Abstract Expressionism (1940s-Late 1950s) Post-war Europe Abstract Painting and Sculpture Pop Art (Late 1950s-Late 1960s) Op Art and Kinetic Art (1960s) Minimal Art (Mid 1960s-1980s) Assemblage, Junk and Land Art Conceptual Art (Late 1960s-Late 1970s) Figurative Painting Superrealism (Late 1960s-Late 1970s) Feminist ArtNeo-Expressionism (Mid 1970s-Late 1980s) and Graffiti Art New Media Contemporary Sculpture Australian Aboriginal Art Europe Today Africa Today North America Today
Abstract Expressionism flowered in the 1940s and „50s in NewYork. It covered a variety of painting styles, but all its practitioners conveyed astrong emotional content, emphasized the sensuousness of paint, and generallyworked on large canvases. The Surrealists were a major influence on the Abstract Expressionists,who adopted their ideas of unleashing the power of the unconscious, paintingautomatically, and a style known as “biomorphism,” which was based on non-geometric shapes and motifs to evoke living things. The two major groups of Abstract Expressionists were the Actionpainters and the Color Field painters. Action painters created works full ofdrama, with the paint applied urgently and passionately. Thus the “act” ofpainting becomes the content of the work and the image reflects a heightenedstate of consciousness and the raw emotions of the artist while creating it.Paint is often poured, dripped, and spattered on the canvas. The work of the Color Field painters is quieter, contemplative, carefullyconstructed, and emphasizes the emotional force of color. These works areintended to create transcendental feelings of awe and wonder—and to create aheightened state of consciousness—on the part of the viewer. Abstract Expressionism was also a response to post-war Americansociety. In a conservative and increasingly homogenized culture, artists felt aneed to communicate their innermost feelings and experiences. In doing so,they created the first American art movement to achieve worldwide influence.
World War II decimated much of Europe, leaving it politically dividedand economically devastated. In western Europe, post-war art reflected thesocial unease of the period. The artistic climate of post-war Europe was one ofrigor, with artists engaging with the political and philosophical issues of thetime. After the exhilaration of victory in the war, there was a long period ofuncertainty. The atrocities of the war created an existential crisis in France, andartists across the continent struggled with the same issues. Art representedpolitical freedom, and contemporary work became a matter of prestige. Although Surrealism attracted fewer followers, it had the greatestinfluence of all the prewar art movements, as many of the leading figures of thepost-war period were linked to Surrealism in their youth. The choice between abstract or figurative work took on a differentflavor in the post-war climate. Figurative painting was often associated with thepolitical left, partly because it claimed to address social issues and partlybecause modernist art was still discouraged in the eastern EuropeanCommunist countries. In France, Italy, and Britain there was still a strongcurrent of realist art, which was interpreted by some as politically motivated. Abstract art abandoned the geometric purity of work from the interwaryears. Existentialist philosophy, popularized by French writers Albert Camus andJean-Paul Sartre, influenced artists all over Europe. It promoted freedom,stating that humans had to be responsible for their own values in an absurdworld.
For artists working in postwar America of the early 1950s,Abstract Expressionism was the dominant influence, yet some werelooking for new ways of interpreting abstract painting. A secondgeneration of Abstract Artists emerged, using innovative techniques ina less subjective style and avoiding painterly gesture. Experimenting with highly diluted oil and acrylic paint to developa radical new “soak stain” technique, they developed a distinctive andpurely abstract style. The techniques they developed resulted in a widevariety of interpretations, from color field paintings through hard-edgegeometric compositions to complex mixed-media work. Often on a hugescale, their work was absolutely non-representational and characterizedby a clarity of composition and color. Although post-painterly abstraction was initially an Americanmovement concerned almost exclusively with painting, its influence soonspread—most importantly to Britain, where it manifested itself in a schoolof abstract sculpture. Using industrial materials such as sheet metal andplastic, British artists created simple, geometric, abstract forms andpainted them in flat, bold primary colors. Like their paintings, thesesculptures were often on a massive scale, requiring industrial equipmentto cut and assemble.
