fine Arts, such as the Academy of Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno: founded 1562), the Academy of Rome (Accademia di San Luca: founded 1583), the French Academy (Académie des Beaux-Arts) the Royal Academy in London (founded 1768) and the later Royal Hibernian Academy and the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, in Ireland. These academies taught art according to an unvarying set of canons, which artists had to follow in order to earn a living. By the early 19th century, this academic approach had ceased to be relevant.

 

Modern Era

Enter Edouard Manet in 1860 along with the French Impressionists, whose revolutionary subjective style of painting ushered in the era of Modern Art. This period witnessed a succession of schools, styles and movements - including Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Op-Art, to name but a tiny few. Nearly all of these styles reflected the political and social trends of the period, such as World War I, the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, World War II, and its post-colonial aftermath. But despite recognizing the increasing fragmentation and lack of meaning within society during this period, "modern artists" (except Dada) still believed that works of art could provide the answer - art could do what other human institutions couldn't do - and provide the coherence and meaning which had been lost. During the 1960s, however, this optimism among artists began to fade, and it is this loss of optimism which marks the beginning of Postmodernism and the emergence of Contemporary Art.

 

Contemporary Era

Post-modernists reject the idea that art can provide meaning. If life is meaningless, they say, fine - let's not pretend that art can do better. Let's just accept that it's nonsense, like everything else, and get on with it. This new Post-Modernist philosophy thus triggered a whole new set of priorities, which were greatly facilitated by the coincident arrival of new technologies, like television, video, and computers. Contemporary art movements focused on "how" art was created and disseminated, rather that "what" was produced. They emphasized ideas and concepts rather than precious objects and the skills needed to make them. In their attempt to popularize and broaden access to visual art, they introduced (or refined) a series of new art forms, such as Conceptualism, Performance, Happenings, Installation, Earthworks, and in the process took full advantage of new media like video, computers and digital technology. It's all a far cry from Claude Monet and his lifelong quest to capture the differing effects of sunlight.

What are the Main Contemporary Art Movements?

Here is a short list of selected schools/styles of contemporary art, arranged in rough chronological order. Dates listed are approximate.

Conceptualism (1960s onwards) see also Conceptual Art.
Performance (Early 1960s onwards) see Performance Art and Happenings.
Installation (1960s onwards) see also Installation Art.
Video Art (1960s onwards)
Minimal Art (1960s onwards) see also Minimalism and Op-Art.
Photo-Realist art, Superrealism, Hyperealism (1960s on) see Photorealism.
Earthworks (Land or Environmental Art) (mid-1960s) see also Land Art.
Supports-Surfaces (c.1966-72)
Contemporary Realism
Post-Minimalism (1971 onwards)
New Subjectivity (1970s)
London School (1970s)
Graffiti Aerosol Spray Painting (1970s onwards) see also Graffiti Art.
Transavanguardia (Trans-avant-garde) (1979 onwards)
Neo-Expressionist Art (1980 onwards) see also Neo-Expressionism.
Britart (1980s) see also Young British Artists (YBAs) and Charles Saatchi
Neo-Pop (late 1980s onwards) see also Pop-Art.
Stuckism (1999 onwards)
New Leipzig School (c.2000 onwards)

 

Other Artist Groups

Other minor or splinter contemporary art groups, or styles, listed in rough chronological order, include:

Copy Art, Eat Art, Neo-Geo, Fluxus, Mail Art, Equipo Cronica, Mec Art, Groupe Zebra, BMPT, Arte Povera, Body Art, Narrative Art, Cooperative des Malassis, Lowbrow, East Village, Panique Szafran, Appropriation Simulation, Bad Painting, Demoscene, Cynical Realism (China), Pittura Colta (Anacronismo), Massurrealism, Pluralism, Relational Art, Figuration Savante, OuPeinPo, Sound Art, Superflat, Videogame Art, Massurrealism, Artefactoria, Toyism, Lowbrow, Tiki Art, Bitterism, Thinkism, Funism.

