Contemporary Art (1970-present)
is Contemporary Art?
For the top postmodernist artists
born after 1945,
VISUAL ARTS CATEGORIES
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." Postmodernism denotes the main style-trend after Modernism, 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 In due course, postmodernism will be superceded by a newer "-ism" but both will be forms of Contemporary art.
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
Skipping the theoretical stuff, there are three main meanings or usages of the terms "Contemporary Art."
Art produced after 1945.
Art produced in our era or lifetimes.
Art produced since the 1960s.
How We Define Contemporary Art
In this article, we take the 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! This is why we use 1970 as the cut-off date, because by then the transition was pretty much complete. For more chronological details, please see: History of Art Timeline (800 BCE - present).
The answer to this question requires an entire book. We only have a paragraph, so here goes. First, some background. Renaissance art established the basis for Western art after the Medieval era. 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 (Academie 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.
It was Edouard Manet in the early 1860s along with the French Impressionists, whose revolutionary subjective style of painting ushered in the era of Modern Art. This period witnessed a succession of modern art movements - including Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Op-Art, to name but a tiny few. (For more, see Art Movements & Styles.) 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" 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.
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, Projection art, 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.
Here is a short list of selected schools/styles of contemporary art, arranged in rough chronological order. Dates are approximate.
Art (1960s onwards)
Other Artist Groups
Other minor contemporary art groups, or styles, include:
The period from the mid-1960s to the present day has witnessed a number of talented postmodernist artists, across the genres. Here is a short selection of the most celebrated individuals in various categories of visual arts. Some, like Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol - today's most valuable artists - could be classified as 'modernists' of pre-1970 vintage, but are included here due to their essentially "post-modernist" approach.
Include 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 semi-abstract impastoist and portraitist Frank Auerbach (b.1931); the figurative artist Fernando Botero (b.1932); the Neo-Expressionists Gerhard Richter (b.1932) and Georg Baselitz (b.1938); the subject painter Jack Vettriano (b.1951); and the figure painter Jenny Saville (b.1970). For contemporary abstract works, see Cy Twombly (1928-2011), famous for his signature style of painting, combining elements of calligraphy and graffiti; Frank Stella (b.1936) a pioneer of experimental minimalism; and Sean Scully (b.1945), noted for his large-format abstracts.
Include the conceptualist Sol LeWitt (b.1928); the New Realist Arman (1928-2005); the minimalists Donald Judd (1928-1994) and Carl Andre (b.1935), the large-scale sculptor Richard Serra (b.1939); the 'feminist' sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010); the superrealist John De Andrea (b.1941); the sculptor and installationist Antony Gormley (b.1950); the monumentalist Anish Kapoor (b.1954); and the Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons (b.1955).
Leading figures in late 20th century architecture include: Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), pioneer of deconstructivism; Daniel Libeskind; the firm Coop Himmelblau, (founded by Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky and Michael Holzer); Lars Spuybroek, Kas Oosterhuis, Peter Cook and 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.
Include the influential German avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys (1921-86), whose performances included the avant-garde "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare" (1965); and the postmodernist 'living sculptures' Gilbert Proesch (b.1943) and George Passmore (b.1942), better known as Gilbert & George. More extreme forms of Performance include the genre of body art performed by the Serbian artist Marina Abramovic and the German Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen). Other celebrated performance artists include the avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b.1929), known for her happenings; Joan Jonas (b.1936), noted for her performance videos; and the Brazilian experimental artist Helio Oiticica (1937-80), founder of Grupo Neoconcreto.
Postmodernist photographic art is exemplified by the controversial works of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), Andreas Gursky (b.1955), and Cindy Sherman (b.1954). Contemporary portrait photography is best illustrated by the camera work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) and Annie Leibovitz (b.1949). Contemporary fashion photography is exemplified by the works of Helmut Newton (1920-2004), David Bailey (b.1938), Mario Testino (b.1954), Patrick Demarchelier (b.1943), Nick Knight (b.1958) and David LaChapelle (b.1963). Contemporary documentary photography is represented by the camera art of Don McCullin (b.1935), James Nachtwey (b.1948) and Steve McCurry (b.1950); while street photography is best illustrated by the work of Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), Ed Ruscha (b.1937) and Nan Goldin (b.1953). Postmodernist pictorialism is exemplified by the work of Jeff Wall (b.1946) of the Vancouver School who specializes in "staged photography". See also the compelling b/w architectural photographs of Bernd/Hilla Becher (1931-2007).
The text artist Jenny Holzer (b.1950); multi-media artist Bruce Nauman (b.1941); performance artist and filmmaker Rebecca Horn (b.1944); French artist Christian Boltanski (b.1944), noted for his installations of photographs; the celebrated YBA Damien Hirst (b.1965); the artist and curator Tracey Emin (b.1963); and Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Javacheff) (b.1935) founders of empaquetage art.
The South Korean multi-monitor artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006); and Bill Viola (b.1951) noted for his spectacular installations.
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), Orlan (b.1947), Gary Hill (b.1951), 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).
Measured by auction sales prices, the world's most valuable contemporary work of art is: Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) by Francis Bacon, 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 a reputed £50 million.
Here is a list of the Top 50 works of contemporary or postmodern art (from the late 1960s onwards), as selected by our Editor. They are drawn from a total of eleven categories, including: paintings (15), sculptures (11), architectural design (6), photography (9), installation art (3), earthworks (1), posters (1), body painting (1), graffiti (1), projection art (1), and graphic art (1).
"A Bigger Splash" (1967)
"Mao" (1973) Art Institute
"Theatre de Gerard Philipe"
(1975) Unterlindenmuseum, Colmar
Three Studies for a Self-Portrait
(1979-80) Metropolitan Museum, New York
"Cabeza" (1982) Private
"Apocalypse Now" (1988)
"Lot's Wife" (1989) The
Cleveland Museum of Art.