Pop art challenged the distinction between “high” and “low” art andbecame the dominant art movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Britain and theU.S. The term was first coined in the mid-1950s to describe a group of youngBritish artists and soon caught on in the U.S. Pop art can be seen as a reaction against the “art for art‟s sake”philosophy of post-war abstract art. More than any other movement in modernart, Pop art achieved widespread commercial success largely because it usedfamiliar iconography in a figurative style. The striking imagery of popularculture that young artists saw all around them--in Hollywood movies, in thegraphics used in advertising and packaging, comic strips, cartoons, andtelevision--provided the bold new iconography they needed to debunk thestuffiness of the art world. Rejection of the painterly techniques of Abstract Expressionismprompted Pop artists to return to a figurative style and to the adopt clean linesand flat colors of Hard-Edge painting. The bold, stylized imagery of commercialart led to a detached and sometimes ironic style, with connotations of massproduction rather than individuality. As well as portraying mundane images of everyday life in the style ofadvertising billboards and comic strips, some artists incorporated the objectsthemselves into their work. Others adopted techniques such as screenprinting,creating a marketable product rather than a work of art. The Pop artists‟ workwas characterized by humor and satire, exposing the consumerist values andobsessions of contemporary society.
During the 1960s, Op art and Kinetic art became immensely popularand, in the case of Op art, the subject of much commercial interest andexploitation. Op, or “optical” art, is painting that utilizes the illusions andoptical effects that our eyes perceive. Kinetic art refers to works that have realor apparent motion. Both had their origins in the early years of the 20th century,and retain their importance today. The term “Op” art first appeared in 1964, and it has links with the use ofornament, anamorphosis (visual distortion), and trompe l‟oeil effects in arthistory, and the colored and graphic effects of the Post-Impressionists,Futurists, Dadaists, and the Bauhaus artists--as well as psychological researchinto the relationship of the mind to the eye and the nature of perception itself.Op artists use color, line, and shape to produce shimmering, shifting,sometimes dazzling surfaces that lend the work the appearance of motion. Boththe geometric images and colors are worked out in advance to achieve theintended effect--which is often produced by studio assistants rather than theartist, as technical rather than artistic skills are required. Op Art was adoptedas part of the 1960s counterculture movement in music, fashion, and design. Kinetic art first appeared in the years between 1913-20, but it wasn‟tuntil the 1960s that it was established as a movement in its own right. Kineticart is a diverse form, using paint, fluorescent strip lights, reflecting surfaces,found materials and much more, whether as individual pieces or large-scaleinstallations to achieve its effects. It declined in importance during the 1980s,but retains its influence today in works requiring audience participation.
Minimal art, which is most associated with Americanartists of the 1960s and 1970s, used basic, simple forms. Minimalartists often used geometric shapes, but the work was far from theworld of earlier geometric abstract artists. In earlier abstract art,there is always the sense of the picture frame or the plinth. InMinimal art, the object stands only for itself. The product of a generation of artists who were, by andlarge, university trained and enormously aware of the history ofmodern art, Minimal art was usually on a large, imposing scale. Thiswas not just to impress and awe. The combination of simplicity andsize was designed to draw attention to the space around the work,and to make the spectator engage with the work as a real object. Behind its apparent simplicity, there lay a complex web ofinfluences and ideas. For many commentators, Minimal art was themost abstract art yet, but for others, it represented a complacentacceptance of the world of industrial production. It was sometimesfound threateningly aggressive, while critics also attacked the wayin which, instead of becoming involved in what was happening insidethe work, the attention of the spectator was drawn to the contextoutside.
Spatial Concept:Expectations (1959) by Fontana
Spatial Concept: Expectations (1962) by Fontana
Although using found objects in artworks was by no means a new idea,it gave rise to distinct genres in the 1960s and 70s, making it a very creativeperiod. There were also some sharp divisions in the art world, with a gulfwidening between “popular” and “serious” culture. Artworks made from found objects appeared as early as 1936, and theterm “assemblage” was coined in 1953. Collage was an influence on earlyassemblages, and there was also a precedent in the works of art known as“ready-mades.” Moving away from the traditional genres of painting and sculpture,Assemblage and Junk artists created hybrid three-dimensional forms byassembling discarded objects and scrap materials in boxes, free-standingconstructions, or installations. Sometimes they even presented the objectswithout modification, but in a new setting, out of context. Land art (also known as “Earth” art) developed in the 1970s and drewinspiration both from the natural environment and its raw materials. Ratherthan depicting a landscape, Land artists worked directly on the landscape itself,sculpting it to make earthworks, or building structures and installations withnatural materials, such as branches or rocks. Because they were made from everyday materials and bits of trash,Assemblage and Junk art sometimes evoked a mood of nostalgia, but they alsohighlighted the wastefulness of consumer society and rejected thecommercialism of Pop art. Land art in particular also sought to raise awarenessof man‟s place in both the natural and urban environments.
Conceptual art was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, whichdominated the art world in the 1950s. While Abstract Expressionists sought toexpress their emotions and experiences in large, heroic paintings, theConceptualists were often cool and cerebral. In Conceptual art, the idea orconcept behind the work is as important as the work itself. The first examples of Conceptual art appeared before World War I, but itonly became recognized as a distinct art form in the 1960s. The pioneer ofConceptual art was the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who began exhibiting hisreadymades, industrially manufactured objects that he had decided were worksof art, in 1913. As there was little or no craft involved in making them, Duchampwas explicitly questioning the nature of art. Conceptual art revolutionized the way we appreciate art by questioningour assumptions not only about what qualifies as art, but what the function ofthe artist should be and what our role as spectators should involve. ToConceptual artists, a work of art was primarily for intellectual—not aesthetic—stimulation and was no longer a beautiful, hand-crafted object. It did not have totake the traditional form of a painting or sculpture, but might be a photograph,film, or an installation. It could be made from found objects, or produced by theartist‟s assistant. Many Conceptual artists began to rely on language to conveytheir message, rather than the visual image or object. Conceptual art also questioned the role of galleries and museums inpresenting artworks, particularly the way they legitimize and sanctify objectstraditionally considered to be art for the public.
During the post-war period, abstract painting wasoften seen as the logical development for art. Yet figurativepainters in England and the U.S. have not simply rested ontradition; they have produced challenging images of thehuman condition in a changing world. The phrase “School of London” was coined in 1976 todesignate a generation of British figurative painters who wereheld together by friendship, rather than stylistic similarities.The six artists in this “school” mainly painted the humanfigure and the environment, and often sat for one another.These artists all derive strength from the old masters. Theknowing spectator can see echoes of Van Eyck, Ingres andWatteau, as well as Titian and Poussin. After 1945, the U.S. also produced realistic figurativepainters—although the critics often ignored them in favor ofAbstract Expressionists and Minimal, Pop, and Conceptualartists. Stylistically, they were disparate. Some producedunsentimental figure studies, while others created moreemotional paintings.
Superrealist artists work with unnerving precision, confoundingthe viewer‟s expectations of art by presenting a world that is, unsettlingly,truer than true. Superrealism, which flourished in the U.S. in the late 1960sand the 1970s, is a style of art based on imitating photographs in paint,and imitating real objects in sculpture. Other terms used to describe thismovement are “Photorealism” and “Hyperrealism.” The obvious forerunner to Superrealism was trompe l’oeil (“to foolthe eye”) painting, in which the artist tried to convince the viewer that whathe or she was seeing was not a painting of objects, but the objectsthemselves. This genre, which originated in the Renaissance, flourished inDutch painting of the 1600s and American painting of the 1800s. Superrealist painters usually try to mimic the unique qualities of aphotograph—the way the image falls in and out of focus, the way the lensdistorts features, and the way the shutter freezes motion. Superrealistsoften try to remove emotion from their paintings, thus replicating theapparent detachment of mechanically-produced images. Superrealist sculptors strive to mimic real objects, especially thehuman figure. Some cast directly from the human body and work inpolyvinyl, which gives a smooth, flesh-like finish and allows for detailedpainting of the surface.
Until the 20th century, women artists had been effectively excludedfrom the art world, and even by the 1960s only a few had achieved recognition.In the following decades, the diverse work of some women artists to counterthis male domination has become known as Feminist Art. Inspired by the Women‟s Movement of the late 1960s, many womenartists began to incorporate social and political themes of feminism into theirwork. This new generation of feminist artists wanted to express the experienceof women on their own terms. As well as producing works of art that wererecognizably “female,” some created a platform exclusively for women artists. Not all women artists can be labeled “Feminist.” It is the subject matterthat distinguishes Feminist Art from other contemporary movements: issues ofdiscrimination, oppression, criticism of patriarchy and male violence, andcelebration of female sexuality. The imagery is necessarily sexual, butchallenges the stereotype of woman as an object of male erotic desire orfantasy. No specific style, medium, or genre is associated with Feminist Art,although more avant-garde forms have tended to predominate. Some FeministArt uses the traditional media of painting and sculpture. However, it is arguedthat the prestige these forms carry is bound up with male dominance and thatalternatives need to be found. Certain Feminist artists have adopted the devicesof the mass media to present their message in an immediate, accessible form.Feminist art has also emphasized needlework, ceramics, and other craftstraditionally associated with women not previously regarded as “fine art.”
