Postmodernist Art
Postmodernism in Late 20th Century Visual Arts.

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Nationale Nederlanden Building,
Prague (1992-97)
By architect Frank Gehry, the
founder of deconstructivism,
the most distinctive form of
postmodernist architecture.

Postmodernist Art
Definition, Characteristics, History


Characteristics of Postmodernist Art
Postmodernist Art: Aesthetics & Public Response
The Future
Postmodernist Artists (Top 100)

• For the top 50 postmodernist art museums,
see: Best Galleries of Contemporary Art.

• For details of the world's 30 Best Contemporary Art Festivals,
see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.

Postmodernist Body Painting (2008)
Breathing new life into a traditional
art form.

Definition of Postmodernist Art:

An avant-garde form of contemporary art, postmodernism has been described as "A late 20th Century style and conceptual theory in the arts and architecture, characterized by a general distrust of ideologies as well as a rather 'difficult' relationship with what constitutes art."

It sounds pretty simple. It's only when you start digging and uncover tricky concepts like "modernity" (not the same as modernism) and "post-modernity" (different to postmodernism) that your head starts to spin. So let's skip the complex stuff and focus on a few essentials. Art critics, historians, curators and PhD students of contemporary aesthetics, can stop here.

Sleeper, by Mark Wallinger, Winner
Of Turner Prize (2007). The 2-hour
film shows the artist, dressed in a
bear suit wandering around the
Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
For details of the shortlisted
artists for the Turner Prize, the
jury and winners, please see:
Turner Prize Winners.

To learn about the contemporary
plastic arts, please see:
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture
19th/20th century sculptors.

For a quick reference guide,
see: 20th Century Painters.

For a list of important modernist
pictures, by top painters, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For more information, see:
Contemporary Art Movements.

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

Characteristics of Postmodernist Art

Before explaining postmodernist art, let's talk about modern art - the style it replaced.

Modern Artists Believe Life and/or Art Has Meaning

Modern art is usually associated with the era 1860-1960s - basically from Impressionism to half-way through the Pop-Art movement. Modern artists (like all practitioners of modernism) believed in the fundamental scientific laws of reason and rational thought. They also believed that life had meaning - at least until the senseless butchery of World War I. (See: Dada.) Even after the war, they still believed that sufficient meaning could be rediscovered by a combination of unprejudiced rational thought and art. (Example: Surrealism.) The existential character of Jackson Pollock's paintings may be seen as heralding a major shift in painting conventions, which was further developed by Neo-Dada, Pop and Minimalist artists.

Disillusionment Sets In

Unfortunately, by the mid-1960s, this confidence had wilted under the successive hammer blows of the Nazi Holocaust, post-colonial rigidity, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, causing people to become progressively more disillusioned about the inherent meaning and value of life (and art). Of course not everyone, and not all artists, became disillusioned. One group who maintained their faith were those in the upper reaches of the organizational hierarchies of society, including the arts. This naturally led to tension between them and others lower down.

In architecture, the situation was slightly different. Modernist building design was characterized by a desire to create a brand new style for "modern man". Modernist architects wanted to eliminate all historical references and create something entirely fresh. (So no Greek columns, Gothic style arches, or any other reminders of 'past' styles.) Unfortunately, this led to a universal style of minimalist regularity (think Twin Towers, New York; or the National Theatre London), leavened with some truly awful Brutalism - the concrete apartment blocks with tiny windows. Mercifully, around 1970, Postmodernist architects began to re-humanize late 20th century architecture by designing structures with interesting features, taken from popular culture and from more traditional styles. See American Architecture, for more details of both modernism and postmodernism.


The Postmodern Era

The post-60s period in visual art and design has been characterized by a number of factors:

• A widespread disillusionment with life, as well as the power of existing value-systems and/or technology to effect beneficial change. As a result, authority, expertise, knowledge and eminence of achievement has become discredited. Artists have become more and more wary about "big ideas." New styles of art have failed to attract them in the way that Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism or Surrealism captured the imagination of earlier generations. Small is now good, so postmodernist schools have tended to be more local.

