Art History 101: Get to Know Contemporary Art

Whenever my uber-cool artist friends invite me to an art show, I find myself uttering the words "I like it. What is it?" quietly to myself. For those of us who never studied art, the art world can sometimes feel intimidating. Knowing what styles and movements informed and inspired the art you love gives it context and can make you appreciate it more. So we're breaking it down for you in a new series that explores various art movements and their impact on the art you discover, promote and purchase. To kick it off, writer Angella d'Avignon walks us through Contemporary Art.

Contemporary art has been contemporary for quite some time, it's still happening today! While technically, contemporary art is defined as art made after the 1960's, it's timeline depends on who you ask. That's some 40 odd years of art history! While it may be intimidating, knowing a bit about contemporary art - at least a working knowledge and some buzzwords - will get you pretty far.

Contemporary art is a vast subject, so for our purposes, we'll focus on just a few movements to get you started.

Pop Art (1950's-1960's)

 Art History 101: Get to Know Contemporary Art

 Jelly Lifestyle by Rachel Peck 

True to its name, Pop borrowed it's aesthetic (how an artwork looks, its visual qualities and style) from pop culture. Easy enough, right? Arguably, Andy Warhol put Pop on the radar with his hip but accessible art. However, Andy borrowed from Marcel Duchamp - a name you'll need to remember, whose Readymades presented found objects in new contexts earlier in the 20th century.

Confused? Stay with me! Pop's sensibility is predicated on appropriation, stealing and reusing an image or an idea. Appropriation is something that's become absolutely commonplace and even inevitable in art-making, if only because it's now impossible to be original. Warhol understood that and pushed this idea to its limit. Pop style uses everyday objects and images that anyone recognized from advertisements to his famous Campbell's soup cans (1962). Pop was bright, saturated, sometimes even cartoonish and borrowed from well worn cultural icons and symbols. Later, graphic art that mimics the Pop style made a big comeback in the 1980's in the design realm.

Names to drop: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, Tom Wesselmann, Yayoi Kusama

Examples of Pop Art: 

Feminism and Women's Art (late 1960's-late 1980's)

Art History 101: Get to Know Contemporary Art

Women by Clara Lopez

One of the prominent slogans of the Women's Liberation movement during the seventies was "the personal is political", and this ideal carried over from the streets and into art. Women's art at the time focused primarily on subverting gender roles and including body centric and craft-related work in order to reclaim what it meant to be a woman. It also involved new mediums such as Video Art, Conceptual Art, and Body Art.

In 1972, Womanhouse, organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, was a feminist, student-built installation in an abandoned Victorian house near campus. This "exclusively female environment" empowered female students to take control of their art practices and proclaim their politics boldly. It also inspired the implementation of Women's Studies programs across the nation.

Subjectivity plays a big role in Feminist art, which embodies the idea that a woman should be able to tell her own story in her own terms was a major part of Feminist art. This movement was about taking control, taking names, and politicizing their practices.

Names to drop: Judy Chicago, Jenny Holzer, the Guerilla Girls, Martha Rosler, among many.

Examples of Feminist art:

Postmodernism (1950's-1990's)


You Are The Product Of TV by Text Guy

This is a big one! Postmodernism is more of an idea or philosophy that became stylized through visual art. Genres and subgenres of art weave in and out of postmodernism and don't be hard on yourself if you don't grasp it right away, it's a dense subject. However, the main idea in Postmodernism involves dismissing the notion that there is one inherent meaning in an artwork and that instead meaning is determined by the viewer and context.

Breaking down the division between high and low culture is another major proponent of postmodernism. In the 1980's especially, elevating the quotidian (the everyday stuff of life) into monumental sculpture was a major part of Jeff Koons' practice. Koons is arguably one of the most financially successful artists since Andy Warhol and his giant shiny steel sculptures of things like balloon animals, thrift store kitsch, and flower bouquets are worth millions of dollars.

Appropriation is big again around this time, along with politicism, as this was the height of the culture wars. During this time artists struggled with the powers-that-be to legitimize their practices and the role of art in society. The National Endowment for the Arts, a government-funded grant, even stopped funding individual artists because of controversial work.

Names to drop: Jeff Koons, Robert Longo, Barbara Kruger, Tracey Emin (just to name a few, this is a vast category!)

Examples of Postmodernism:


Zombie Formalism (2014-present)


Kali F1 by Patricia Vargas

This term emerged two or so years ago to describe the phenomena of buyer-ready paintings. "Formalism" because the art involves a "reductive, essentialist method of making a painting" according to critic Walter Robinson, and "Zombie" because it resurrects aesthetics that famous-near-tyrannical art critic Clement Greenberg defined as Modernist. More or less, critics see this new trend in art as a haunting from the ghost of Modernism past. Similar color palettes, brushstrokes, compositions, (or lack thereof) dominate. The role of flipping, or selling a painting immediately after buying it, is intrinsic to the art market, it's neither good nor bad. So while these prints look Modern, they are not because Modernism has passed. Or has it?

Names to drop: Lucien Smith, Jacob Kassay, Andy Boot.

Examples of Zombie Formalism:


Net Art & Post-Internet (2000s-Present)


Purity Plain by N-E-R-V

Probably the freshest and the fastest evolving of the genres, Net Art and Post-Internet art both take inspiration from, you guessed it, the internet. Not unlike Pop; Net and Post-Internet hinge on graphics, visual references, and appropriation. Websites, email art, and ASCII compositions are all great examples. Post-Internet art is a little different in that it focuses on making art after the widespread use of the internet, at least in the Western world. Ian Wallace for ArtSpace writes that, "Post-Internet artists have moved beyond making work dependent on the novelty of the Web to using its tools to tackle other subjects. And while earlier Net artists often made works that existed exclusively online, the post-Internet generation (many of whom have been plugged into the Web since they could walk) frequently uses digital strategies to create objects that exist in the real world."

Names to drop: Parker Ito, Ryder Ripps, David Horvitz's email project, Cory Arcangel, Alexandra Gorczynski

Examples of Net and Post-Internet art:

Congrats, you're now a Contemporary Art genius! Now use all that brain power to trick out your walls. Be sure to check out all of Angella's Contemporary Art collections here

 Art History 101: Get to Know Contemporary Art


IllustrationPop Art




CharismArt commented on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 11:17am
looks awesome!
misimix commented on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 11:30am
Many new good artists to follow! thanks
Bunny Blue commented on Thursday, March 31, 2016 4:57am
Thanks for a great article again, Nada!
Janja Primozic commented on Thursday, March 31, 2016 11:17am
OMG I love this
Mrs. Ciccoricco commented on Thursday, March 31, 2016 12:26pm
Excellent post - never learned about Zombie Formalism in art school. ;)
Berina commented on Saturday, April 2, 2016 11:04am
Corbin Henry commented on Sunday, April 3, 2016 8:57pm
Great article! Very comprehensive!
Kristen Cabrera commented on Monday, April 4, 2016 8:10am
awesome post !!!
Eugenie commented on Friday, April 8, 2016 7:06am
Wonderful! Thanks a lot!
Lora Si commented on Friday, April 8, 2016 7:58am
Amazing post!
Giulia commented on Friday, April 8, 2016 9:15am
thanks for the great post!
7115 commented on Friday, April 8, 2016 11:41am
miniARTures by Julie commented on Saturday, April 16, 2016 8:49am
Great post!
chanel16 commented on Thursday, May 26, 2016 3:28pm

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