Who are the Top Contemporary Artists?

The period from the mid-1960s to the present day has witnessed a number of extraordinary and talented contemporary artists. Here is a short selection of the most celebrated individuals in various categories of visual arts. Some, like Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol could be classified as modernists, but are included here due to their essentially "post-modernist" approach.

Contemporary Painting
The surrealist Francis Bacon (1909-92); RB Kitaj (b.1932); the Pop cartoon-style painter Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97); the Pop artist and screenprinter Andy Warhol (1928-87); the Pop draughtsman David Hockney (b.1937); the obese-figure painter/sculptor Fernando Botero (b.1932); the Neo-Expressionist Georg Baselitz (b.1938); the photorealist self-portraitist Chuck Close (b.1940); the hyperrealist urban scene painter Richard Estes (b.1932); the subject painter Jack Vettriano (b.1951); the Scottish artist Peter Doig (b.1959); and the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88).

Contemporary Sculpture
The conceptualist Sol LeWitt (b.1928); the large-scale public sculptor Richard Serra (b.1939); the 'feminist' sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010); the monumentalist Anish Kapoor (b.1954); the Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons (b.1955). See: Twentieth Century Sculptors.

Contemporary Architecture
Leading figures in late 20th century architecture include: Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), Fazlur Khan (1929-82), Daniel Libeskind, the firm Coop Himmelblau, (founded by Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky and Michael Holzer), as well as Lars Spuybroek, Kas Oosterhuis, Peter Cook, Colin Fournier. Other leading contemporary US architects include: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, John Rauch, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Bernard Tschumi.

Conceptual Art
The New Realist Yves Klein (1928-62); the postmodernist installation artist and sculptor Damien Hirst (b.1965).

Performance
The influential German avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys (1921-86); the postmodernist 'living sculptures' Gilbert & George (b.1943 & 1942).

Photography
Fine art photography is exemplified by the works of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), Cindy Sherman (b.1954) and Andreas Gursky (b.1955), to name but three of the greatest art photographers (1880-present). But please see also: Is Photography Art? For an explanation of terms used by camera artists, see: Art Photography Glossary.

Installation
The text artist Jenny Holzer (b.1950); multi-media artist Bruce Nauman (b.1941); performance artist and filmmaker Rebecca Horn (b.1944); installation artist Tracey Emin (b.1963).

Video
The South Korean multi-monitor artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006); and Bill Viola (b.1951) noted for his spectacular installations.

Earthworks/Environmental
The installation and earthworks artist Robert Smithson (1938-73); Christo and Jeanne-Claude (both b.1935) founders of empaquetage art; and the small-scale land artist Andy Goldsworthy (b.1956). For earthworks on a micro scale, see: ice sculpture and also the various forms of sand art.

Graffiti
The stencil artist Banksy (b.1973-4).

Computer Art
The pioneering exponents of computer art, Harold Cohen (b.1928), John Lansdown (1929-99) and Manfred Mohr (b.1938), as well as Michael Noll (b.1939), Mark Wilson (b.1943), Jeff Wall (b.1946), Orlan (b.1947), Gary Hill (b.1951), Andreas Gursky (b.1955), Christa Sommerer (b.1964), Christophe Bruno (b.1964), Dirk Paesmans (b.1965), Olga Kisseleva (b.1965), Feng Mengbo (b.1966), Laurent Mignonneau (b.1967), Sam Taylor-Wood (b.1967), Joan Heemskerk (b.1968), and Li Wei (b.1970).

What is the Most Expensive Piece of Contemporary Art?

Measured by auction sales prices, the world's most valuable contemporary work of art is: Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which sold at auction at Christie's New York in 2013, for $142.4 million. In second place is Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963), painted by Andy Warhol, which sold at auction (Sotheby's New York) in 2013, for $105.4 million. In third place is Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), by Mark Rothko, which sold for $86.9 million Christie's New York 2012. In fourth place is Triptych (1976), painted by Francis Bacon, which sold in 2008 for $86.3 million at Sotheby's New York. One of the highest-priced pieces of contemporary "sculpture" is For the Love of God, by Damien Hirst. A human skull recreated in platinum and studded with 8,061 diamonds, it sold to a consortium which included the artist and The White Cube Gallery for £50,000,000.