• New educational priorities, which began to emphasize the pursuit of skills rather than knowledge-for-its own sake. As a result, artists and art students became less interested in absorbing the traditions and craft of their subject, and instead focused on mastering production techniques. Individual creativity and interpretation have become as (or more) important than the gradual acquisition of painterly skills.

• The emergence of new image-based technologies (eg. Television, video, screenprinting, computers, the Internet, LEDs), which generated a huge wave of film and photographic imagery - of places, events and international celebrities - and lessened reliance on draughtsmanship, in the process. By manipulating this new technology, artists (inc. painters, printmakers, sculptors and others involved in newer forms like installation) have been able to short-cut the traditional processes involved in "making art," but still create something new. Two interesting examples are the documentary photography of Diane Arbus, which focuses on freaks and members of minorities in New York City, and the street photography of Gary Winogrand. Another example is the video art of the Korean-American Nam June Paik (1932-2006).

• The growth of consumerism and instant gratification over the last few decades of the 20th century has also had a huge impact on the visual arts. Modern consumers want novelty. They also want entertainment. In response, many top contemporary artists, curators and other professionals have taken the opportunity to turn art into a "product." For example, installation and video have allowed consumers to experience art in a much more pro-active way. The public's desire to be shocked and stimulated has been met, if not satisfied, by new artistic subject-matter, like dead tiger sharks, huge ice-sculptures, crowds of of nude bodies, demonstrations of dying flies, islands wrapped in pink polypropylene fabric, sand art, and so on. Whether these new so-called artforms actually constitute "art" remains a hotly-contested issue. The avant-garde conceptualists say "Yes", the traditionists say "No".

Collections of Postmodernist Art
For two excellent displays of postmodernist art, visit the Saatchi Gallery, in London, or the Guggenheim, New York.


Postmodernism In a Nutshell

To paraphrase Andy Warhol, "anyone can be famous for 15 minutes". This idea, more than any other, sums up the postmodernist age. Faced with a new non-sensical world, the postmodernist response has been:

Okay, let's play around with this nonsense. We accept that life and art no longer have any obvious intrinsic meaning, but so what? Let's experiment, make art more interesting, and see where it leads. Who knows, maybe we can be famous for 15 minutes!

Impact of Postmodernism

The postmodern approach has proved extremely popular with many students of fine art. Suddenly, instead of having to work tirelessly at honing their painterly skills in draughtsmanship, perspective, composition, colour theory and all the other things required by traditional artists, they could dream up a nifty idea, issue a suitably "meaningful" manifesto and Bingo! They were famous. Or at least that's how it seemed.

Meanwhile those painters and sculptors who had acquired those painstaking traits, were iced by an arts establishment who embraced postmodernism with Stalinesque rigour. Thus for example in Britain, in 2002, when the prestigious Turner Prize was won by Keith Tyson for his creation of a large black monolithic block filled with discarded computers, not a single painter had been considered as a possible recipient of the prize.

This cocktail of experimentation, focus on instant process, and enhanced communication facilities, has led inexorably to a huge shift in the way art is perceived, produced and promoted. Conceptualism is now a dominant force, and its advocates within the arts establishment are now in a position to determine what constitutes such important things as "innovation", or "outstanding art". One can't help feeling that the "meaning" of an artwork has now overtaken its aesthetic qualities, thus relegating the notion of craftsmanship to a second division form of art. This has significant implications, not just for art students seeking to acquire skills, but also for professional artists competing for public commissions and exhibition space.

Postmodern Art Movements

So far, there have been no great international art movements during the postmodernist period. Instead, the era has been characterized by a number of national movements along with several brand new artforms. In addition, there have been dozens of artistic splinter groups, as well as one or two anti-postmodernist schools whose members have endeavoured to produce the sort of art that Michelangelo or Picasso would have been proud of. Here is a brief list of the main post-modern movements, with explanatory comments.