"Bedroom at Arles" (1992)
Fitzhugh Farm, Robert/Jane Meyerhoff Collection
"The Singing Butler" (1992)
"No Woman, No Cry" (1998)
Tate Modern, London
"Dancers at the Bar" (2001)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
"Woman Taking off Man's Shirt in
two Stages" (2003) Private Collection
"1000 Thread Count" (2004)
Gagosian Gallery, New York
"Rainbow City" (2006)
"The Englands" (2008)
"Broken Obelisk" (1969)
Museum of Modern Art, New York
"LOVE" Sculpture (original)
(1970) Indianapolis Museum of Art
"Ice Cream Van" (1970)
"Model in Repose" (1981)
National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh
"The Time of All" (1989)
Saint Lazare Station, Paris
"Puppy" (1992) Bilbao
"Apple Core" (1992) Israel
"Balloon Dogs" (1994-2000)
"Aspiration" (1995) The
Treasury Building, Dublin
"Cloud Gate" (2006) AT&T
Plaza at Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois
"For the Love of God"
Pompidou Centre (Beaubourg, Paris)
Nationale Nederlanden Building, Prague
(1992-97) (aka "Ginger and Fred")
"Egyptian" Louvre Pyramid
(1998) Cour Napoleon, Louvre, Paris
Experience Music Project (1999-2000)
The London Eye (2000) South Bank,
London (Europe's tallest Ferris wheel)
The Spire of Dublin (Monument of
Light) (2002-3) O'Connell Street, Dublin
"Teenage Couple on Hudson Street,
New York" (1963)
"Preening in the Kitchen"
(1977) Museum of Modern Art, New York
"Misty and Jimmy" (1980)
Double portrait of John Lennon and Yoko
"They Are Coming" (1981)
"Afghan Girl" (1984)
"Paris Montparnasse" (1993)
"A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)"
"Self Portrait Suspended"
"Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (1991) Tiger shark installation by Damien Hirst (b.1965)
"Controller of the Universe"
"Broken Circle" (1971)
Emmen, The Netherlands
CONTEMPORARY POSTER ART
"Tennis Girl" (1976)
"Demi-Moore's Birthday Suit"
(front cover of Vanity Fair, August 1992)
"Shop Until You Drop"
(2011) Mayfair, London
Milan Cathedral Projection Art (Christmas,
CONTEMPORARY GRAPHIC ART
"I shop therefore I am"
"Steve Jobs Head of Apple Quits"
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
Carnegie Art Award
Deutsche Borse Photography Prize
Hugo Boss Prize
John Moores Painting Prize
Larry Aldrich Award
Marcel Duchamp Prize (Prix Marcel
Preis der Nationalgalerie fur Junge
Roswitha Haftmann Prize
Vincent van Gogh Biennial Award for
Contemporary Art in Europe
Wolfgang Hahn Prize
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.
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.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Since the 1960s, the "arts establishment" (meaning: government officials who control the Arts Budgets; directors/owners of galleries; curators of exhibitions; committees that run the important artist-organizations; teaching staff in arts colleges, and so on) as well as the contemporary art now being practised and encouraged, has become significantly more radical. This raises the following questions:
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 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):
The key question remains: "what is art?" Or to put it another way, what distinguishes contemporary conceptualist art from theatre, demonstration or entertainment?
What's the Difference Between Good and Bad Contemporary Artists?
What artistic skills is postmodernist art hoping to encourage? In earlier days, one could distinguish a master-artist - in painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and other art forms - by his theoretical and practical skills. However, in today's postmodernist era - an era still dominated by conceptual artists - sorting the good artist/art from the bad artist/art has become far more difficult. 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.
Is Contemporary Art in Danger of Becoming Elitist?
In the old days, art belonged to an elite few. Ordinary people were not considered to be sufficiently "cultured" to be able to understand or critique a work of art. From the beginning of the 20th century all this began to change, as society itself changed. And in the 1960s, the Pop Culture revolution swept away most of the traditionalism that remained, leaving the field open to a new generation of radical-minded "arts professionals". The latter encouraged the emergence of new art forms (installation, performance, video etc.), most of which found their way into mainstream third-level arts courses. So far, so good. However, at the same time, instead of continuing to encourage excellence in traditional disciplines, like painting and sculpture, the new arts establishment appears to have positively discouraged them. Thus it is now possible (as our Editor discovered) to visit a Graduation Show at a prestigious art college, and find not one single example of oil painting or stone sculpture. Even this isn't a disaster. After all, times change. And maybe traditional art forms are no longer cool. Unfortunately, the new art forms (which - as far as students are concerned - are extremely cool because they don't actually require half the skill needed by the traditional forms) are beginning to be judged not by their "visual appeal", but by their "intellectualism". An installation, for instance, may be visually quite unappealing, but its underlying intellectual idea (as outlined in jargon-filled language in the exhibition catalogue) may be seen as "important" by curators and other "experts" - the new "intellectual elite". Trouble is, this is sounds suspiciously like the old days, when ordinary folk weren't trusted to give an opinion on what they saw with their own eyes, but had to defer to the old elite.
A good example of this born-again elitism was the exhibition of "Nothing", held at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, in Spring 2009. The cutting-edge contemporary art on display consisted of exactly 9 empty rooms, and nothing else. The show was acclaimed by French art critics as the most radical show ever seen at the Pompidou Centre. According to Laurent Le Bon, curator of the Pompidou Metz, the exhibition was "at the frontline of artistic venture and art history".
And just to give you an idea of the elitist jargon-filled language used by the organizers of the show, here is the title of the exhibition: "The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility."
For more about postmodern or contemporary art, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART