For many, terms like “modern”, “contemporary”, “conceptual”, “minimalist” and even “abstract” are nebulous and hazy ideas about the crazy art which has emerged over the last 50 years. The reality is, of course, far more complicated than this and many believe there is something for everyone in contemporary art. Despite facing ridicule by some, contemporary art is an intense passion of many collectors, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Contrary to what you might expect, “modern” art has in fact been appreciated for quite some time. Édouard Manet is often cited as the figure who began to cast off realism for impressionism in the mid-20th century and also as the founder of modern art. In 1863 Manet revealed two works – Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia both of which challenged the nature of representation and the content of painting, turning the renaissance and realist history of painting on its head.
Contemporary art, on the other hand, is usually described as any art produced since the end of the Second World War and includes many artists and movements who, like Manet and the impressionists, cubists and futurists who came after him, continue to challenge how emotions and ideas can be represented. America became a major centre for modern movements like abstract expressionism. The movement, which was typified by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, was both greatly acclaimed and criticised in its own time, as is the case of much of contemporary art; the very term “abstract expressionism” was first applied to these American artists by critic Robert Coates. Like these famous painters, sculptors of the post-war period such as Alexander Calder also drew on the earlier influences of abstract artists in the first half of the century, and on the contrast of geometric and expressive abstraction. Art was also being shaped by and influencing a new post-war popular culture, most clearly in the ‘pop art’ which emerged in the late-1950s. Far from losing its seriousness, however, its clear from the works of the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat that new media and styles could still be used to convey serious social and political messages.
Challenging Art Itself
In more recent years, a transition from modernist to ‘post-modernist’ ideas has led many artists to go further than simply challenging how we represent ideas to pushing the boundaries of art itself. As you might imagine, this has both drawn both critics and admirers; iconic pieces such as Tracy Emin’s My Bed rapidly entered the public consciousness in their own countries and abroad. Many contemporary artists are further rejecting traditional artistic media in favour of ‘live’ art, video and sculpture from the everyday. The debate about what can and cannot constitute art is deliberately the subject of many pieces, particularly conceptual art. While some might consider this futile or pointless, since its beginnings, contemporary art has also had a comical side to retaliate; you only need to look at the work of Piero Manzoni, particularly in the context of Yves Klein, to appreciate this.