Pop Art (1960s onward)
Championed by Andy Warhol (1928-87) who made fine art from banal, mass-produced imagery. For more, see Andy Warhol's Pop Art of the sixties and seventies.

Conceptual Art (1960s onward)
Original objects of art are boring: it's the idea that counts. See Yves Klein.

Performance Art and Happenings (Early 1960s onwards)
Pioneered by such figures as John Cage (1912-92), this genre became a new way to make art accessible to the masses. See also Gilbert & George.

Installation Art (1960s onwards)
A new way to draw spectators INTO the artwork. Made extensive use of "found objects" - as exemplified by Tracey Emin's My Bed (1999).

Video (1960s onwards). See also: Animation.
Art becomes dynamic, more absorbing, more exciting. Both video and animation are becoming dependent on the use of computer art to manipulate and control images.

Minimalism (1960s onwards)
A refuge of intellectual painters and sculptors anxious about "purity" in art.

Photorealism (1960s, 1970s)
Copying photographs is easier and more fun than learning how to pain portraits. See Chuck Close.

Land Art (mid-1960s)
No greedy commercial galleries involved (supposedly). Championed by the experimental artist Robert Smithson (1938-73). See also the 'wrapping' interventions in nature, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (both b.1935).

Supports-Surfaces (c.1966-72)
Experimental shock tactics to gain fame.

Post-Minimalism (1971 onwards)
A fun way to create objective art that deteriorates.

New Subjectivity (1970s)
A halfway-house between classical art and postmodern anarchy. Fabulous works!

Graffiti Art (Late 1960s/early 1970s onwards)
Ultimate postmodernist movement: instant painting, instant fame. See the biography of graffiti terrorist and street artist Banksy (b.1973-4). For the most successful graffiti painter, see: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88), the New York stencil artist who went mainstream.

Neo-Expressionism (1979 onwards)
The rebirth of painting!?

Young British Artists/ Britart (Late 1980s/1990s)
Combination of breathtaking business-savvy opportunism and shocking ideas. An explosion of extreme bad taste dressed up as art. The public loved it. Three of the most famous YBAs are Damien Hirst (b.1965), Tracey Emin (b.1963) and Jenny Saville (b.1970). The group's main sponsor was the art collector Charles Saatchi.

Art Photography
The YBAs were just one of several postmodernist groups to champion the use of camera art. In fact, works by the greatest photographers soon passed the $1 million mark at auction. But see also: Is Photography Art? For the best in postmodernist art photography, see: Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Nan Goldin (b.1953) and Andreas Gursky (b.1955). For painters with links to photography, see Gerhard Richter (b.1932) and Ed Ruscha (b.1937).

Neo-Pop Art (late 1980s onwards)
Huge plastic sculptures of children's toys and lots more in the same vein, exemplified by the works of Jeff Koons (b.1955).

• Postmodernist Sculpture (1970s onwards)
Postmodernist plastic art has been heavily influenced by the following artists: Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), the Swiss kinetic artist; the superrealist sculptors Duane Hanson (1925-96) and John De Andrea (b.1941); the Frenchman Arman (1928-2005), known for his "accumulations"; the minimalists Donald Judd (1928-94), Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) and Robert Morris (b.1931); the pop-art sculptor Claes Oldenburg (b.1929); Richard Serra (b.1939) and Anish Kapoor (b.1954), both known for their large-scale public works; Bruce Naumann (b.1941), the innovative postmodernist artist best known for his neon sculptures.

Deconstructivism (1980s-2000)
Postmodernist style of architecture, exemplified by the work of Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), as well as Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi and the Co-op Himmelblau group. Gravity-defying Deconstructivist architecture often involves computer-assisted designwork using high-tech software, as well as the resources of cutting-edge firms of architects like Skidmore Owings and Merrill.


