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.” 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 In due course, postmodernism will be superceded by a newer “-ism” but both will be forms of Contemporary art.
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 However, most art historians now consider this to be outdated.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.
• 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?
How We Define Contemporary Art
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.
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…….
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.
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 are approximate.
- Pop Art (1960s onwards) Although it began as an expression of late modernism, it rapidly developed strong postmodernist tendencies, as well as a new focus on delivery and style. For example, Andy Warhol’s Pop Art.
- Word Art (1960s onwards) A type of painting or sculpture centered on word or text-based images. Leading artists associated with this movement include Robert Indiana (b.1928), Jasper Johns (b.1930), On Kawara (1932-2014) and Christopher Wool (b.1955).
- Conceptual Art (1960s onwards) The classic postmodernist art form in which the underlying idea (concept) is considered the essential component. A good example of conceptualism was the exhibition entitled “The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility” (2009) was held at the Pompidou Centre, in Paris. The show featured nine completely empty rooms.
- Performance Art (Early 1960s onwards) A form of avant-garde art based upon a live performance in front of a live audience by the artist, or others. Examples include the mass nudity events staged by Spencer Tunick.
- Happenings (1960s) A type of performance art in America, pioneered by Allan Kaprow (1927-2006). Inspired by Dada and Fluxus, a Happening is a theatrical artistic event. A recent development is the ‘Flash Mob’.
- Fluxus (1960s) A neo-Dada type of anti-art movement founded by George Maciunas, which first emerged in Germany before making its home in New York. Associated with Happenings and other street ‘events.’
- Installation Art (1960s onwards) A type of avant-garde art set in a physical space (like a room). By enveloping the spectator, or by intruding into his/her space, this artistic environment enables the artist to convey a message more powerfully. A prototype example is Schwitters’ Merzbau assemblage, which eventually filled a whole building.
- Video Art (1960s onwards) Increasingly popular post-modernist genre whose works may vary from a relatively normal-length piece of film, to a short loop of video containing 10-15 minutes worth of artistic content. Sometimes multiple monitors are used. Video clips are frequently employed as part of larger installations.
- Minimalism/Minimal Art (1960s onwards) A category of abstract painting or sculpture marked by extreme simplicity of form, and shorn of all emotional, historical or artistic ‘references’. The style is best illustrated by monochrome (or all-black or all-white) paintings; or sculptures, consisting of geometric often industrially-made materials. Important minimalists include Agnes Martin (1912-2004), noted for pencil grids; and Ad Reinhardt (1913-67) noted for his black-on-black paintings.
- Photorealism (1960s, 1970s) A style of painting or sculpture (also known as Hyperrealism or Superrealism) executed in photographic detail. Photorealist works are often created directly from blown-up photographs. Famous photorealists include Chuck Close, who specialized in huge self-portraits and Richard Estes, noted for his urban window reflections.
- Land Art (1960s) A form of wilderness art popularized by Robert Smithson, involving the use of natural raw materials like earth and rocks so as to interact with the landscape and create artistic shapes. Although it began as an idealistic anti-commercial art movement, it rapidly declined once artists discovered that only rich people could afford to visit the earthworks created. For earthworks on a micro scale, look up ice sculpture and also various forms of sand art.
- Photography (1960s onwards) Contemporary camera art is driven mainly by portrait photography (Annie Leibovitz), fashion photography (Helmut Newton), street photography (Garry Winogrand) and documentary photography (Don McCullin).
- Arte Povera (1966-71) An anti-commercial style of art – associated with a group of avant-garde artists in Italy, and championed by Enzo Sperone and Germano Celant – which was concerned mostly with the physical qualities of the materials used. Group members included Piero Manzoni, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Giuseppe Penone and others.
- Supports-Surfaces (1966-72) Conceptualist group of left-wing French artists who exhibited an ultra-minimalist type of ‘painting’ 1966-72. • Contemporary Realism (1970s) A style of painting which depicts down-to-earth subjects in a naturalistic manner. It embraces all post-modernist painters and sculptors who focus on figurative imagery, in order to portray the “real” rather than the ideal. Exemplified by the figure painting of Lucian Freud.
- Post-Minimalism (1970s) Reacting against the arid formalism of Minimal art, post-minimalists typically concentrated on the physical and creative processes involved. The leading exemplar of post-minimalism is Eva Hesse (1936-70).
- Feminist Art (1970s) An art movement involving female artists which addressed specific gender-based issues, such as motherhood, as well as wider issues like racism and employment conditions. Leading figures include Nancy Spero (1926-2009), Miriam Schapiro (1923-2015), Judy Chicago (b.1939), Barbara Kruger(b.1945), Joan Jonas (b.1936), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and others.
- New Subjectivity (1970s) A style of traditional art (anti-abstraction, anti-conceptualism) associated with the participants in “New Subjectivity”, an international exhibition in 1976 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Artists involved included David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Christian Zeimert, Michel Parre, Sam Szafran and others.
- London School (1970s) Group of figurative artists associated with London in the mid-1970s. They included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff.
- Graffiti Art (1970s) Popular type of outsider art which first emerged in the New York subway, later spreading to Europe and Japan. Graffiti artists painted with stencils and aerosol spray cans on subway trains, urban walls, roofs and billboards. Leading artists include David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Banksy.
- Neo-Expressionism (1980 onwards) A broad painting movement, established in opposition to lack-lustre Minimalism, which made use of colour, emotion, symbolism and narrative (that is, everything that Minimalists were trying to eradicate from their own work). In Germany, famous Neo-Expressionists include Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Gerhard Richter. Further afield, exponents include Robert Morris (b.1931), noted for his 1980s “Firestorm” series (USA).