The Neo-Expressionists emerged in the 1970s in three maincenters: the U.S., West Germany, and Italy. They produced bright, figurativepaintings and often used unusual techniques. Rejecting the austere, cerebral work of the Minimalists andConceptual artists of the 1960s, the Neo-Expressionists instead returned tofigurative painting as their primary medium of expression. By the 1980s, Neo-Expressionism had become the dominant style of avant-garde artists in theWest. Much of this work was of dubious quality, but it helped fuel the feverishart market, especially in New York. The Neo-Expressionists drew their inspiration from many sources—including the work of the German Expressionists of the 1910s and 1920s, andthe Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s and 1950s. Neo-Expressionismwas characterized by style rather than subject. The work was dramatic, withdistorted subject matter and strong contrasts of color and tone. The paintwas often applied in thick impasto with aggressive brushwork, giving theappearance of spontaneous execution. Many Neo-Expressionists set out toshock with unconventional techniques and media. In the 1970s, graffiti art thrived in New York, and by the 1980smany of its exponents were exhibiting in galleries rather than in the streets.New York graffiti artists transformed the city with their colorful, spray-painted artwork. They also “bombed” subway trains, so their art travelledthrough the city.
Art today is characterized by its vitality and diversity. Contemporaryartists utilize a whole range of media and methods to explore the world aroundthem—everything from hybrid paintings using unfamiliar material to digitallymanipulated photographs, film, and video works. Traditional materials and techniques are far from having beenabandoned, but today‟s artists no longer define themselves primarily in terms ofdisciplines. They have embraced new technologies as a means of expressing,reflecting upon, and competing with the new cultural landscape of masscommunication and entertainment. New Media artists also have moved away from abstraction and towardan engagement with the world around them. Using technologies that recordimpressions of actual, physical reality, the lives of ordinary people can berelayed in recorded images. Common themes include people‟s interactions withtheir environment, relationships with one another, and their hopes, fears, andself-image. People have also become not simply the subjects, but activeparticipants in the creation of the works. New Media art draws attention to the artifice of its own construction,and to the spatial, cultural, and historical context in which it exists. Allusions topast works of art and movements are frequent, and techniques of framing,editing, and digital manipulation are not hidden but revealed. It is this reminderof the artificiality of all images that allows contemporary art to engage withmass visual culture while maintaining a critical attitude toward it.
In the 21st century, sculpture remains a vital and strong art form withrenewed popular appeal. Great commissions and modern exhibition spaceschallenge the adventurous artist. However, the realization of major works canbe as slow and require as much dedication today as in any previous century. The challenge for the contemporary sculptor is determining what staticimagery is appropriate for a digital age—an era of speed and change.Understanding the role of sculpture in modern society, new technicalpossibilities, and enlightened patronage have all played a part in revitalizing themedium. At the same time, there has been a revival of interest in traditionalprocesses, such as bronze casting and stone carving. Leading sculptors are part of an international art scene that generatesexhibitions and commissions in galleries and museums worldwide. Artists arealso exhibiting in unconventional spaces. Urban regeneration over the last 25years has led to greater public involvement and been a strong catalyst increating a wider acceptance of new commemorative or celebratory sculpture,along with sculpture parks, art trails, and outdoor exhibitions. Contemporary sculpture is a broad field—urban or rural, temporary orpermanent, public or private, large scale or intimate. In practice, it involves amyriad of individuals and the subject matter is a diverse as the interests ofartists and commissioners. Each new work explores the nature of sculpture. Thesheer variety of contemporary art is exhilarating, and opportunities for thesculptor today are greater than they have been for over a hundred years.