Postmodernist Splinter Art Groups

In keeping with the contemporary post-modern idea that most 20th century ideological systems are flawed, if not actually bankrupt, and that salvation (if it exists at all) lies in "local" rather "global" schools of painting, sculpture and other artforms, contemporary artists have tended to associate in small groups. Information on the individual styles of these mini-postmodernist movements can be hard to come by, but if you want to research them here is short list, in approximate chronological order:

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

NOTE: For a brief guide to art trends and styles from classical antiquity onwards, please see: Art Movements, Periods, Schools.

Postmodernist Art

The Challenging Aesthetics of Postmodernism

Equivalent 1 (1966, Kunstmuseum, Basel) by Carl Andre (b.1935) is one of those works of art that need to be explained by an expert before it can be appreciated. It's a postmodernist minimalist sculpture consisting of 120 regular building bricks. The bricks are laid on top of each other on the floor in two layers of 60 bricks, set out in a precise rectangular configuration of three units by twenty units. At first glance, this masterpiece of contemporary art looks like something you might see on a super-tidy building site. Fortunately, your art gallery catalogue tells you that Andre took his radical decision to make art flat on the floor in 1965, when canoeing on a lake in New Hampshire. What's more, this majestic pile of minimalist bricks exemplifies his artistic creed that "form = structure = place." As it happens, the original Equivalent 1 was "destroyed" in 1966 and "remade" in 1969. (Maybe they needed the bricks for something).

Another exciting work, this time of postmodernist performance art, ocurred in December last year, when Rita Marcalo (b.1962), an award-winning choreographer and long-time epilepsy sufferer induced a fit at the Bradford Playhouse in England, in order to educate people about epilepsy. Marcalo received a British Arts Council grant of almost £14,000 for his creative efforts.

However this postmodernist happening is nothing in comparison to the antics of the American postmodernist performance artist Chris Burden (b.1946). He became famous during the 1970s for burning, shooting and impaling himself, and afterwards selling "relics" of his self-destructive acts in art galleries in Los Angeles. Who said art was boring?

Postmodernist Art Liked By Public

Lest you get the impression that (eg) all art since the mid-1960s has been a load of rubbish, or that all Britart is complete nonsense, I should emphasize that a good deal of avant-garde art has been well-received by the general public - as interesting, stimulating and innovative - and bears comparison with a lot of stuff produced by earlier masters, including Picasso. This is especially true in the field of video, animation and installation, and in the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Also, one should not forget that the earlier modern era produced its fair share of flakes and fruitcakes, as well as such gobsmacking masterpieces as "Fountain" (1917) - a relica of a public urinal - by the legendary avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp.

The Ultimate in Postmodernism
In March 2009, the French National Museum of Contemporary Art at the Pompidou Centre in Paris staged the ultimate exhibition of postmodernist art. Entitled The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility, it consisted of nine completely empty rooms. Echoes of Le Void, Yves Klein's ground-breaking show held at the Galerie Iris Clert, in Paris, in 1958!

The Future of Postmodernist Art

In its present "conceptualist" form, post-modern art will no doubt continue to produce arresting works to satisfy the public. After all, we live in an age dominated by TV programs like Big Brother, endless TV Soaps, and a host of foods that are injurious to our health. Against this background, I'm sure that contemporary artworks featuring cute nail art, diamond-encrusted skulls, dead sharks, and crowds of naked subjects, will do very nicely. Whether these creative gems constitute art: whether they can be legitimately regarded as "aesthetic": whether they are capable of maintaining the varied traditions of previous artists like John Singer Sargent, Ansell Adams, or Jackson Pollock - let alone Rembrandt or Vermeer: and whether they are capable of inspiring younger generations - these are all very different questions, which require answers from someone much cleverer than myself.



• For information about modern artists, see: 20th Century Irish Artists.
• For more about postmodernist conceptualism, see: Homepage.

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