- Transavanguardia (Trans-avant-garde) (1979 onwards) Italian variant of Neo-Expressionism associated with Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia and Mimmo Paladino.
- Young British Artists (Britart) (1980s) Group of avant-garde artists supported by millionaire art collector Charles Saatchi, who took contemporary art by storm during the 1980s and 90s. Famous YBAs include Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin, Glenn Brown, Sam Taylor-Wood, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mark Wallinger, Marc Quinn, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and others. See also: Contemporary Irish Artists (21st century) and 20th Century Irish Artists (1900-2000).
- Deconstructivism (1985-2010) Visually impressive style of architecture pioneered by Frank O’Gehry, and exemplified by Nationale Nederlanden Building (Prague).
- Neo-Pop (late-1980s onwards) A revival of Pop-art forms (recognizable objects, images of celebrities), Neo-Pop also borrowed elements from Dada as well as Conceptualism. Exemplified by the sculptural creations of Jeff Koons, the movement is also associated with works by Ashley Bickerton, Alan McCollum, and Haim Steinbach.
- Body Art (1990s) A type of art in which the body becomes the “canvas”. Most commonly seen in “performances” by artists like Marina Abramovic, or in contemporary body painting, as exemplified by Joanne Gair’s illusionist nude painting of Demi Moore (Vanity Fair August 1992). Also includes mime, “living statues”, tattoos and nail art as well as face painting of various types.
- Cynical Realism (China) (1990s) A sardonic style of figure painting with a critical attitude towards Chinese authorities post-Tiananmen Square, its leading exponents included Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang.
- Stuckism (1999 onwards) British art group led by Billy Childish, whose members rejected Conceptualism, Performance and Installation art, in favour of traditional representational styles of painting and sculpture. Launched the annual art exhibition known as “The Real Turner Prize Show”.
- New Leipzig School (2000 onwards) Traditional art school specializing in classical realism along the lines of mainstream academic art.
- Projection Art (Projection Mapping) (21st Century) The computer software assisted art of mapping video imagery onto buildings or other large surfaces.
- Computer Art (21st Century) Also known as Digital or Internet art, this category encompasses a wide variety of computer software-related art forms.
Characteristics of Contemporary Visual Artists
Contemporary or postmodernist artists typically are MORE concerned about (1) how art is made; or (2) how it is communicated displayed; or (3) how it is experienced by the spectator or visitor; and LESS concerned about the artwork itself, than their modernist forebears. They are much more interested in developing ideas and concepts – frequently employing mixed-media formats – than in handcrafting precious objects.
Luckily, just when postmodernism was emerging in the 1960s, several new types of art were being introduced – including conceptual art (pioneered by Yves Klein and the Nouveau Realisme movement – for details, please see: Yves Klein’s Postmodernist art 1956-62). Other new artforms included happenings; environments, installation art and assemblage; film and video art.
These new artforms allowed visual artists to tackle a range of new questions and extend the boundaries of visual art as they did so. Even the more traditional forms of fine art, like drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking and architecture, began to be taught and practiced with reference to a more up-to-date set of values. Thus Georg Baselitz (b.1938) for instance, had no compunction about painting his figures upside down; while Christopher Wool (b.1955) made his name in word art, and Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) made sculptures out of giant ‘apple-cores’ and ‘hamburgers’. Above all, 1960s artists began to explore how their artworks were experienced by the spectator. This attitude began with Pop Art and its attempt to make art recognizable and accessible to Joe Public. Former commercial artists like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist brought their advertising poster techniques to bear on the fine art market, and introduced a bright new style of imagery that delighted viewers and filled the art museums.
Postmodernist artists have taken this to a new level. Christopher Wool has continued and enhanced the Pop tradition of word painting begun by Pop artist Robert Indiana, twenty years before; Damien Hirst placed a pickled tiger shark in a cage and called it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living; Richard Wilson filled a room with sump oil and called it 20:50. These ground-breaking installations – both showcased at the cutting-edge Saatchi gallery owned by art collector Charles Saatchi – represented a spectacular change on the usual type of museum exhibit and exemplify the new aesthetics of postmodernism.
Most Successful Contemporary Artists
According to 2013 auction results, the Top 20 best-selling contemporary artists are as follows:
- Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) American graffiti artist.
- Gerhard Richter (b.1932) German postmodernist painter, photographer.
- Christopher Wool (b.1955) American artist noted for his ‘word paintings’.
- Jeff Koons (b.1955) American Neo-Pop artist.
- Zeng Fanzhi (b.1964) Chinese expressionist painter.
- Bruce Nauman (b.1941) US postmodernist sculptor, installationist.
- Zhou Chunya (b.1955) Chinese Neo-Expressionist artist.
- Peter Doig (b.1959) Scottish contemporary painter.
- Chen Yifei (1946-2005) Chinese oil painter.
- Damien Hirst (b.1965) Young British Artist, installationist.
- Mark Grotjahn (b.1968) US contemporary abstract painter.
- Sigmar Polke (b.1941) German Neo-Expressionist painter, photographer.
- Andreas Gursky (b.1955) German art photographer, computer artist.
- Anish Kapoor (b.1954) India-born large-scale sculptor.
- Yang Feiyun (b.1954) Chinese realist painter.
- Richard Prince (b.1949) American conceptual artist.
- John Currin (b.1962) American figure painter.
- Ai Xuan (b.1947) Chinese realist painter.
- Yoshitomo Nara (b.1959) Japanese Pop sculptor.
- Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958) Chinese Cynical Realist painter.
And for even more information…. check out Cork’s Visual Arts massive Contemporary Art site.