 

Who are Currently the Top-10 Best Selling Contemporary Artists?

According to auction results (July 2007-June 2008), the top-selling contemporary painters and sculptors were as follows:

1. Jeff Koons (b.1955)
2. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88)
3. Damien Hirst (b.1965)
4. Richard Prince (b.1949)
5. Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958)
6. Zeng Fanzhi (b.1964)
7. Yue Minjun (b.1962)
8. Takashi Murakami (b.1962)
9. Wang Guangyi, (b.1957)
10. Liu Xiaodong (b.1963)

Note: the above rankings do not take into account Hirst's September 2008 Sotheby's auction, which raised over £111 million.

What are the Most Famous Prizes for Contemporary Art?

There are numerous awards given by foundations, museums and government arts bodies for outstanding works of contemporary art, in a wide variety of categories. Here is a short selection. See also: Art News Headlines.

Artes Mundi Prize
Awarded bi-annually at the Artes Mundi Exhibition in Cardiff, Wales, in recognition of emerging artists from around the world whose work comments on the human condition and humanity from different cultural perspectives.

Carnegie Art Award
Annual prize for outstanding contemporary painting by artists born or living in the Nordic countries. Begun in 1998, it offers 3 prizes: of Swedish Krona 1,000,000, 600,000 and 400,000, as well as a scholarship of SEK 100,000 to a young artist. Based on nominations by 30 experts on Nordic contemporary art.

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize
Awarded to a contemporary photographer of any nationality, who has made the most significant contribution to fine art photography in Europe over the previous year. Begun in 1996 by The Photographers' Gallery in London to reward the best of contemporary photography. Prize money is £30,000.

Hugo Boss Prize
Bi-annual award worth US$100,000 - administered by the Guggenheim Museum - to a contemporary artist (or group of artists) working in any medium, anywhere in the world. Candidates are selected by a jury of curators, critics and scholars.

John Moores Painting Prize
Named after the Liverpool philanthropist, this is a bi-annual open painting competition with shortlisted entries exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool.

Kandinsky Prize
Award to promote outstanding contemporary Russian art, sometimes compared with the Turner Prize, which honours British contemporary artists. Nominees are selected by a jury of eminent Russian and international artists and curators, in addition to a renowned artist.

Larry Aldrich Award
Named after a US philanthropist, this annual $25,000 Prize is administered by the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and rewards American artists whose works have had a significant impact on contemporary visual culture during recent years. Candidates are short-listed and judged by an independent jury of artists, collectors, critics, curators, and gallerists.

Marcel Duchamp Prize (Prix Marcel Duchamp)
This annual award is given to an outstanding young artist residing in France, involved in any visual arts discipline including painting, sculpture, installation, photography and video. The winner receives €35,000 personally and a further €30,000 to finance a solo exhibition of their work in the National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Preis der Nationalgalerie fur Junge Kunst
Started in 2000 by the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie (Friends of the National Gallery), this €50,000 prize rewards outstanding work by a young contemporary artist living in Germany.

Roswitha Haftmann Prize
This award recognizes outstanding achievements in the visual arts, usually by a living artist. Candidates are selected purely for the artistic significance of their work, without regard to their nationality, age, or chosen discipline. The Prize is officially awarded at the Zurich Kunsthaus.

Turner Prize
Named after the distinguished 19th century landscape painter JMW Turner, this annual prize - begun in 1984 - is awarded to a British visual artist under 50. Run by the Tate gallery, and hosted at Tate Britain it is now the most famous art prize in Britain. Latterly, and somewhat controversially, it has been dominated by conceptual artists. See also Turner Prize Winners (1984-2009).