Australian Aboriginal painting has always been closely linkedwith their society and mythology. The arrival of the Europeans disrupted thisculture and dispersed the Australian Aboriginals, forcing them to adoptalien lifestyles. In the last 40 years, Australian Aboriginal art has undergonea transformation in both style and medium, keeping to a traditional, culturaliconography but transforming it in innovative and radical ways. AustralianAboriginal art is now highly prized and much sought after. The big change in Australian Aboriginal art came in 1971, whenlocal artists at the Papunya settlement were encouraged to paint withacrylic on canvas and board rather than using vegetable dyes on sacredobjects such as stones or wooden slabs. At first, such paintings wererealistic in their representation, but soon dots and dabs of acrylic paintwere used in increasingly abstract ways. This new style of “dot paintings” incorporates symbolic motifs—curved and wavy lines, and concentric circles—marked out in highlydecorative patterns of dots to depict a particular geographical locationassociated with either a mythological event or person. Such works areproduced for the western art market, but are painted by AustralianAboriginal artists across central and northern Australia--who remain verymuch a part of their own communities and retain their links to the sacredlands in which they have traditionally lived.
From the 1980s onward, European art regained some of theprominent position in the world it had lost to the U.S. The dramatic andsudden collapse of Communism at the end of that decade tended to re-establish a sense of European unity. European art exists in anincreasingly globalized art scene, which has been facilitated by theinternet and cheaper, easier travel. In spite of enormous support from the French government, Parishas never quite recovered the role it played in the development ofmodern art up to the mid-20th century. Ever since the internationalsuccess of Neo-Expressionism, Germany has become increasinglyimportant in the art world. For earlier generations of artists, a considerable career could bebuilt on a local reputation and many figures celebrated in their owncountries had little following outside them. Now it seems that it is vital toestablish an international audience. What plays best on the world stageis frequently that which clearly belongs to its country of origin. One feature of the contemporary scene is that many of the oldconflicts are no longer of such importance. Abstract versus figurative, orconceptualism versus painting and sculpture, no longer arouse suchpassions. Artists who are stylistically and technically very different maynonetheless be united by common themes.
The contemporary art scene in Africa is highly diverse, experimental,and idiosyncratic. A myriad initiatives scattered over a vast area, it is notconstrained by any monolithic art history or theorizing, and not standardized byconformist art education. Extreme change and upheaval characterized African cultures and theirart-making during the 20th century. Differing colonizing powers imposed variedforeign art values and systems. Local patronage systems were disrupted; so-called superior artworks were imported; and aspects of Western art-marked andmuseum systems introduced. With progressive attainment of self-government and freedom fromforeign rule, the fundamentally African cultures began the task of reclaimingand reshaping their societies. Today‟s artists draw freely on the continent‟sstylistic traditions of abstraction, psychological expressiveness, and symbolicrepresentation, as well as bringing in and adapting European trends of realism,picture-making, and naturalistic representation. African artists‟ traditionally open approach to form and media, seen intheir use of everyday materials, found objects, and mixed techniques, hassuccessfully absorbed the potential of two-dimensional media, photography,and video--in addition to a marked reinvention of historically important Africanfine arts such as textiles and multi-media performance. Contemporary African artists are primarily concerned with ongoingstruggles for more humane societies. Their artworks deal with both everydayrealities and profound philosophical concepts.
Chinese artists have been especially visible in recent years, butthroughout Asia artists are providing a perspective on the world that is quitedistinct from Western traditions. Since the early 20th century, certain Asianartists have made a career in the West while retaining elements of theirnational traditions. Such a move is no longer necessary to reach a worldwidepublic, due to ease of travel and communication, and internationally-mindedcritics. Contemporary Japanese art collapses the distinction between fineart and popular culture. Art has gone much further in becoming part of massculture than even the Pop artists envisioned. Up to the mid-1980s, Chinese art was controlled by the communistparty, which imposed a populist propaganda art style that drew on bothWestern academic styles and traditional folk sources. Today, some of thebiggest names work outside China itself. Chinese art includes challengingperformance and video art, but there also are many painters who reflectcontemporary life of the country or revisit old political icons with irony andskepticism. In the Islamic work, the use of decorative script—the strongesttradition in Islamic art—is a key feature of contemporary work and has acertain affinity with Western abstract art and its emphasis on “the artist‟shandwriting.” Political art looks at issues such as the role of women and thePalestinian conflict.
Today‟s North American artembraces a huge range of media andstyles—from collage to conceptualpieces and painting to performance. Italso addresses a wide variety of issues,including consumerism and popularculture, racial and social identity, andpost-9/11 and post Iraq war tensions. In the early 1990s, installationart and video appeared to hold sway inthe North American art scene—today,however, diversity sways. The NorthAmerican art scene is no longercentered in New York, and increasinglyAfrican American voices are beingheard in the world of art.