Vincent van Gogh Biennial Award for Contemporary Art in Europe
Awarded every two years to a European artist whom, it is considered, "will have significant, enduring impact on contemporary art." Instigated in 2000, and financed by The Broere Charitable Foundation in memory of Monique Zajfen. Works by selected candidates are shown at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the competition's jury is headed by the director of the museum.

Wolfgang Hahn Prize
Set up in 1994 by the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst and administered by the Museum Ludwig, in Cologne, this €100,000 prize rewards outstanding contemporary artists living in Germany.

 

Where Can You See Outstanding Collections of Contemporary Art?

The two principal exhibitions of modern art are: The Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia), an international showcase of works by contemporary artists around the world, which is held every two years, together with the Venice Film Festival; and the Whitney Biennial in New York, which showcases works of contemporary American art, usually by emerging artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, USA. The show is seen as a major trend-setting event in the contemporary art calendar. For more postmodernist shows, see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.

Many forms of contemporary art - including, installation, performance and video art - are now taught in the best art schools across Europe and America.

What are the Main Museums of Contemporary Art?

Private galleries typically react faster to avant-garde works of art than city or state museums. Moreover, official public collections typically tend to be hampered by more conservative or outdated premises. Here is a short selection of the Best Galleries of Contemporary Art. For the finest traditional venues, please see: Best Art Museums.

• Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (Connecticut)
• Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh)
Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh)
Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin
Guggenheim Bilbao
Guggenheim Venice
• Institute of Contemporary Arts (London)
• Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston)
Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin)
• Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Missouri)
Kunstmuseum Basel
Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
• Moderna Musset (Stockholm)
• Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris)
• Museum fur Moderne Kunst (Frankfurt am Main)
• Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago)
• Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles)
• Museum of Contemporary Art (Tokyo)
Museum of Modern Art (New York)
• Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin)
• Neues Museum (Nuremberg)
• New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York City)
Pinakothek der Moderne (Munich)
Pompidou Centre: French National Museum of Modern/Contemporary Art
Saatchi Gallery (London)
• San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum (New York)
• Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam)
Tate Modern (London)
Whitney Museum of American Art (New York)

Important Questions About Contemporary Art

Is it Art?

Few countries have witnessed more controversy over the value of post-modernist artworks than Britain, where the Turner Prize continues to arouse huge debate between the avant-garde and the rest. Its prize winning exhibits have included a dead sheep in formaldehyde (by Damian Hirst), a portrait of the Virgin Mary "painted" with elephant dung (by Chris Ofili), and a white room with a single light bulb that blinked on and off (by Martin Creed). Another strange entry (installation) which made it to the finals, was "My Bed" - an unmade bed soiled with condoms and tampons (by Tracy Emin). In 2002, when it was awarded to Keith Tyson for his creation of a large black monolithic block filled with discarded computers, not a single painter (reportedly) had been considered as a possible recipient of the prize. Instead, the jury preferred entries by Fiona Banner, (billboard filled with pornographic text), and Liam Gillick (ceiling constructed of multicolored plastic), to name but two somewhat outlandish works.

One can justifiably question the wisdom of the British arts establishment, when such things are held up as outstanding examples of art. Which was precisely what Kim Howells, the British Culture Minister, did in 2002 when he said (of the Turner Prize finalists' exhibits):

"If this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost. It is cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit."

The key question remains: "what is art?" That is to say, what exactly distinguishes contemporary conceptualist art from theatre, demonstration or entertainment? More bluntly, is postmodernism in danger of duplicating the fable of The Emperor's New Clothes?

See also: Contemporary British Painting.

What Makes a Talented Post-Modernist Artist?

What artistic skills is postmodernist art hoping to encourage? In earlier days, one could distinguish a master-artist - in painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, video, and numerous other art forms - by his theoretical and practical skills. However, in today's post-modernist era, which remains largely dominated by sensationalist conceptual artists, sorting the good from the bad has become far less easy. This lack of clarity continues to undermine the efforts of art colleges who struggle to teach basic fundamentals which no longer appear relevant to the attainment of artistic success.

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